les-3-singes-de-la-sagesse

You have probably seen them: The 3 Monkeys of Wisdom representing the proverb:

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

But if the symbolism seems clear enough, what is the relationship between the three monkeys and evil?

The three monkeys of Wisdom and their paradoxical symbolism

While this is a relatively modern adage in the West, in the East, where it originated, this proverb and its physical representation date back to Antiquity. Here's a look at why the three wise monkeys were associated with this proverb and what it means.

What do the three wise monkeys symbolize?

A cultural symbol originating in Japan, the three wise monkeys - one covering its eyes, the other its ears and the third its mouth - are known as Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru. They symbolize the proverbial adage:

"See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil."

Surprisingly, their Japanese names are also a play on words.

In Japanese, the proverb translates to

"mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru", which means "not to see, not to hear, not to speak".

The suffix -zu or -zaru is generally used to negate a verb or express its opposite meaning. However, the suffix -zaru can also be the modified word for saru, which means monkey in Japanese, which explains why the proverb is illustrated with images of monkeys.

The three wise monkeys represent the moral message of not looking, listening or saying something wrong, as well as being morally upright in the face of evil. However, the proverb is sometimes used sarcastically to refer to those who turn a blind eye to something morally or legally wrong. As if, by pretending not to see the wrongdoing, they would not be held responsible.

Eastern and Western vision of the three wise monkeys

It is interesting to note that the Eastern and Western perspectives of the symbolism of the three monkeys are completely opposite.

In the East, the image reminds us to follow a right moral path by avoiding evil in all its forms.The three monkeys are a positive symbol which reminds us to be pure and virtuous by avoiding negative and destructive behavior. Even Mahatma Gandhi, known for having very few possessions, owned a small figurine of the three wise monkeys. He appreciated the lesson that this symbol represents, namely to avoid evil by all means if one wants to remain pure and virtuous.

However, in the West, this symbol is used in a way totally different.Here, the image of the three wise monkeys represents turning a blind eye to something morally or legally wrong. For example, you may notice that something bad is happening, but you decide to ignore it completely in order to avoid accountability and responsibility.

This is not a way virtuous to live and, as a wise man once said,

"the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

So, in the Western context, the three wise monkeys represent the actions we take that allow evil to exist.

This symbolism of the three wise monkeys is also aligns with other ancient proverbs, like this Turkish proverb:

"To live in peace, one must be blind, deaf and mute"

or this Latin phrase:

"Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace", which translates as "Listen, see, but be silent if you want to live in peace."

This is the perfect example of how one symbol can mean completely different things depending on the context. The three wise monkeys can be positive or negative depending on whether we place ourselves from an Eastern or Western perspective.

From India to Japan, from Europe to America

The proverb of the three wise monkeys predates its physical representation. It originated in ancient China, then found its animal representation in Japan, before becoming popular in the West.

During China's Warring States period, between 475 and 221 BCE , the Analects of Confucius contained the following proverb:

"Do not look at what is contrary to propriety; do not listen to what is contrary to propriety; do not speak what is contrary to propriety; do not make movements contrary to propriety."

However, the three monkeys motif was probably brought to China from India via the Silk Road (an ancient trade route linking the East to the West) and ultimately to Japan in the 8th century. During the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were depicted in Buddhist sculptures in Japan.

At the Shrine of Toshogu in Nikko, Japan, an eight-panel sculpture represents the code of conduct developed by Confucius. One of the panels depicts the three wise monkeys, symbolizing the principle of not seeing, not hearing and not speaking evil.

It is in the Meiji period, from 1867 to 1912that the sculpture was known in the West, which inspired the saying "See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil."

In the 1900s, small statues of the three wise monkeys became popular in Britain as good luck charms, particularly among soldiers of the First World War. Some folklore experts associate the symbolism of the three wise monkeys with proverbs from different cultures. It has also been compared to the Yorkshire motto, "Hear all, see all, say now", known since the late Middle Ages.

The three wise monkeys in modern culture

In our time, the three wise monkeys still embody the proverb they originally represented, but different meanings are attributed to them.

The three wise monkeys in social networks

The three wise monkeys are sometimes used as emojis, but they are often used in a playful way, sometimes even unrelated to their original meaning. In fact, they are often used to express feelings of joy, surprise, embarrassment, etc.

The “see no evil monkey” emoji is commonly used to say: “I don’t can't believe what I see." In contrast, the “hear-no-evil monkey” emoji suggests that people hear things they don’t want to hear. The say-no-evil monkey emoji can also be used to express the reaction of a person who said the wrong thing in the wrong situation.

Their meaning in popular culture

Images of the Three Wise Monkeys are sometimes printed on t-shirts, woven into sweaters, or depicted as wooden, plastic or ceramic figurines. They also appear on press advertisements and postcards to convey a more meaningful message.

In a 2015 horror short film, Three Wise Monkeys, the character in the story receives a sculpture of the three monkeys as a sign. Three monkeys are depicted in the trial scene of the film Planet of the Apes (1968).

In England, they were the subject of a children's fable in the Hiccup Theater, where costumed actors monkeys played the role. The fable told the story of the kidnapping of a baby monkey and the efforts of the three monkeys to save him.

The Three Wisdom Monkeys FAQ

1. What do the three monkeys mean?

They represent the concept of seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.

2. Who are the three wise monkeys?

In the Japanese proverb, the monkeys are Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru.

3. What is the message conveyed by the three wisdom monkeys?

The message is that we must protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, by not letting evil words enter our hearing, and finally by not speaking evil words and having no bad thoughts. In the West, however, the proverb "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" means to ignore or turn a blind eye to something evil.

General overview of the 3 Monkeys

Throughout history, animals have been used as a symbol for proverbs, and monkeys are proverbially considered a type of intelligent creature.

The three wise monkeys recall the Buddhist teaching that if we do not see, hear or speak evil, we will be spared from evil. Their moral message remains relevant today and their representation is one of the most popular designs in the world.

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