Three Wise Monkeys
I use my favorite coffee mug almost every day. It’s bright red with a vintage-looking graphic of a trio we’ve all seen many times before—the iconic apes who are neither seeing, hearing, nor speaking any evil. The so-called “Three Wise Monkeys” also rest on a shelf four feet away from where I sit in my workspace, the small plaster figurines admonishing me to eschew evil in all its manifestations throughout my day. I’m not sure if their constant, silent nagging has made the difference or not, but I have remained relatively evil-free over the last few years.
Recently, while taking a breather from pondering the Great Questions, I ventured into the world of the Piddley Questions. I wondered about the little guys on my coffee mug. We spend so much time together yet I knew so little about them. Questions like:
• “Do these furry little philosophers have names?”
Perhaps uppity monikers like “Aristotle” and “Plato” or cutesy chimpean handles like “Zippy” and “Bosco”? Or maybe they’re known collectively by a group name ala “The Magi” or “The Beastie Boys”.
• “Do they have individual backstories?” Were they related? Did they hate each other? Were they able to parlay their anti-evil brand into successful movie careers?
• And,“Who, if anyone, owns the rights to these well-known personages? Is there a manipulative Tom Parker somewhere raking in big bucks from coffee mug and knick-knack licensing fees?
To satisfy my curiosity, I spent long days at the main library downtown researching. I consulted a professor of Simian Studies at Vanderbilt. I struggled through a tome entitled “Profiles in Non-human Philosophers”. I learned a lot about the “Three Wise Monkeys” and I’d like to share with you some of what I learned.
Of 17th-century Japanese origin, the three mystic apes, as they’re sometimes known, were traditionally Japanese macaques, although most representations I’ve seen over the years have been chimpanzees. It turns out they do have names. Covering his eyes, seeing no evil is Mizaru. Kikazaru covers his ears in order to hear no evil, and speaking no evil whatsoever is Iwazaru.
The proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” has had different meanings in different times and cultures. The more Buddhist approach sees it as a caution against the influence of evil thoughts, but a more modern Western interpretation would have it referring to turning a blind eye or deaf ear to moral or legal improprieties. It has also been employed as a warning to observe a code of silence, as in the Mafia’s omerta or WWII’s “Loose lips sink ships” campaign.
On occasion the hairy lads will be depicted as a quartet—the fourth monkey being Shizaru, which I think is Japanese for Shemp, but I’m not sure about that part. He’s generally shown covering his genitals and it is said that he symbolizes the principal of “do no evil”, but I suspect no one wanted to just come out and call him “screw no evil”. Yet another variation on the trinity shows a fourth monkey holding his nose. He’s referred to as…wait for it…”smell no evil”. Timeless sage advice, indeed.
I suppose that one could make a game of swapping out various verbs for the arbitrary fourth monkey to avoid taking part in, depending on how one thought Evil was most liable to tempt an unsuspecting chimp. I suggest “Fling No Evil” because, well…you know.