The Three Questions | Leo Tolstoy #ShortStory

As part of our year long readalong of War and Peace (it’s not too late to join!), Nick has selected a number of Tolstoy’s short stories and essays to make our 361 chapter book stretch to 366 days.
At the end of Volume 1, we have the first such extension read. Perfectly timed, too, I have to say Nick!
In the final pages of this section, Prince Andrey is pondering the nature of life and death after being wounded at the battle of Austerlitz. He says,

How good it would be to know where to seek for help in this life, and what to expect after it beyond the grave! How happy and calm I should be if I could now say: ‘Lord, have mercy on me!’… But to whom should I say that? Either to a Power indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot address but which I cannot even express in words—the Great All or Nothing-” said he to himself, “or to that God who has been sewn into this amulet by Mary! There is nothing certain, nothing at all except the unimportance of everything I understand, and the greatness of something incomprehensible but all-important.                         Louise and Aylmer Maude translation


The Three Questions from What Men Live By, and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy is a short parable about a king who also wants to know what is right, who to turn to for help and which way to go.

Because it is relatively short, I’ve included the complete story below as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake. 

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do. 

And learned men came to the king, but they all answered his questions differently.
In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance a table of days, months, and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action, but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the king might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a council of wise men who would help him to fix the proper time for everything 

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians. 

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said the people the king most needed were his councilors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary. 

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation, some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the king agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom. 

The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the king put on simple clothes and, before reaching the hermit’s cell, dismounted from his horse. Leaving his bodyguard behind, he went on alone. 

When the king approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the king, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.
The king went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important and need my first attention?” 

The hermit listened to the king, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging. 

Vincent Van Gogh |Bauern Bei der Arbeit | 1890

“You are tired,” said the king, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”
“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the king, he sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two beds, the king stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:
“Now rest awhile – and let me work a bit.”

But the king did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the king at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said: “I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.” 

“Here comes someone running,” said the hermit. “Let us see who it is.” 

The king turned round and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the king, he fell fainting on the ground, moaning feebly. The king and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The king washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the king again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and re-bandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The king brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the king, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed, the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the king was so tired from his walk and from the work he had done that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep – so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night.

When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes. 

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the king was awake and was looking at him.
“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the king. 

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and came upon your bodyguard, and they recognised me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!” 

The king was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property. 

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the king went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.  

Bill Strain | “I’ve been sitting here all day, feeling like I need to apologize to someone.” | 2010

The king approached him and said, “For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the king, who stood before him.
“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the king. 

“Do you not see?” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important – now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary person is the one with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else: and the most important affair is to do that person good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life.”

Prince Andrey certainly needs some lessons in living in the now, as well as appreciating those around him and dealing with what is in front of him, instead of fantasising about future possibilities for heroics for himself.

I understand that Tolstoy came at this story from a religious perspective, but the whole ‘live in the now’ message is such a Zen Buddhist one, that I wonder if he was also influenced by Eastern philosophies?

Naturally this led me to dig a little deeper.

The short answer is that Tolstoy was interested in philosophical questions from a young age. He delved into the works of Schopenhauer as well as Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist texts.

The long answer begins with a 19 yr old Tolstoy, hospitalised at Kazan (apparently for venereal disease) where he met a Buddhist monk who had been attacked and robbed. The story goes that Tolstoy was impressed by the monks principle of non-violence.

A growing dissatisfaction with the Russian Orthodox Church led him to formulate his own faith that focused on peace, harmony and unity. By the end of his life, he was a vegetarian, living an ascetic life. He believed that Christian churches were corrupting and falsifying the word of Christ. He was drawn to the teachings of Jesus, particularly the sermon on the mount, rather than any idea of a divinity or miracles.

Later in life, when he was trying to find answers to his many questions about life and it’s meaning and purpose, he looked to science, but found that it asked even more questions. The scientific way of working on the finite, didn’t bring Tolstoy any closer to his search for the infinite. Neither did the ancient philosophers.

In 1879, he published A Confession, where he attempted to study how the people in his social sphere managed this vexing question of existential angst.

I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of the terrible position in which we are all placed. The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. From [people of this sort] I had nothing to learn — one cannot cease to know what one does know. 

The second way out is epicureanism. It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey in the best way, especially if there is much of it within reach… That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental … and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon’s slave. The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures. 

The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke, since there are means: a rope round one’s neck, water, a knife to stick into one’s heart, or the trains on the railways; and the number of those of our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater, and for the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired… 

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally — to end the deception quickly and kill themselves — they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to what is best? … The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books. This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position.

It’s curious to see that, just like Herman Melville in the US and Charles Darwin in the UK, Tolstoy was wracked by the same existential doubt and insecurity. In their modern world, teeming with scientific discoveries, these highly educated men struggled to find a way to live a meaningful, purposeful life, that didn’t involve the strict (and often hypocritical) doctrines of their childhood religions or a belief in a supreme being.

Rational knowledge presented by the learned and wise, denies the meaning of life, but the enormous masses of men, the whole of mankind receive that meaning in irrational knowledge. And that irrational knowledge is faith, that very thing which I could not but reject. It is God, One in Three; the creation in six days; the devils and angels, and all the rest that I cannot accept as long as I retain my reason. 

My position was terrible. I knew I could find nothing along the path of reasonable knowledge except a denial of life; and there — in faith — was nothing but a denial of reason, which was yet more impossible for me than a denial of life…. 

And I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution. 

So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.

Tolstoy found his way through the quagmire by differentiating between faith and religion. His faith incorporated man-made philosophies from all around the world.
So, yes, the Buddhist ideas intermingled in this parable are there deliberately and by choice.

There is also a children’s picture book by Jon J. Muth (most well-known for his picture book Zen Shorts) based on this tale. He uses a young boy, various animals and the weather to explore the three questions and their answers. He clearly arrives at

  • The only important time is now. 
  • The most important one is always the one you are with. 
  • The most important thing is to do good for the one standing at your side.
I can highly recommend Muth’s picture books if you are looking for a way to discuss these big ideas with young children.

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