Analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s “Three Questions”

  • What is the right time to begin something? 
  • Which people should he listen to? 
  • What is the most important thing for him to do?

As at the core of the Buddha’s enlightenment there was the realization of the Four Noble Truths, Tolstoy’s story of Three Questions puts forth fundamental reality of life. While working on the later parts of his life, Tolstoy began experiencing bouts of depression, which at times were so severe that he considered suicide. He was tormented by the need to find a meaning for his life that would not be annihilated by death. His Ispoved’ (1882; A Confession, 1885) describes this spiritual struggle and the solution he found: to practice what he saw as the essence of Christianity—that is, universal love and passive resistance to evil. A series of religious writings amplified this new faith. In these, he urged people to live according to the dictates of conscience, which meant practicing universal love and living as far as possible by their own labor. He also declared all forms of violence equally wrong, including war and the compulsion that the state uses against its citizens.

His Three Questions wrote about of moral philosophy. He wrote Three Questions based on fairy tales or religious legends. Written in a simple but expressive style, it is intended to convey his idea of ethical Christianity and expanded Buddhism. Tolstoy himself tried to abide by his new beliefs, simplifying his life, living on his own labor, and giving up material possessions.

As the story of Three Questions goes, a certain King yearns to know the answer for his three questions namely, the right time to begin everything, the right people to listen to and the most important thing to do. The king wants to be successful in all his endeavors and so he takes immense interest in gathering the right resources in terms of right time, right person whom he could consult and the right order of priority to carry out the work.

The King out of his curiosity to know answers for his three questions visits the hermit living in a forest.  The King helped the hermit by digging the ground because the hermit being an old man got tired of digging. Every time he stuck the earth with his spade, he scooped little earth and breathed heavily due to exhaustion. The situation warrants that the king has to extend his stay with the hermit. As the sun sets, a bearded man came out of the bushes with a severe wound in his stomach. The King cleaned and bandaged the wound. The bearded man had come to kill the king and got wounded by the king’s bodyguards. Had not the king bandaged the wound he would have bled to death. Though the king saved the man’s life without knowledge about his intentions the bearded man as a token of gratitude decides to forgo the enmity and be a faithful slave to the king. The king was very glad for having made peace with his enemy. He forgave him and promised to restore his property and also arranged for his own servants and physicians to attend on him.

The hermit interprets these two events.  Had not the King taken pity on the old hermit and helped him dig he would got killed on the way home. Then the king would have regretted for not staying back. Therefore, the most important time was the time the king was digging, and the most important person was the hermit who was with the king and the most important pursuit was to help the hermit. Later, when the wounded man was tended to, the most important time was the time spent in dressing his wounds and for if the king had not cared for him he would have died and the king would have lost the chance to make peace with him. Likewise the most important pursuit was taking care of the wound.  The hermit invites the emperor to reflect on his recent experience and see how it is a perfect backdrop to form answers to his questions.

According to the Hermit, the most important thing one should do is to do good to people whom we are with at that moment. The King did well to both the Hermit and the wounded man. The most important time is the present moment, as the present is the only time over which we have power. The most important person is whoever one is with. The most important thing is to do well to the person one is with. The most important pursuit is making that person happy and that should be the pursuit of one’s life. As Buddha applied the experimental approach to questions of ultimate truth, the hermit answered the king likewise.

References: Microsoft Students' Encarta, Wikipedia