How Should A Wise Man Act? - "Three Questions" A Short Story by Leo Tolstoy

Three Questions

Three Questions is a short story by Tolstoy which reflects on the wisdom of daily life. What should I focus my effort on? Who should I spend my time with? When should I act or remain passive? These are questions that we can all relate to. Tolstoy's answer is essentially that we only have control over right now, this moment. And so act in accordance with what's going on around you. We only can spend time with those whose company we are currently in because the future is not guaranteed. And, so focus your attention on the person around you. And, finally, to focus on doing good because there is no other lasting meaning to focus one's life on. 

Now, in a certain sense, there is definitely wisdom in these answers which I think everyone can see, even on a surface level. We have all heard the contemporary phrase which says that the past is gone, there's nothing we can change about it, and the future is not here yet, and so to focus on the present. Yet, another part of me tends to want follow the wisdom that the king was originally given (except the magician part). I like planning out the future so that I know how I should work to accomplish my goals. I think that having wise people around you to bounce questions off is essential to forming one's conscience. And I certainly want to be choosy about who I want to focus my attention on and surround myself with. So does Tolstoy's story really make that much sense?

I think there's another level, though, which Tolstoy is hitting on in the story. One point of the story is that reality is too complex to pretend as though we have a grasp over it. There's more going on in any given situation than our minds can understand. For example, the fact that digging a planting row for the old man would be a saving grace by delaying the ambush of his enemy. The king might have been tempted to think that such a task was a waste of time. He might also have been tempted to think himself beyond helping some stranger by bandaging their wounds, yet that reconciled him with the stranger after all was said and done. And so what exactly are the past and future in relationship to the present? Well we cannot understand the present, and so we don't know fully what the past and future really mean for us. It is only by continually seeking to understand the present moment that a true vision of past and future will reveal themselves to us. 

I'm reminded by a quote from Mother Teresa. She said once that, "If you want to change the world, go home and love your family." I think that this is a very similar sentiment. If we cannot love and embrace the situation of the present, then what does it matter to plan out the future? Only in embracing what the present moment offers to us can we navigate a wise and thoughtful life. 

The Plot
In the story there is a wise king who is seeking to rule his kingdom well. He is concerned with three questions in this regard. He wants to know how to find out the right time for action. He wants to know who in his kingdom he should focus his attention on. And, thirdly, he wants to know what concern is most important to spend his time on. In so many words, what are the right "when's," "who's," and "what's"? He calls together the wisest men that he knows and asks them for some answers to these questions. The men put forth decent answers. One says that in order to know the right time to act one should create a calendar or sorts such that the king always has a view of what is going to happen. Another man suggests that the king should focus on having a wise council of men around him to help him choose the right time for things. 1 Another even suggested that it was only with the help of magicians that could be on top of things and deal with them in the proper time. 

To the second question, some suggested that he focus on his wise councilors, some on the priests, others on the doctors or warriors. And to the third question, likewise that the proper focus of a king should be on worship, or warfare, or learning and science. Even though some of these answers were decent, the king was unsatisfied. "But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom." So the king dawned normal clothes and set out with is bodyguard to journey to the hermit's house. As they neared, he left his body guard behind and approached alone. There he found the hermit digging the ground up in front of his home, though struggling to do so. 2

The king asked him his questions, but the hermit made no response. He offers to help the old man, and begins to dig for him. As time passes he asks again, but to no response. Eventually after several hours a man emerges from the woods towards them, bleeding from his stomach. "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." 3

All of them then lay down and fell asleep after such a long day. In the morning the wounded man awoke and strangely asked forgiveness from the king, though the king claimed he didn't know the man. It turned out that the king had killed the man's brother and taken his property, and the stranger had been hiding in the woods waiting to ambush the king and kill him on his journey. But since the king had been distracted with her hermit, the stranger had given up and come out of his hiding spot, stumbling on the guard. The guard wounded him and the man barely escaped to the hermit's house. Having been moved by the king's willingness to save his life, he pledged himself to the king's service. 4 The king rather accepted his apology and decided to restore the land back to the stranger's family. The stranger left and so the king also decided to take his leave and return home. On the way out he asked the hermit one more time about the questions he had. The hermit claimed that the questions had already been 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 good was your most important business. Afterwards, when the 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 man is he 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 him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life." 5
1 - Tolstoy, Leo. The Gospel in Tolstoy. Three Questions. (New York. Plough Publishing House, 2015). Pg. 51.
2 - 52
3 - 53
4 - 54
5 - 55