Three Questions

“The Three Questions” is a short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy first published in 1885 as part of the collection “What Men Live By, and other tales”.
what men live by
The story takes the form of a parable, and it concerns a king who wants to find the answers to what he considers the three most important questions in life.
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The thought came to a certain king that he would never fail if he knew three things. These three things were:
When is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all time?

Many educated men attempted to answer the king’s questions, but they all came up with different answers. The king decided that he needed to ask a wise hermit in a nearby village. The hermit would only see common folk, however, so the king disguised himself as a peasant, left his guards behind, and went to see the hermit. The hermit was digging flower beds when the king arrived. The king asked his questions, but the hermit went on digging rather laboriously. The king offered to dig for him for a while. After digging for some time, the king again asked his questions. Before the hermit could answer, a man emerged from the woods. He was bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The king tended to him, and they stayed the night in the hermit’s hut. By the next day the wounded man was doing better, but was incredulous at the help he had received. The man confessed that he knew who the king was, and that the king had executed his brother and seized his property. He had come to kill the king, but the king’s guards had wounded him. The man pledged allegiance to the king, and he went on his way.
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The king asked the hermit again for his answers, and the hermit responded that he had just had his questions answered.
The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
The most important person is whoever you are with.
The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.
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“Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й, pronounced [lʲef nʲɪkɐˈlaɪvʲɪt͡ɕ tɐlˈstoj] 9 September [O.S. 28 August] 1828 – 20 November [O.S. 7 November] 1910), also known as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Tolstoy was a master of realistic fiction and is widely considered one of the world’s greatest novelists. He is best known for two long novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). Tolstoy first achieved literary acclaim in his 20s for his Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based on his experiences in the Crimean War, followed by the publication of a semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1855-1858). His fiction output also includes two additional novels, dozens of short stories, and several famous novellas, including The Death of Ivan Ilych, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.
His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Extracts from the story:

“It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew just when to undertake everything he did, and which were the right and which the wrong people to deal with, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything.
Having thus thought, the king proclaimed throughout his realm that he would bestow a large reward on anyone who would teach him how to know the proper moment for every deed, how to know which were the most essential people, and how not to err in deciding which pursuits were of the greatest importance. Learned men began coming to the king, but they all gave different answers to his questions.

In reply to the first question some said that in order to know the right time for every action one must draw up a schedule of days, months, and years, and strictly adhere to it.
Only in this way, they said, could everything be done at the proper time.
Others said it was not possible to decide in advance what to do and when to do it; that one must not allow himself to be distracted by vain amusements, but must be attentive to everything that happens and do whatever is required.

A third group said that no matter how attentive the king might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man rightly to decide the time for every action, and that he ought to have a council of wise men, and act according to their advice.

A fourth group said that there were certain matters which required immediate decision, leaving no time to determine by means of consultation whether or not it was the right time to undertake them. In order to know this, one would have to know in advance what was going to happen, which is something that only a magician can know; therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult the magicians.

The answers to the second question also varied. Some said that the people the king most needed were his administrators; some said the priests, and some the physicians, while others said the warriors were the most essential.

The answers to the third question, as to what was the most important pursuit, were equally diverse. Some said that science was the most important thing in the world, some said military skill, and others religious worship. The answers were all different, therefore the king agreed with none of them and rewarded no one.

In order to find the true answer to the questions, he decided to consult a hermit who was famous for his wisdom. The hermit never left the forest where he lived, and there he received none but simple folk. The king therefore dressed himself as one of the people, and dismounting before he reached the hermit’s dwelling, he left his knights behind and went on alone….
“The Hermit”, by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov (Russian: Михаи́л Васи́льевич Не́стеров; 31 May [O.S. 19 May] 1862 in Ufa – 18 October 1942 in Moscow)

The king found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When he saw the king, the hermit greeted him and immediately returned to his digging…….
“The Habitation of a Hermit”(1901)Apollinary Vasnetsov (Аполлинарий Михайлович Васнецов)(1856-1933)

Before leaving him he wished for the last time to ask him to answer his questions. The hermit was on his knees in the yard sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

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

“But you have already been answered,” said the hermit, squatting on his thin calves and looking up at the king who stood before him. “How have I been answered?” asked the king.

“How?” repeated the hermit. “Had you not taken pity on my weakness yesterday an dug these beds for me, instead of turning back alone, that fellow would have assaulted you, and you would have regretted not staying with me. Therefore, the most important time was when you were digging the beds; I was the most important man; and the most important pursuit was to do good to me. And later, when that man came running to us, the most important time was when you were taking care of him, for if you had not bound up his wounds, he would have died without having made peace with you; therefore he was the most important man, and what you did for him was the most important deed.
Remember then: there is only one important time – Now. And it is important because it is the only time we have dominion over ourselves; and the most important man is he with whom you are, for no one can know whether or not he will ever have dealings with any other man; and the most important pursuit is to do good to him, since it is for that purpose alone that man was sent into this life.”
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The story is available on-line at:


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