‘Three Questions’ was penned by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and published in 1885. Leo Tolstoy wrote the short story after he underwent a moral crisis in his life and then turned to a more ethical following of Christ’s teachings. The short story ‘Three Questions’ is a parabolic Christian short story or fable which discusses self-possession, self-determination, and self-transcendence in the life of a true follower of Jesus Christ. Leo Tolstoy wrote many of these Christian parabolic short stories after his moral crisis post-1870. Leo Tolstoy is considered the greatest Russian writer of all time, and his works have been influencing many readers over the years all over the world. The short story ‘Three Questions’ centers around the three basic questions that one must follow to lead a more ethical life in keeping with Christian values, especially with the theology of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The three questions are:
- When was the right time to begin anything?
- Who were the right people in life to listen to?
- And lastly, what was the most important thing to do?
All these questions can be answered if humans are receptive to other people and live in a community of peace and humble tolerance. Such people live one day at a time and moment by moment, making each moment count, because as Tolstoy repeatedly indicates in this text, one shall never pass this way again. Lastly, the best way to benefit ourselves and others is by aiming towards the good in yourself and others. All these facts may sound simplistic, but they are the very tenets on which Christian faith and Christian theology are based.
As stated earlier, the story is parabolic, written something like the way Lord Jesus used to create wisdom stories or parables to bring out an abstract idea to a listener. People are not used to comprehending abstract ideas so quickly, and so Jesus kept on telling stories to highlight his central teachings. The story centers on three rhetorical questions; however, these have concrete answers, as discussed further in the analysis. Tolstoy writes simplistically, almost like Anton Chekhov but with more depth.
Leo Tolstoy’s declarations in the form of the answers to the three questions may seem a bit far-fetched. But they indirectly chronicle and indicate the hidden Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, the story starts in the form of a wisdom parable where a king is contemplating and reflecting on his life and mission towards wisdom, knowledge, and self-transcendence. He connects with his higher being, his Spirit or Soul. With the cognitive analysis of his intellect and willpower, he realizes that the answer to his transcendence lies in finding out the answer to his three questions. It is he who wishes to know the:
- Correct Time
- Correct People
- Correct Act
And all these three, he wishes to know not only about one instance in life but also for every individual situation he will find himself in the present and future. He declares a reward to anyone who could answer these three questions for him but fails to get a satisfactory answer. He fails to receive a satisfactory answer because the people he was consulting were not living as a community, were divided into too many factions, had preconceived notions about the workings of this world, were too overconfident about their ignorance, and did not use the short time they had in this world with their talents to make a difference. Thus, unlike the King, they were not on the path to self-transcendence, far from it. They were not even receptive to each other. Instead of imparting wisdom or at least knowledge to the King, they highlighted that they were confused about life, were self-contradictory, were not self-reflective, and were indeed ignorant in a matter of utmost importance to be a good human being in life.
The following were the theories they came up with regarding the ‘Three Questions’ asked by the self-possessed King:
- They never believed in living in the moment or in the here and now. They liked wasting time by making plans, strategies, and timetables that were unpredictable and never fixed. How can one expect the future timetable to be fixed when the future itself is dynamic and ever-changing? Such people do not work ‘smartly’ but work ‘for long hours or excessively’ on something that does not matter in life, thinking that they are fulfilling their lives mission by being ‘occupied’, when they are mere as the Pink Floyd classic song says – ‘another brick in the wall’. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation, was very fond of this aspect of Leo Tolstoy’s ethical Christianity which he summarized into his ethical Hinduism as the fact that man is born many times and time and time again returns to the earth as a reincarnated being, that is those men who follow the herd. But a great soul is born from the womb of self-transcendence, self-determination, self-possession, and self-consciousness, never to die again. Martin Luther King, Jr. was another great admirer of Leo Tolstoy and adopted Tolstoy’s non-violent theories to his non-violent mass movements.
- The people who answered the King thought that by ‘filling time’ and not wasting any moment of it in leisure, free-thinking, and self-reflection, were helpful to themselves and the world. However, they were nothing but ‘timid timeservers of the world waiting for their death’. They fill their days with drudgery and therefore are not capable of being self-possessed or self-actualized.
- They depended on others and were trying to make the King dependent himself. No one should take away a person’s independence at any cost. To suggest to the King that he should consult a Council of Wise men for his ‘Three Questions’ is ridiculous in ethical Christianity because the best way to find a solution to a problem that arises from within you is by looking within yourself and doing some soul searching and becoming self-actualized. Remember, Christian theology teaches that the human being is the microcosm of the universe. We are not weak when we look within; we are our strongest.
- They were superstitious and trying to get the King to associate with Magicians. They showed themselves to be paradoxes of nature, especially when they stated that before one should know what thing he had to do, he must see the consequence of that act. Thus, Leo Tolstoy debunks soothsayers, fortune tellers, and shamans who try to divine the future for the superstitious and gullible.
- Concerning the people to be consulted as necessary, the advisors referred to people of a higher status in the society like the religious priests, warriors, doctors, and court councillors. But we must realize that a person’s worth is not defined by his social standing in society or clout.
- Similarly, the advisors stated that science, warfare, and religious worship were primary for betterment, which is wrong. None of the above can solve the world’s real issues; they can only divide the world and make it more fragmented. With regard to technology, war, and religious intolerance, we can see that war has never led to complete peace in the world.
The King is rightly dissatisfied by their answers and seeks the advice and counsel of a reclusive hermit living in the woods famed for his wisdom. This hermit represents either a prophet or God himself who is always ‘digging’ for new ways to enter and be a part of human life. Like the hermit, he is patient, understanding, and brimming with tranquillity. The hermit does not answer the King when the three questions are asked. Instead, he goes on digging. He is digging and fashioning the soul of Christ or the soul of humans in which he plans to sow the seed of the ‘Word’, which revitalizes life and transforms a death like Christ into a resurrection that can change the lives of millions and billions.
The answers to the questions of the King are evident to the hermit, but he wants the King to find out the answers himself by analyzing the events of his life in the right context. The introduction of the wounded man is dramatic and heightens the tension and action in the short story. Being kind, noble, humble, and ready to serve others, the King ministers to the wounded man, which was not what he should have done in a temporal understanding of the matter. This is because the wounded man was a secret enemy of the King who had come to the hermit’s quarters to assassinate him. In the bargain, he was almost disembowelled and would have bled to death if not for the King.
Where the entry of the assassin is concerned, the following points are symbolically indicated, which forms a large part of the Christian moral theology of Leo Tolstoy:
- The assassin was like another human soul sinning but is saved by the ministrations of Christ through the Death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
- It was the assassin who had to die, but instead, only his sin died, and the best way to kill a sinful person is by making him a saint. Where Christ in the form of the King is concerned, by his selfless action he symbolically enacted the truly ethical and humble consecration of the body and soul of Christ.
- Like a sinner or believer in Christianity at the Resurrection of his soul or Christ, the assassin is granted eternal wisdom and enlightenment and eternal life and forever adheres to the word of Christ. The killer declares that as an enslaved person, he will now serve the King for the rest of his life, and so will his sons.
- Through the death and rising of Christ, sinners are saved from the fell clutch of death. Such souls will never be the same once touched with the reality of the Gospel.
The hermit declares to the King that his three questions have been solved. The hermit uses the analogies of the King serving first him by digging and then the assassin in his desperation. The seeds of the Gospel can be sown in the same way the hermit planted seeds in the two beds of soil dug up by the King the previous day. Now is the time of the spreading of God’s word. It has become a moving force in the life of the King and is thus the fruit of the positive workings of Christ in the life of the King. The two soil beds dug up by the King indicate Good Friday when Christ was crucified and then Holy Saturday when he rose from the dead, giving people ‘new life’.
Thus, the hermit declares that the answers to the three questions are as follows:
- Self-possession and Self-consciousness: Living in the here and the now by being aware of our needs and, more importantly, the needs of others for the good of humankind and our brother.
- Self-Communion: This is being receptive to others’ needs and serving the people in communion, which works like a loop; the communion from you goes to them, then goes to God, who is the Ultimate Goodness, and then comes back to you. But this is only possible when you de-reflect on yourself and work for the good of others in the present moment.
- Self-Determination: Serving the other person in all goodness and as a means to a good makes a person self-determined or self-actualized. This is because he then knows the right thing to do in a given situation.
These three answers transform the person, giving him wisdom and new life and not mere knowledge. Thus, in Leo Tolstoy’s eyes, such a person fulfils his duties in this world and then can self-transcend. The story ends with a focus on living in the moment or the here and now because respect for time is something that most people do not know how to accomplish. This was especially true in the emerging new Russia of Leo Tolstoy’s time when people were not living in the present and were not serving the needs of the agricultural poor, the marginalized, and the weak.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this Russian short story penned by Leo Tolstoy. A Braille version of the analysis is available for download here. I hope to review more of Leo Tolstoy’s works in the coming days. If you are interested in reading my analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s other short stories, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading a book that will help you to encourage your children or wards to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. I hope to read and review more Russian short stories, longer fiction, and non-fiction in the coming days.
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