Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Answers of Tolstoys' Three Questions

Today I'd like to write about one of Leo Tolstoy's short stories: The Three Questions. For those who have not read it, you can easily find it here.
The story basically tries to answer these questions:
  • When is the most important time?
  • Who is the most important person?
  • What is the most important thing to do?

The answers for these questions, if you have read it, are:
  • The most important time is now.
  • The most important person is the one with you.
  • The most important thing is to do him good.

As philosophically simple as it may seem, I'd like to go deeper and see what it implies. The questions and answers are interesting, so let's see one by one.

The most important time

The most important time is now. I believe Tolstoy didn't mean 'now is the time, do what you like, you cannot repeat it anyway'. Nor does it mean that we should do something now for present time's sake. As we see in the story the king's kindness affects his future, his entire life. So when the hermit says that now us the most important time it actually means 'be careful what you do today, make sure you won't regret it later'.
Why is the present time is the most important? The hermit mentions the reason. He says “it's the time when you have power”. Time doesn't move backwards. Once you lose it, you lost control on it too. On the other hand, we have no control on the future time either. Therefore the only time we can control is 'now'.
So according to that answer, instead of doing whatever we want right now, we should do what is right, right now. In making decision, using the present time to the full means doing the best we can do now for the future time's sake, because we can only decide to do or not to do something right now, but our decision can influence our entire life.

The most important person

In the story, the hermit says that the most important person is the one with you right now. The reason? “For no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else .” So Tolstoy basically says that you don't know if you will ever have any other chance to deal with the person with whom you are. Therefore, he is the most important person for the time being.
Here's another reason. Just as the present time is the time you have most control over, the person with whom you are is the person you have the most power over. The lenght and frequency of your being with him is also influential to your power over him. The more you spend time with him, the more you can do to him. Thus, yoiu will have the more chance to influence him for good or bad.
On the other hand, the person you are close to, who is “with you right now” can influence you for good or bad. Thus the person becomes essential, because he changes you in a way or the other.
So in my opinion the person “with whom you are now” doesn't only imply someone who is physically with you, but rather someone over whom you have power or who has power over you (in this context, influence you). And he is important because you cannot possibly know what he will change in your life.

The most important thing

Back to the first two questions. The most important time is now, the most important person is with whom you are. So what's the most important thing you can do to that person now? Tolstoy answered: do him good.
As a religious person who believed in the Bible, he had no doubt known Matthew 7:12.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
In doing good to people, we apply sympathy. “What would I want from someone in that kind of situation?” Thus we do what we think is best for the person. And who knows whether in the future he'd do the same for us?  

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