Three Questions


Tolstoy, Leo


Short Story


What if there were a way to be certain so one would "never stray in any matter"? Leo Tolstoy—one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature—begins his story with three questions that occur to a certain king, who is certain that the answers will provide him all the guidance he needs for the rest of his reign and the rest of his life. Eager for such guidance, the king offers a reward to any wise teacher in the land who can answer his three questions. Many come for the reward—but each gives different advice. Finally, the king resolves to ask a mountain-dwelling hermit who is "said to be an enlightened man." The hermit will not answer the king directly; but one day and many toils later, he is able to show the king the answers to his questions in a surprising and unexpected way.

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What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy, Translated by L. and A. Maude (Stratford Company, 1918) pages 34-38




Impact and OutcomesKnowledge and UncertaintyMotives and ValuesServing and Volunteering

Big Questions

How do we identify desired outcomes? Who decides?What is the impact of our actions - on ourselves and others?What should our goals be? What is the best way to identify them?Does truth vary across cultures or is it universal?How do I know that I am making a difference? Is it possible to know?How much do we need to know in order to act?What is the value of uncertainty?What motivates us to act in the world?Where do our values come from? Why do we care about what we care about?Why do we serve?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why does the emperor decide to ask his three questions? How do you think he settles on these three?
  2. How would you characterize the first round of answers to the emperor’s questions? Why are they unsatisfactory responses?
  3. Why does the emperor go to the hermit? What does he expect to learn there? Why does he expect a seemingly “enlightened” man will be able to solve his dilemma?
  4. What does the hermit teach the emperor? How is this lesson taught? Do you think the emperor has had his three questions answered?
  5. Do you agree that the present is the most important time? Why or why not?
  6. What motivates us to act in the world? Should the happiness of others be privileged over our own happiness? Why or why not?
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