The Three Questions

the three questionsThe great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is perhaps best known for his epic novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. However, he also wrote many short stories. This story is about a king who wanted to find the answers to what he considered the three most important questions in life. The first thing he wanted to know was when was the right time to begin every action. The second was who were the best people to have around him. The third was what was the most important thing to spend his time doing. If you want to know the answers, you will have to read our story.

English Learner Vocabulary Help

The words and expressions in our Simplified English story which are not in our Pre-Intermediate Level 1200 word list are: , , , , , , , , , , , , , and .

General Comments on the Story

what men live byTolstoy was a Russian Count and spent most of his early life living in luxury. “The Three Questions” is a story from his book What Men Live By and Other Tales. This was written later in Tolstoy’s life during a period in which he began to question traditional Russian values and Christian beliefs. It can be downloaded in various e-book forms from Project Gutenberg here, and an audiobook is available from Librivox here. The stories in the book, are parables designed to give advice about life to poorly educated Russian peasants. Tolstoy’s three questions are not only meant for kings, but for anyone who wants to live a good life.

Sometimes when you read a book that was originally written in another language you wonder if some of the author’s ideas might have been lost or confused in the translation. In the generally accepted English version of this story the third question is referred to in three ways:

  • In the first and second paragraphs the narrator and king refer to it as to always know the most important thing to do.
  • When talking about the advice the king received, the narrator describes it as to know the most important occupation The answers given (science, skill in warfare and religious worship) suggest fields of study or activity.
  • Later, when talking to the hermit, the king asks: And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?

At the end of the story the hermit answers: The most important affair is to do him (the person you are with) good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life! We have taken the question to mean what is the most important thing for a man to spend his time doing.

At around the same time that Tolstoy wrote What Men Live By and Other Tales, he wrote another famous book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You. This is considered a masterpiece of non-fiction writing. It directly influenced the thinking of the great Indian leader and pacifist Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and through him American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi wrote that the book “overwhelmed” him and “left an abiding impression.” It is available from Project Gutenberg here and from Librivox here.


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(n: council pl councils) 1. A group of people who provide advice or guidance on something. 2. In the U.K. and some other countries, a group of people elected to control the workings of a local government area. 1000

(adj: faithful) Having or showing true and constant support or loyalty. 2000

forgive(v: forgive, forgives, forgave, forgiven, forgiving) To stop being angry with someone who has done something wrong or caused something bad to happen. (ยกโทษให้) 2000

handkerchief(n: handkerchief pl handkerchiefs or handkerchieves) A small usually square piece of cloth used for wiping your face, nose, or eyes. (ผ้าเช็ดหน้า) 4000

(n: hermit pl hermits) A person who lives in a simple way apart from others, especially for religious reasons. (ฤๅษี)

hut(n: hut pl huts) A small and simple house or building. (กระท่อม) 3000

priest(n: priest pl priests) A man who leads people in the worship of a god or group of gods; a man who leads or performs religious ceremonies. (นักบวช) 4000

reward(n: reward pl rewards) A benefit that someone gets or is offered for doing good work, good behavior etc. (สิ่งตอบแทน) 3000

servant(n: servant pl servants) Someone who is hired to do household or personal duties [such as cleaning and cooking]. (คนรับใช้) 1000

slave(n: slave pl slaves) Someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay. (ทาส) 3000

spade(n: spade pl spades) A tool with a metal blade attached to a long handle, used for digging. (พลั่ว) 4000

wise(adj: wise, wiser, wisest) Having gained a lot of knowledge from books or experience or both and able to use it well. (ฉลาด)
(n: wisdom; noncount) 1. The knowledge gained from books or experience. 2. The quality or state of being wise. (ปัญญา; สติปัญญา) 2000

worship(v: worship, worships, worshiped, worshiping) 1. To honor or respect someone or something as a god. (สักการะ). 2. To love or honor someone or something very much or too much. As a kid I worshiped my brother. Our society worships money. (เคารพ) 4000

wound(n: wound pl wounds) An injury that is caused when a knife, bullet, etc., cuts or breaks the skin. (บาดแผล) 3000

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