Monthly Archives: March 2013

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

The Three Questions is a short story by Leo Tolstoy that was published in 1885. It contains a few moral sayings to live by, which we oftentimes just take as a given, but Tolstoy managed to keep you guessing for these answers until the big reveal at the very end.

A king poses three questions to his dear kingdom and is willing to grant a large sum of money for those that can answer them. The questions were simple.

  • What is the right time for every action?
  • Who are the most necessary people? 
  • What is the most important thing to do? 

For each question, however, he received all different kinds of answers.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right
time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days,
months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only
thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time.
Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the
right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be
absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was
going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said
that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it
was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for
every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who
would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

The answers to the second question were a bit less lettered, but still unconvincing.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said,
the people the King most needed were his councilors; others, the
priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the the most necessary.

And finally, the last question also received many different answers.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation:
some replied that the most important thing in the world was science.
Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was
religious worship.

The king was not satisfied with these responses. He decided to consult a hermit who lived in the woods beyond the outskirts of town. The king put on simple clothing and wandered up to the hermit’s house by himself without his usual guards to discover the answers to his three quandaries.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front
of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into
the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The king posed the three questions to the wise hermit, but he received no response other than a recommendation to dig. The king offered his support to the hermit, since he was weak and tired. The hermit thanked him and the king dug. After digging two beds, the hermit suggested the king rest. The king insisted he dig until he was finished and he did so until sunset. After finishing, he posed his same three questions again. The hermit responded with an observation, “here comes someone running, let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the
wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood
was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell
fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit
unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his
stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with
his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood
would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the
bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and re-bandaged the wound.
When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for
something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to
him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the
King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut
and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes
and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the
work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also
fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer
night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could
remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on
the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

After resting, the man said faintly to the king, “forgive me!” Confused, the king responds, “I do not know you, and I have nothing to forgive you for.” The man explains:

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who
swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother
and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the
hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day
passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find
you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and
wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had
you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved
my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your
most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The king was thrilled to have made peace with an enemy so easily. In an act of kindness, he then grants the man some servants, his own physician, and promised would restore the property that was formerly taken from him.

After leaving the man, the king walked alongside the porch to find the hermit. Again, he posed the three questions to him longing for an answer — the hermit responds, “you have already been answered!”

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my
weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone
your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have
repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time
was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important
man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards
when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were
attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would
have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most
important man, and what you did for him was your most important

It was then the king’s questions were finally answered. The most important time is now, the one which concerns you immediately. The most important person is whoever you are with. And, finally, the most important thing is to do good with who you are with.

And, only then, did the king finally receive three true and honest answers for his questions.


The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

Usually when one mentions Thomas Jefferson, Vladimir Lenin isn’t particularly the first person to come to mind (nor the second, nor third). At a superficial initial glance, they have little in common: a conflicted slave-owner, president, and brilliant writer that planted the seeds of democratic republicanism versus a Bolshevik leader and the main theoretician behind 20th century revolutionary thinking and praxis. A comparative analysis of these two different men would seem rather absurd given the political climate of the United States — who would have the gall to compare one of, if not the, founder of the original constitutional republic to a dirty red?

After we take off our post-McCarthyist goggles, there are some genuine comparisons to be made that merit a closer look at Jefferson’s ideology through a Leninist perspective. When the American experiment was rearing its head in the international scene, it was the first of its kind. A struggling republic midst an onslaught of Western imperial powers — few expected it to last. However, Jefferson held a firm belief that the empires of Europe would succumb to their own violence, which he considered alien to the United States. He writes to James Monroe in 1823:

I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people [1].

Calling for the complete separation from European politics, he writes to George Logan in 1801:

It ought to be the very first object of our pursuits to have nothing to do with the European interests and politics. Let them be free or slaves at will, navigators or agriculturists, swallowed into one government or divided into a thousand, we have nothing to fear from them in any form [2].

He would go on to exploit, what he viewed, European weaknesses during his time in diplomacy and terms as president. Realizing early that New Orleans was crucial for the development of the American experiment, he managed to properly balance his diplomatic talks with French powers to cheaply acquire Louisiana, while some Federalists were calling for war [3]. And he remarkably did so by using the Napoleonic wars in Europe to his advantage, since Napoleon was lacking the funds to fuel his imperialist ventures. Similarly, Lenin utilized the contradictions of European imperialism after World War One in his diplomacy and managed to retreat Russia from the war and marginally keep it secure.

Jefferson also took an internationalist approach to the American experience. “The Empire of Liberty,” as he called it, must spread its wings across the entire American continent and eventually the entire globe. He writes in 1795, commenting on the revolutions in France and Holland, in a letter to Tench Coxe:

This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together. it is our glory that we first put it into motion [4].

Again he argues this point in a 1824 letter to William Ludlow Monticello:

And I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when I was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth [5]

After the Revolution of 1917, Lenin expounded a similar view of the ultimate destruction of the bourgeois powers of Europe. He argues in his influential pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, about the nature of “decaying capitalism” and how historical necessity will bring about the demise of capitalist powers. He writes:

That imperialism is leading to annexation, to increased national oppression, and, consequently, also to increasing resistance [6].

And then on the inevitability of the destruction of imperialist capitalism:

That private economic and private property relations constitute a shell which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal is artificially delayed, a shell which may remain in a state of decay for a fairly long period… but which will inevitably be removed [7].

Lenin’s thoughts on the ultimate collapse of Western capitalism and its predatory nature bears resemblance to Jefferson’s writing on the destruction of the empires of Europe. The difference being, they were analyzing completely different social epochs. Lenin was witnessing, or so he believed,  the transition from capitalism to some form of socialism. Jefferson, on the hand, witnessed the development of fledgling democracies and the destruction of archaic monarchies. Both articulated an internationalist tone in their message, either for Jeffersonian democracy or for socialism, and preached the inevitability of such events — Lenin called for a “revolutionary vanguard” in his April Theses, Jefferson believed in an empire of liberty with which “this ball of liberty… will roll around the world.”

Objectively speaking, both Jefferson and Lenin were internationalist revolutionaries. They viewed the old order with disdain, inevitable in its collapse, and believed in securing the future through revolution and popular struggle. Jefferson was keen and uptight in his support for the French Revolution and its excesses. Although not particularly pleased with all the Terror, he still argued in favor of the French struggles. He writes to William Short in 1793:

But time and truth will rescue and embalm [the Jacobin Terror], while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated [8].

His dedication to the French revolution is unquestionable; he sees it a worthy endeavor to defend at all costs. As he puts it, most bluntly, he would rather see “half the earth desolated” than see his ideals in France wither and fail. And as for Lenin, the Red Terror was used under his rule to purge the countryside of dissenters in order to ready it for socialism. The point being, both these individuals viewed themselves as instruments of history. They viewed themselves as prime movers of a social development that was inevitable in the grand historical narrative of humankind. There is a hint of arrogance in both Jefferson and Lenin in their push for social transformation, much of it being dogmatic, which is likely the reason why their ideologies intersect so often. From their condoning of violence to their opinion of Western powers to their internationalist political demeanor, Lenin and Jefferson can both be considered eerily similar in their interpretations of history and their justification for its transformation.  And oddly enough, at least in American politics, one is lamented as an American savior, while the other is considered the absolute worst scourge of the Earth — never compared, they hold completely different chairs in history, seldom discussed in conjunction. Perhaps this dynamic best illustrates how absurd historiography can become, and how easily it can be morphed into fitting a particular nationalistic narrative. Two sides of a similar coin, Jefferson and Lenin truly show this absurdity in full.

Jefferson fist


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