My duaghter’s 4th grade class read the short story “The Three Questions” by Tolstoy (a two minute read.)  This afternoon I led a discussion of the story. Here are my notes.

There is a King who decides that he needs the answers to three questions.

  1. What is the best time to act?
  2. Who is the most important person to listen to?
  3. What is the most important thing to do?

Because if he knew the answers to these questions he would never fail in what he set out to do.  He sends out a proclomation in his Kingdom offering a reward to anyone who can answer these questions but he is disappointed because although many offer answers…

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none.

So instead he went to see a hermit who lived alone in the Wood and who might be able to answer his questions.  The King and the hermit spend the day in silence digging beds in the ground.  Growing impatient, the King confronts the hermit and makes one final request for the answers to the King’s questions.  But before the hermit is able to respond they are interrupted by a wounded stranger who needs their help.  They bandage the stranger and lay him in bed and the King himself falls asleep and does not awake until the next morning.

At it turns out the stranger was intending to murder the King but was caught by the King’s bodyguard and stabbed.  Unkowingly the King saved his enemy’s life and now the man was eternally grateful and begging for the King’s forgiveness. The King returns to the hermit and asks again for the answers to his questions.

“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 business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

We are left to decide for ourselves what the King will do with these answers. The King abhors uncertainty. This is why he discarded the many different answers given by the learned men in his Kingdom. The simplicity of the hermit’s advice is bound the appeal to the King. It is certainly a rule that can be applied in any situation. And it is indeed motivated by acknowledgement of uncertainty in the extreme.  The Here and Now are the only certainties. And it follows from uncertainty about where you will be in the future, with whom you will be, and what options will be before you that the Here and Now are the most important.

(The hermit is not only outlining a foundation for hyperbolic discounting, but also a Social Welfare analog.  Your social welfare function should heavily discount all people except those who are before you right now.)

But what would come of the King were he to follow the advice of the hermit? Imagine what it would be like to live like that. Would you ever even make it to the bathroom to brush your teeth? How many opportunities and people would distract you along the way?

If the hermit’s advice were any good then surely the hermit himself must follow it. Perhaps the hermit was a King once.