Muth takes Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Three Questions,
as the starting point for this picture book account of a young boy’s search for an understanding of the ethical dimension of human existence. Nikolai asks his friends to help him to find the answer to the three questions that he considers to be the most important ones for helping him to know the right way to act.
When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?
Nikolai’s search leads him to seek the help of someone he thinks of as wiser than himself, who helps him to decide that the meaning of life rests in the relationships we form and the way we treat others. The answers to Nikolai’s questions cannot be discerned in the abstract; he comes to understand his questions and their answers only in the context of his experiences.
The story raises some interesting philosophical questions about the nature of thinking about philosophy in general and ethics in particular. I always ask students with whom I read this story, what do you think of Nikolai’s questions? Do you think they are the most important questions in life, and does and/or should our understanding of these questions change over time and with experience? Are the most important questions in life the same for everyone?
Some of the questions elementary school students in my classes have suggested as the most important questions in life are: Why does the world exist? Why do people fight? Where does infinity end? Is life a dream? Is there only one of me in the world? Why do we have to die?
The Three Questions raises the issue of whether we can develop an understanding of the meaning of our lives in the abstract — that is, by thinking about the implications and significance of human existence — or does answering the kinds of questions Nikolai asks require relationships with others, experience and maturity? And can relationships and experiences come about through thinking and reading?
In Nikolai, we meet a sympathetic person whose search becomes, in a sense, our own, and through his experience we begin to imagine the ways in which we might search for the answers to the questions of our lives. In this story, it is not only the character Nikolai, but also the author Jon Muth and his source Leo Tolstoy, whose experiences and beliefs underlie the questions the story explores.
Is there a right way to act in all or most situations, and can we come to know what it is? This is of course a standard question in any introductory college ethics class. The way it is usually analyzed is through study of the ways that some of the great philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Hume, etc.) have thought about the issue. A story like The Three Questions, alternatively, allows us to explore this question through the imagination, through a narrative encounter with someone else’s experience.