Aug 10 2015

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Category: Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,Morals,ParablesJames @ 2:33 pm

There once was a vain emperor for whom nothing mattered more than what others thought of him. One day, two swindlers entered his kingdom. They presented themselves as weavers and tailors of fine clothing. For a very large sum, they offered to make the finest, most beautiful, and splendorous suit of clothes ever seen. Even more, they said that the clothes’ fabric was magic and would be invisible to anyone lacking in wisdom or virtue. They were very convincing. The emperor and his ministers believed the swindlers, and the emperor hired them to make new clothes for him.

As the swindlers pretended to fit the clothes on the emperor and cut and sew them, neither the emperor nor his ministers could see anything. Each of them began to doubt whether the swindlers had been telling the truth, but none wanted to admit that they couldn’t see the clothes. No one wanted to contradict what they thought was the consensus of the group. And no one wanted the others to think that he was lacking in wisdom and virtue.

Finally, the swindlers declared that the clothes were ready. It was announced to the subjects in the empire that the emperor would have a procession to show his new clothes, which could only be seen by the wise and the virtuous. The emperor presented himself to the swindlers, dressed only in his undergarments. The swindlers pretended to dress him. The emperor doubted whether there were really clothes on him, but he feared admitting that he could see no clothes and looking like he lacked wisdom or virtue. And even if he could prove that the tailors were swindlers, he feared looking like a fool for having been deceived by them long enough to get to that point. He thought it better to go along with them and rely on the small chance that maybe the clothes were real.

The emperor marched out in a regal procession amongst his subjects, who were gathered in large crowds outside the palace. The subjects all made a show of being in awe of his fine clothes. None wanted to disagree with the received wisdom, and none wanted to appear to be lacking in wisdom or virtue.

The emperor passed by a child who laughed and asked why the emperor was parading around in his underwear. The child’s parents were deeply embarrassed. They sharply disciplined him, and the child learned to not contradict the group’s opinion.

Later, the emperor passed a man who was known for standing up for the truth as he saw it. He was not argumentative, but he wasn’t afraid to share what he thought, even if it contradicted others. Like the boy, he stood up and said that the emperor had no clothes. The man was ostracized by his friends and neighbors, and few paid heed to his opinion.

The emperor continued to wear his new “clothes.” The swindlers began making clothes for the emperor’s ministers, then for the nobles in the empire, then for the wealthy, and then for the commoners. The swindlers grew wealthy and powerful.

Only a few people who were not afraid to stand up for the truth (as best they could understand it) continued to wear clothes. They were looked down upon by the majority and sometimes even shunned. They were mocked for lacking wisdom and virtue.

The empire had a warm climate. For many years, the majority who dressed in pretend clothes were able to go about their lives dressed only in their underwear with relatively little discomfort. Finally, though, a rare blizzard came through the empire. Most of the subjects no longer had any real outer clothes left to wear. The ostracized subjects who still wore clothes tried to share them with the others, but they refused. By now, they had banished their doubts. They had fooled themselves into believing that their clothes were real. They all froze to death, firm in their false beliefs.

The only ones who survived were those who did not let themselves be fooled by the swindlers and the group’s opinions. They showed their wisdom and virtue not through imaginary magic or by pretending to see things that weren’t there, but by firmly standing for truth, even when it was hard and there often seemed to be little immediate reward for doing so.

Sources: Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal, 1971.

Aug 02 2015

The Community of the Sighted

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:57 pm

(A continuation of The Teacher to the Blind and The Healer of the Half Blind)

One of the disciples of the healer of the half blind grew dissatisfied with the secret teachings of the healer. The disciple recognized that he could see many things he couldn’t see before. He was grateful for the half-sight he had received, but it felt like there was also much that was missing from the healer’s cure and from his teachings. The disciple started noticing how much he still couldn’t see. Objects were blurry. He couldn’t see detail. He couldn’t tell the difference between similar shades He couldn’t see far away. And he couldn’t see well in the dark. He also began to suspect that there were other things to see that he wasn’t even aware of. He resolved to journey to the healer’s original community and see if he could discover more about the cure that had been preached by its original teacher.

After a long and difficult journey, he found his way back to the original community of the blind. They were still blind, and they were still divided into groups that clung to different beliefs about the teacher. He studied the teachings of the different groups of followers of the teacher. He noticed some things in common between almost all of the different groups, some of which were absent from the healer’s cure. He tried those things, and noticed that his eyesight got better. Next, he tried the unique teachings and practices of each group. (Some of them came from the teacher, and some were new. The new ones had mostly developed slowly over time as the groups diverged from each other and came up with new practices and teachings not from the original teacher.) Most of these unique teachings and practices had little value and had no effect on his eyesight. But occasionally some of them would make his eyesight even better. He paid careful attention to what was successful and compiled a list of what worked and what didn’t. Combined together, the things that worked had great positive effect. Eventually, he re-discovered a complete cure to his blindness. With the new additions, the cure was even better than the teacher’s original cure.

He wanted to share this cure with everyone. But he know that the members of the community had rejected such cures in the past. He thus avoided forcefully promoting his cure. Instead, he sought out those who felt their blindness, even though they didn’t know what it was like to see—those who yearned for a real cure, as he had. He taught first in the community of the blind, then he returned to his home in the community of the half-blind. Finally, he started traveling and teaching throughout the country. He discovered that everyone in the country was blind and needed to be cured. The followers of the teacher and the healer had also started teaching throughout the country, though, and there were many who chose to follow their useless or only partially successful cures.

Those who applied the real cure to heal themselves began to form a group focused on the cure, not on the healer or the teacher of the cure. And they tried out new approaches to improve the cure; some worked, some didn’t. They kept the ones that worked and discarded the ones that didn’t. The cure got better and better as more people tried it out and worked on improving it. They did not try to be secret or covert about what they were doing, but they were discreet. They knew that many weren’t emotionally prepared to accept this new approach or for the sensory overload of complete sight. Their group of cure-followers grew. It was not as large as the others, but it attracted wise and practical people who could tell the difference between falsehood and truth, between that which is relevant and irrelevant. They became leaders in their communities, helping the rest to see the way. Eventually, many were healed of their blindness.