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 any clothes. 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 Christen Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal, 1971.