The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

How does absolute nonsense pass for common sense? How does stupidity give the impression of intelligence? Why do lies dupe so many people, even the most outrageous lies? How do same-sex marriage, the right to kill babies, and physician-assisted suicide become legal, moral, and normative? Andersen’s famous story illustrates that the preposterous absurdities that assume the air of respectable opinions always begin at the top of the social hierarchy and never from the grass roots and the common man. The experts, the ruling class, the educated elite, and the enlightened sophists concoct ideologies that receive the propaganda of media publicity, the approval of courts, the learned opinions and scholarly books of professors, and the legalization of government.

In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” the rogues who pretend they are master tailors weaving the most intricate patterns explain that their exquisite art uses only “the finest silk and gold thread.” So subtle is the skill of their hands and craft that it possesses “the wonderful property of remaining invisible to anyone who was not fit for his job or who was particularly stupid.” Flattered by the impression of his public appearance in the most beautiful clothing spun by the most renowned weavers using the best of materials, the Emperor—not to take any risks about giving an impression of incompetence or stupidity—sends his old minister to view the progress of the masterpiece. Appealing to the vanity of the Emperor whose love of fashionable clothing and grand appearances supersedes the love of truth, the weavers invent the lie that convinces the Emperor not to see with his eyes or think with his mind lest he lose his self-importance and respectable image. How could anyone admire a stupid king who cannot appreciate a beautiful work of art?

edmund dulac_clothesThe old minister dare not give the impression of incompetence at the cost of his position at court. As he watches the weavers at their work and thinks, “I can’t see a thing!” he fears to speak the simple truth and to risk his status as the king’s advisor. Impressions and appearances must be preserved to appease the king at all costs: “Am I really unfit for my job? No, it certainly won’t do for me to say I can’t see the cloth!” When a lower official is sent to see the beautiful cloth at the loom, he too—fearing a loss of status—reacts in the same way as the minister and reports, “It’s quite the finest thing I’ve ever seen!” Convinced he is not stupid but suspicious that he might be unfit for his job, he must safeguard his reputation and maintain the image of a qualified official. The Emperor’s vanity, the minister’s pride, and the official’s self-interest dictate that they uphold the illusion of the weavers’ magnificent cloth. The lie that has moved down the social ladder from the king to a high-ranking minister to a lower official has now gained currency as a respectable opinion and as a trendy idea. From the so-called expertise of the all-knowing weavers to the prominent Emperor to the notable members of the court, an intellectual fashion has been decided and is becoming stylishly a la mode by way of publicity, dissemination, repetition, and rumor. There are popular styles of thinking as well as clothing.

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Hearing the praise of the minister and the official marveling at the colors and patterns, the Emperor with his courtiers dares to visit the weavers to view the splendid cloth before he displays his new clothes in the glorious procession he will lead. Self-conscious that he sees no color, no pattern, and no cloth at the loom, the Emperor of course does not wish to be inappropriately attired or give any hint of unsuitability for his position. He can only reiterate the empty words everyone is repeating: “Oh, it’s very beautiful…. It has my highest approval.” And to be sure all the courtiers express their agreement. How dare the lower members of the court question the judgment of their superiors! The experts, the rulers, and the elite of course set the tone, have good taste, determine the fashions, and formulate the correct opinions for the lower classes to copy. It is more expedient to let others do one’s thinking rather than exercise common sense. It is always easier to dress according to the fashion of the court than use one’s own good taste.

When the Emperor goes with his attendants to view the finished trousers, jacket, and hat, the weavers inflate the king’s vanity with the highest accolades: “What a perfect fit! … What a pattern!” The entire court consents to the fraud and calls nothing something. The lie carries the stamp of approval from the master weavers to the great king to the distinguished ministers to the lesser officials to the king’s servants. Of course the crowds who watch the parade do not presume to question expert weavers, the authority of a king, or the sophisticated views of the court on the matter of clothing, style, or good taste. All the spectators repeat the established, pre-formed opinion that has been circulating and communicated from the top of the social order to the lower classes, “and everybody in the streets and at their windows said, “My, look at the Emperor’s new clothes!” No one risks speaking the truth, appearing unpopular, or having unstylish views that do not conform to the prefabricated (politically correct) lie that preserves everyone’s lofty image and serves everyone’s self-interest.

“But, Daddy, he’s got nothing on!” observes a child at the procession. The image of innocence, humility, and simplicity, the child speaks the honest truth with perfect clarity. He disentangles all the complexity of the lie with the many threads spun by the weavers. The child who does not look in the mirror like the king, worry about an eminent position like the minister, fear a loss of reputation like the other members of the court, or follow the crowd like the multitude watching the parade, the child speaks with simplicity (oneness), not duplicity (doubleness). Unconscious of respectability and uninfluenced by self-interest, the child speaks as Christ teaches: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the devil” (Matthew 5:37). The liars and deceivers in the story say “yes” when they mean “no” or “no” when they mean “yes”—the doubleness of duplicity. Only the child says “yes” when he means “yes” and “no when he means “no”—the simplicity of truth. Whereas the preposterous lie begins at the top of the social hierarchy and travels to all the lower classes, the purity of the truth originates at the bottom of the lowest level and reverberates upward and outward. When the crowds hear the child’s words, the nakedness of the lie is exposed: “At last, everybody who was there was shouting, “he’s nothing on!” The truth is one, simple, and self-evident.

Editor’s note: Illustration by Edmund Dulac.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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