Once upon a time, there lived an emperor, who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all his money in order to obtain them; his only ambition was to be always well dressed.
His city was great and every day many strangers from all parts of the globe arrived. One day two swindlers came to the city; they made people believe that they were weavers and declared they could manufacture the finest cloth to be imagined. Their colors and patterns were not only exceptionally beautiful, but the clothes made of their material possessed the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid.
“That must be wonderful cloth,” thought the Emperor. “If I were to be dressed in a suit made of this cloth I should be able to find out who in my empire was unfit for their places, and I could distinguish the clever from the stupid. I must have this cloth woven for me without delay.” He gave the swindlers a large advance and set them to work. The swindlers pretended to start weaving and pretended to be hard at work making this wonderful cloth, but in truth, they were doing nothing.
Everybody heard about the remarkable cloth—it was the best cloth EVER! Everyone was anxious to see how bad or stupid their neighbors were, if they couldn’t see the cloth.
The Emperor soon decided that he would send his best ministers to preview the cloth – it would also be a test of their intelligence. One after the other, the ministers went in to see this cloth. One after the other, they realized that none of them could see it. Afraid of being thought to be stupid, none of them dared admit that they couldn’t see the cloth. Each pretended to see and admire its fine detail.
They all reported to the Emperor that the cloth was MAGNIFICENT!
Everybody in the whole town talked about the precious cloth. At last the Emperor demanded to see it himself, along with his ministers. “Is it not magnificent?” said the ministers. “Your Majesty must admire the colors and the pattern.” They each imagined that everyone else but them could see the cloth.
“What is this?” thought the emperor, “I do not see anything at all. That is terrible! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be Emperor?”
The Emperor decided to wear the new magnificent clothes at a great procession which was soon to take place. “It is magnificent,” they said; everybody seemed to be delighted, and the Emperor appointed the two swindlers his “Imperial Court weavers.”
On the day of the procession, the swindlers declared that “The Emperor’s new suit is ready now.” The Emperor and all his ministers arrived to see the suit and the swindlers held their arms up as if they held the suit. The ministers all declared, “The suit is as light as air. It must feel as if one had nothing at all upon the body.”
The Emperor undressed, and the swindlers pretended to put the new suit upon him, one piece after another; and the emperor looked at himself in the glass from every side. “How well it looks! How well it fits!” said all his ministers. “What a beautiful pattern! What a magnificent suit of clothes!”
The chamberlains, who were to carry the train, stretched their hands to the ground as if they lifted up the imaginary train; they did not want to admit that they could not see anything.
The Emperor marched in the procession and the people exclaimed: “Indeed, the Emperor’s new suit is incomparable! What a long train he has! How well it fits him!” Nobody wished to admit that they saw nothing, for they were too afraid to appear unfit or stupid.
Then finally, a little boy yelled “But he has nothing on at all!” “Good heavens! It’s true, he has nothing on at all,” the people cried at last. Even the Emperor started to realize they were right, but it was too late, “Now I must bear up to the end” he thought to himself and his chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried a magnificent train which did not exist.
As I re-read this story for the umpteenth time, I asked myself, just as I did when I was a little boy reading it for the first time, who do I want to be? Emperor, swindler, minister, chamberlain, the people or the little boy? Who will you be?