By Brendan Cook (2009)
So you think you’ve heard this story before? Really? Well then, you can stop reading right now and put it away. If you’re sure you know what happens, you don’t need to look at it again. Go ahead and read something else. There are all sorts of important documents on the latest Five Year Plan that demand your attention. Read them more than once-you can always learn something new from Farzam Arbab or Paul Lample. Intensive Programs of Growth may seem simple, but believe me when I say that understanding them takes longer than you guess. How long? Let’s just say your next two years of weekends are booked.
Still here? That’s fine, but you need to understand the rules. If you want to stay with this story, you’ll have to accept right now that you don’t know it. You don’t know what happens and you don’t know how it turns out. You might think you do, but you’d be wrong. Sure, some parts are familiar, but there are also a few surprises in store. It’s a famous story, but then there’s a problem with that too. Because, you see, most of the people who tell it get it wrong. Even the brothers Grimm or whoever it was two hundred years ago, even they messed it up. They somehow managed to leave out all the bits that make it interesting. I’m not saying my telling is perfect, but it’s a lot better than anything they did. At least all the important parts are there.
Anyway. The story takes place long ago, and I suppose the title gives away that the main character was an emperor. What country? Does it matter? Maybe he was the emperor of China or Japan; but then again it could have happened in the Middle East too: Babylon or Persia or Egypt or some such. Who knows? He could have been a Roman emperor for all I could tell you. Or didn’t they have emperors in Peru before Pizarro came along? But it’s not important, so the less time wasted speculating the better. The crucial thing about this emperor —and here we could be talking about nearly any emperor— was his inflated sense of entitlement. He liked to have the best of everything, and nothing was ever good enough. He wanted the best food and the best clothing and the best art and the best entertainment: all those ridiculous, extravagant toys that emperors in stories like this always want. We’re talking about things like staging battles between exotic beasts at his palace or sinking warships in the middle of his private lake. And if that story about the prince who had an omelette made out of hummingbird eggs ever really happened, it would have happened to him. He was that kind of emperor, no doubt about it. There wasn’t anything he was afraid to ask for. But it was his wardrobe that was really excessive. This emperor had thousands of different costumes, and he had more shoes than Imelda Marcos: which meant he never had to wear anything twice. I suppose it isn’t surprising that all this didn’t make him happy— I don’t know anyone who imagines it could. He always wanted more, and this was especially true when it came to clothes.
And this obsession with his wardrobe is where the other part of the story’s title comes in. Or maybe you guessed that already. Just remember, this telling may not have surprised you so far, but it’s still early going. It all sounds familiar, but you’ll see soon enough. At any rate, the emperor searched far and wide for someone who could expand his collection of clothing. He paid more and more to any tailor who could devise something new and interesting, but he also became harder and harder to please. He already had everything, he’d already seen everything, and nothing his old tailors could make satisfied him. Which is why he was intrigued when two new tailors came to his court—two men who’d never been known as tailors before. Because it happens—and this is one thing I’ll bet you didn’t hear somewhere else—it happens that these two tailors were men of God: monks or something similar. They were known as very prayerful men anyway, men who spent most of their time talking about religious topics like God and faith and sex and the bad character of the young. Their exact qualifications weren’t clear, but since they disapproved of nearly everyone and everything, they were widely respected for being holy and God-minded.
And it was these two men of God who came to the emperor with marvelous news. They informed him that they had a loom like nothing known before. It could sew clothes nine times faster than the fastest tailor in the empire, and the clothes it made were infinitely more beautiful. But it wasn’t a magical loom, they explained, it was a spiritual loom—and this was a very important distinction, since both men said they despised magic. And this spiritual nature, they told the emperor, this accounted for the only catch in the operation of the loom. The unspeakably lovely clothes that it wove could only be perceived by spiritual people, or as the two holy men put it, by those with “a heightened spiritual consciousness.”
What’s that? Are you trying to tell me that this isn’t how the story goes? If you are, don’t bother. I’ve already warned you that not everything would be as you remember it, so there’s no excuse for complaining now. If you want, you can go and write your own version afterwards, just as you think it should be. But for now you’re reading my version, and I’ll tell it the way I heard it.
The way I heard it told, the two tailors didn’t say that only people of high intelligence could see the clothes spun by their loom, although I know that’s the popular notion. They said that only truly religious and God-fearing people could see them, people who knew how to look at the world with the eyes of faith, people who possessed what they called “a heightened spiritual consciousness.” I don’t think you want to hear everything that they said, because they said a lot, but I’ll try to give you the general idea.
“Your majesty,” this is what the two tailors told the emperor, “we live in a disintegrating society, a civilization caught in the tightening grip of moral decadence. While your majesty has done a great deal to arrest this decline—more in fact than we could have hoped—it is nevertheless the case. Standards of chastity and holiness have fallen into neglect, the structure of family life has been eroded, and the moral fabric of the community is stretched to the point of breaking. We have studied these unwholesome trends and have reached a conclusion. We believe that the ills of society are a product of the reigning doctrine of materialism. Too many of your majesty’s subjects measure everything according to material standards and spend their lives pursuing material objectives. They are materialistic—in both their beliefs and their desires—and becoming more so all the time.
“Materialism has many consequences, and there is no need to test your majesty’s patience by naming them all. But the most serious of these is a severely limited conception of reality: materialism blinds people to the deeper meaning of life. There are so many great and enduring truths that cannot be perceived or understood by those who are committed to the shallow certainties of materialism—truths which only make sense from a spiritual perspective. The most sacred mysteries and dogmas of our religion, even your majesty’s divine mandate to dispose of the lives of your subjects without any consideration for their rights—how much of this would make sense from a narrow, materialistic point of view? How many of the things that you demand or that our faith ordains would seem right or just or holy in the absence of a belief in the spiritual nature of reality? These are profound spiritual principles, your majesty, and it requires spiritual insight to grasp them. If someone were to argue against them from a material perspective, there would be no use in answering him. Their foundation is not rational or logical, but spiritual, and no persuasion is sufficient to bring someone blinded by materialism to embrace them.
“And this, your majesty, is the single problem with the fine new set of clothes that we would make you. Because our loom is a spiritual loom and because the clothing it spins is spiritual in substance, it cannot be perceived by those who lack a spiritual perspective. Only those who have put aside the fashionable claims of materialism, only those who have developed a heightened spiritual consciousness will be able to see your fine new clothes. Those whose perspective is limited, those with no awareness of the spiritual dimension of life—such poor souls will see nothing at all. But even this, your majesty, even this is actually a great advantage. For it provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate to your subjects the reality of spiritual things. By wearing the new clothes we will sew for you, you will teach the lesson of faith as belief in things unseen. And if a few wayward souls refuse to see your clothes, it will serve as an admonition to them to expand their vision beyond the narrow limits of material culture.”
The emperor liked the sound of this—and why wouldn’t he? How often did he get the chance to wear beautiful new clothes and teach his people a lesson in religion? He couldn’t wait to put them on in public. And in a matter of days, the two tailors promised, he would get his wish. Both swore that they would outdo themselves. They said that the latest clothes from their spiritual loom would excel anything it had woven before. And when the emperor saw his new clothes for himself, he believed it.
Yes, you read that correctly: when the emperor saw his new clothes for himself. What? You thought I would say they weren’t really there? This is where I’m afraid most versions of the story go off the rails. Because it’s here that most tellers try to impose their private ideological agenda on the question of whether the emperor’s new clothes were real or imaginary. As far as I’ve seen, all of them are too quick to judge. All of them rush to a conclusion without being open to the various possibilities: like so many people today, they make up their minds before they’ve even considered the facts. They forget the wise advice of the two tailors to the emperor: that it all depends on your perspective.
Was the emperor naked? Which answer do you want? Because I can give you more than one. On the one hand, if we are determined to approach the question as good materialists then the answer, I will admit, is simple. If we remain bound by a skeptical, rational attitude, if we only accept what we can see and touch ourselves and refuse to acknowledge any reality outside of that, the matter can be concluded in a single syllable: yes. But isn’t it more complicated than that? Because if the emperor said he saw his clothes, if he believed he saw his clothes, if he repeated to himself over and over again that he saw his clothes, who’s to say he didn’t? And if the people who turned out to watch him in the street—all the men and women and little children waving and crying and cheering him on—if they said they saw his clothes, and thought and believed and told themselves they saw his clothes; then surely, they did see his clothes. Because the old saying really works both ways: if seeing is believing, then believing is also seeing.
So without committing myself to the question either way, I’ll just say that everyone was very happy with what they saw of the emperor’s new clothes. And because of the spiritual nature of the clothes, everyone saw and appreciated something different. Some wondered at the gold-threaded belt, others at the fine fabric and delicate colors of his shoes, others at the gems that studded his sleeves and the platinum fringes of his coat. And what was best of all, the people felt that in viewing the emperor’s new clothes they were taking part in a religious experience. They were exercising their spiritual capacity and looking with spiritual eyes on mysteries that lay beyond the reach of logic or reason. Some said it was better than prayer. And if only everyone felt this way, that would have been the end of it. But I guess you know that things didn’t run so smoothly. Wherever you heard this story, you’ll have heard that the emperor’s first day in his new clothes was interrupted. Everyone who tells the story gets that right. Where they’re wrong is that it wasn’t an innocent child who caused the problem. They always say it was a little boy or girl who laughed and said that the emperor had no clothes, and this is their mistake.
Because it wasn’t a little child—it was an old man, which is about as far as you can go the other way. It was an old man whom no one remembered seeing before and whose style of clothing, at least by the standards of the time and place, seemed very strange. He had a full white beard and striking grey eyes that seemed at once strong and wise and infinitely kind. The people who saw him didn’t know why, but they all stepped back out of respect. They sensed that the old man had something important to say, and they listened eagerly. The old man waited a long time before speaking, and during that time, everyone was silent. This is what he said.
Religion must be reasonable. If it does not square with reason, it is superstition and without foundation. It is like a mirage, which deceives man by leading him to think it is a body of water. God has endowed man with reason that he may perceive what is true. If we insist that such and such a subject is not to be reasoned out and tested according to the established logical modes of the intellect, what is the use of the reason which God has given man? If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible. What the intelligence of man cannot understand, religion must not accept. (Abdul-Baha, Some Answered Questions)
Don’t even think of telling me you’ve never heard this before. It may seem strange in this context, but I’m almost certain you’ve encountered it somewhere else. And even if you didn’t, you’re familiar with the concept. In any case, the old man had a very persuasive way of speaking, and nearly everyone who listened felt they could hear him talk forever. And he probably would have said more if it wasn’t that the two tailors, who were now promoted to supreme ministers of the emperor, both stood up at once and cried “arrest that man!” And before anyone knew it, the emperor’s guards had taken hold of the old man and rushed him off to prison, where I hear he had spent much of his life already.
And is that the end of the story? Maybe as you heard it told, but not as I tell it. In a sense you could say it was only the beginning. Because, you see, the emperor’s new clothes were such a success that he commissioned his new ministers to weave more and more for him. A day didn’t go by but the emperor appeared in some fine new costume, and the people always wondered at the infinite variety of his clothes. In their mud-floored shacks and leaking, rat-ridden hovels, they talked for hours about the lovely garments of their emperor, forgetting the itching of their skin-born parasites and the pain of their rotting teeth. “Wasn’t his new cloak lovely?” “Not so much as his spectacular headpiece: did you ever see so many feathers of so many colors together at once?” “My favorite had to be the rainbow-colored sash.” It wasn’t that the people stopped suffering, but the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes definitely made things easier to bear.
And it’s the suffering of the emperor’s subjects, despite how happy they were for his new clothes, that explains the last part of this story—the part that always gets forgotten. Because the emperor was a compassionate man, he felt for his people and he wanted the best for them. So one day he asked his new ministers if their loom could do anything for the empire’s poor. So many of them didn’t have a shirt on their back or shoes for their children. Couldn’t the magic—or rather the spiritual loom do something for them? The two former tailors answered that it could: in fact they said the loom could do more for the poor than the emperor had ever hoped. Not only could it spin clothes, it could weave thatch for the roofs of their houses and even produce an edible fiber that was very nutritious for hungry children. And what was best of all, there was no limit to how much the spiritual loom could create: if the emperor wanted to relieve the distress of his whole empire, it would be possible.
And this is what happened. The emperor told his new ministers to get to work, and they used their loom to benefit the poor. They used it to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry, and to bring shelter to families who had spent their lives exposed to the elements. And everyone was happy in the empire, or at least everyone who was willing to be happy. Because if a few people weren’t pleased with their new, spiritual clothes, or their spiritual food, or the spiritual roofs over their heads; if they still insisted on starving or freezing as they had before, that would be their fault, now wouldn’t it? If they were still mired in materialist perspectives, if they hadn’t developed the “heightened spiritual consciousness” that the emperor’s ministers were always talking and lecturing about, what could anyone do for them? Because our spiritual problems are our own—any religious leader worth their salt can tell you that—and if someone hasn’t attained a spiritual awareness, no one else can help. And this is true whether you’re a peasant or an emperor or anyone in between. And as for what the old man tried to say before he was arrested: you can decide how much credit to give that yourself. I know what I think, but I’m just the storyteller, and I’ve always believed that a good story draws its own conclusions!