The Emperor’s New Clothes

What a Classic Children’s Parable Tells Us About Sudbury Valley

Delve into it, delve into it; the more you delve, the more you find in it. ~Ancient Rabbinic Saying


Everyone knows the story of the emperor’s new clothes; it is a classic among classics. Its salient features are presented in a few key paragraphs. Here is how it opens:

Many years ago, there was an Emperor, who was so excessively fond of new clothes, that he spent all his money in dress. He did not trouble himself in the least about his soldiers; nor did he care to go either to the theater or the chase, except for the opportunities they afforded him for displaying his new clothes. He had a different suit for each hour of the day . . . .

Time passed merrily in the large town which was his capital; strangers arrived every day at the court. One day, two rogues, calling themselves weavers, made their appearance. They gave out that they knew how to weave stuffs of the most beautiful colors and elaborate patterns, the clothes manufactured from which should have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily simple in character.

The story is based on two simple premises, neither of which is particularly remarkable. The first is the existence of a ruler who exults in spectacular display. Nothing unusual or exceptional about that; after all, the story was penned in 19th century Europe, which was still steeped in the royal tradition exemplified by the court of Louis XIV. Excess was the norm among rulers; all one has to do is visit Europe today and wander through the great palaces, gardens, and museums that still display the grandeur of those past centuries. To be sure, Andersen parodies this tendency, by inventing an emperor who changes his clothes every hour. But this is not, after all, such a parody of reality. People of wealth enamored of high fashion would never be seen twice in the same outfit, and often change into several different sets of clothing during the course of a day.

The second premise is the existence of some magical power that renders normally visible objects invisible to certain viewers. Now, even though such a power has yet to be demonstrated to exist, people of all cultures have yearned for it and considered it to be a real possibility from time immemorial. Indeed, 19th century Western culture was undergoing a major shift in its conception of reality, and was becoming accustomed to the existence of objects that cannot be seen by the naked eye, and yet have a profound influence on our lives. Accustomed, but not fully accepting; enamored of the idea, but still often skeptical. One has only to think of how difficult the idea of the “invisible” cellular structure of living tissue was to accept when van Leeuwenhoek first introduced it two centuries earlier.1 And even as Hans Christian Andersen was writing his tale, Western medicine was dealing with the fantastic claims of Semmelweis and Lister, who insisted that invisible little animalcules were the source of all disease. Here, too, Andersen was penning something of a parody, taking the reality of invisibility to an extreme.

So the story begins with a parody that nevertheless represents a widely accepted view of two aspects of the world of kings and scientist/magicians: gaudy wealth, and powers of invisibility. In fact, the story stresses the universal acknowledgment of these two views of reality among the populace of the fabled country in which it takes place:

. . . as of any other king or emperor, one is accustomed to say, “he is sitting in council,” it was always said of him, “The Emperor is sitting in his wardrobe.”

The story goes on to describe the Emperor parading in the “clothes” made by the two rogues:

So now the Emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, “Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor’s new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!” in short, no one would allow that he could not see these much-admired clothes; because, in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the Emperor’s various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.


A delightful parable, this story of Andersen’s. It is generally held to have a few simple and obvious interpretations. Here is a summary of the most prevalent ones:

The expressions The Emperor’s new clothes and The Emperor has no clothes are often used with allusion to Andersen’s tale. Most frequently, the metaphor involves a situation wherein the overwhelming (usually unempowered) majority of observers willingly share in a collective ignorance of an obvious fact, despite individually recognising the absurdity. A similar twentieth-century metaphor is the Elephant in the room.

The story is also used to express a concept of “truth seen by the eyes of a child”, an idea that truth is often spoken by a person too naïve to understand group pressures to see contrary to the obvious. This is a general theme of “purity within innocence” throughout Andersen’s fables and many similar works of literature.

“The Emperor Wears No Clothes” or “The Emperor Has No Clothes” is often used in political and social contexts for any obvious truth denied by the majority despite the evidence of their eyes, especially when proclaimed by the government. best answer chosen by voters, to explain the story’s meaning

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one of Andersen’s best known tales and one that has acquired an iconic status globally as it migrates across various cultures reshaping itself with each retelling in the manner of oral folktales. Scholars have noted that the phrase ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial, or hollow ostentatiousness. Historically, the tale established Andersen’s reputation as a children’s author whose stories actually imparted lessons of value for his juvenile audience, and “romanticized” children by “investing them with the courage to challenge authority and to speak truth to power.”

Wikipedia, Entry “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

I have been pondering these interpretations, and have found them to be seriously lacking. Consider the time it was written, the cultural setting, and the audience. The mid-19th-century was a very modern era indeed, a time of great advances in all the sciences, arts, and technologies. The common interpretations of the story make a mockery of this setting. According to the current prevalent view of the story, the many people, from emperor to advisers to the population at large, who praised the emperor’s invisible clothes were just plain stupid: stupid enough to believe that clothes could be invisible only to unworthy citizens, stupid enough to believe that clothes could be invisible at all, stupid enough to be upstaged by a little child. Too stupid to realize that this kind of stuff doesn’t exist.

But a story based on stupid people doesn’t gain much traction. Imagine someone writing a children’s story today about people too stupid to understand basic chemistry. Imagine a reverse twist on the story of the emperor’s clothes, something along the following plot lines:

There was once a Great Scientist who prided himself on his great knowledge of chemistry. Every day he experimented with his test tubes and exotic mixtures. One day, some charlatan came into his lab and said, “I can concoct a chemical process that will turn grass into gold—and it will be a very special process, one that produces a result that only a really smart scientist will be able to recognize as being gold.” The Great Scientist was excited at the prospect, and funded the charlatan. Some time later, the charlatan came back and demonstrated a process that turned grass into a smelly concoction of muddy slurry. “Here is the gold,” he said. The Great Scientist, not wanting to admit that he was not smart, got very excited, and arranged a huge demonstration at the next major international chemistry conference. People crowded into the hall to see the demonstration—all the great chemists of the world. The demonstration was put on by the Great Scientist and everyone oohed and aahed, not wanting to admit that they were not really smart. Then an illiterate backwoods farmer, who had wandered into the hall by mistake, said, “That ain’t no gold; that’s a smelly muddy slurry.” And all the scientists murmured, “Yeah, we guess it is.”

Such a tale would be greeted with a great big yawn by any child today, however young, and would hardly rate a glance among the eminent literary and social critics of the age.

So what is Andersen’s story really about, and why has it retained its hold on us for all this time, and through all the transformations of society that have taken place since it was written?


Let’s go back and take a closer look. In particular, let’s look at the two central premises that I discussed in the first section: the existence of a ruler who exults in spectacular display, and the existence of some magical power that renders normally visible objects invisible to certain viewers.

These are two premises that are widely accepted today in their essence, as they were at the time the story was written. That the “upper crust” of society revels in gaudiness is not only well known, but also the object of constant fascination by the public at large, young and old alike. It seems we never tire of pictures, videos, stories, and documentaries about the clothing, the tastes, the homes, the gardens, and the cuisines of those who consider themselves the elite. And that something significant may not be visible to the naked eye is a commonplace—indeed, the less visible, the more fascinating. Moreover, we hear tales of stealth airplanes and submarines that are invisible to the enemy (to those who are not “good people” like us) and quite visible and tangible to us.

In fact, the two premises are pretty much standard beliefs among us today. All you have to do is look at some of the phantasmagoric outfits worn by fashion leaders today, and see the reactions to them among “knowledgeable people” (“how extraordinary”; “how imaginative”; “I want one like that . . .”). Indeed, anyone dismissing “high fashion” as just plain ugly is immediately labeled a philistine by the cognoscenti!

Similarly, no one questions the possibility of processes that render objects of one sort or another invisible. We often see news items about attempts at inventing them, and sometimes, about successes. Invisibility is considered a very likely aspect of reality. And if you get into the subtleties of modern physics, you are faced with processes far more fantastic than mere invisibility. Someone who questions these scientific viewpoints is generally considered unreasonable, unable to distinguish scientific truth from superstition.

A child who would exclaim at a fashion show or a scientific conference, “But this is all silly nonsense” would be gently ushered out of the room and given a patronizing pat on the head.

So what is Andersen’s story about, and why does it still captivate us?

I think the answer is, after all, rather simple—and the reason that, despite being simple, it is not also obvious to most readers, is that it appeals to something deep inside us all that we are afraid to acknowledge.

I think the story is about the perils of “thinking inside the box”, and the perils of “thinking out of the box”—two very different kinds of perils.

In the story, the emperor, and all the other protagonists (up to the end—and excluding, of course, the rogues, who take advantage of this), are “thinking inside the box”. They are, in effect, prisoners of their shared world view, the world view that dominates their culture. In a very real sense, we are all prisoners of our personal world view, and we all tend to deny experiences that threaten it. When confronted with such experiences, our first reaction is to find some explanation compatible with our world view, rather than immediately shifting to another one just because a few experiences don’t fit.

This innate conservatism—a better name would be “conservationism”, where this refers to the tendency to conserve the integrity of one’s world view—is an important survival tactic. After all, there is no way to preserve our sanity if every time we encounter something that we cannot account for, we throw away our whole conception of reality and replace it with another one. People who do that flirt with insanity; indeed, insanity is inherently a state of shifting world views that lack stability.

When the people in the parable encounter a situation which looks very odd indeed, but for which there is an explanation possible (it’s invisible only to people who are unworthy, but wholly visible to worthy persons), they stay within their box—their world view—and accept the inevitability of occasional peculiar experiences.

The sudden appearance of the child in the story is calculated. Children are still in the process of forming a coherent and all-encompassing world view. They are “unsophisticated” (in its original meaning, from the Green sophos, “knowledge”—not yet possessed of a wide range of knowledge, and hence of a fully formed world view). For them, a rose is a rose is a rose, even though in reality, it may actually be one of the amazingly realistic glass flowers on exhibit at Harvard!

The child is “thinking out of the box”. The father is supportive, willing to acknowledge that perhaps his precious offspring is on to something. The other “unsophisticated” onlookers waver and in the end, shift gears.

The story goes on to validate the out-of-the-box thinking by making it the culmination of the tale, and leaving the reader with the impression that, after all, the boy and the others have a valid point, a correct new way of understanding their world. But the last word goes to the “establishment”: the elite stick to their guns, firm in their convictions, however much challenged by experience. Here is how the story ends:

“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.

“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.

“But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.

We are attracted to the story even as we are somewhat terrified of its message. Like all human beings, we are attracted by danger and afraid of it. Perhaps, we think, our world view is wrong after all. Perhaps our experience, which purports to be reality, is in fact a reality in a more valid world view than the one we now hold. Perhaps our internal emperor in fact has nothing on at all.

And the significance of the child being the harbinger of a new world view is not lost on us. Adults are afraid of children, and have always been; children challenge us, and maybe they are right! Maybe they have something there!


The connection with Sudbury Valley is direct, and somewhat painful. The school stands for a new world view encompassing child development, education, and a new reality of growing up in a rapidly changing world. Its success has been demonstrated for all to see in many forms: its community is filled with creative, lively, intelligent young people whose minds are constantly expanding, whose social skills are honed from early childhood, and who embrace change at whatever pace it presents itself. It is the only form of education that is in fact affordable for society. It condemns by its very existence the entire current paradigm that encompasses children, maturation, and learning.

Yet, the old guard continues to “hold up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.” And all of the citizens are left to wait for the time when the whole world finally sees that “the Emperor has nothing at all on.”

A great new idea cannot take hold until the entire old generation dies away. ~Max Planck, inventor of modern quantum theory


1. For readers who think that it was a simple matter for anyone to verify van Leeuwenhoek’s claims, a journey into the history of optical instruments is rewarding. A major obstacle to the acceptance of “realities” uncovered by such instruments was the observation that anything viewed through a lens or a curved mirror appears distorted—something every child learns, to their delight, in their first encounter with these objects. Microscopes and telescopes were widely held to be doubly distorting (or even more than that, depending on the number of lenses and mirrors used in them), and hence hardly useful in uncovering the secrets of nature. One only has to recall Galileo’s rapturous claims of seeing oceans and other earth-like features on the moon to see that there was more to their objections than meets the eye.

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