I’ve seen many references in commentary on the first debate to an original text. Yet no one has actually bothered to go back and check that text. I was able to dig it up, but my old copy is so tattered that I’ve had to fill in a few details here and there from memory. At any rate, it’s clear when you go back to the original text that it really does explain everything. Here it is:
“Several years ago there arose an emperor determined to be seen by his people as the fairest and greatest ruler who had ever lived, and so he invested all his money in that pursuit. He didn’t care whether the money he invested improved the condition of his people, or whether his many decrees decreased the liberties of his people, so long as he appeared to be the fairest and greatest ruler of all time.
One day two swindlers arrived at the town where the emperor’s palace was. They told everybody they were weavers of a most marvelous cloth. Not only was their material extraordinarily beautiful, but it had the strange quality of being invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office or cruelly uncaring and unjust. Desiring a garment of this marvelous material for himself, the emperor gave the swindlers a lot of money so they could start working at once.
‘I would like to know how they are getting along,’ thought the emperor some days later; but his heart beat strangely when he remembered that those who were unfit for their office, or cruelly uncaring and unjust, would not be able to see the material. Still, it might be better to send someone else the first time and see how he fared. Everybody in town had heard about the cloth’s magic quality and most of them could hardly wait to find out how cruel and unworthy their neighbors were.
‘I shall send the head palace scribe over to see how the weavers are getting along,’ thought the emperor. ‘He will know how to judge the material, for he is fit for his office, if any man is.’
The palace scribe stepped into the room where the weavers were working and saw the empty loom. He closed his eyes, and opened them again. ‘God preserve me!’ he thought (although the scribes of this kingdom were secular). ‘I cannot see a thing!’ But he didn’t say it out loud.
‘Am I cruelly uncaring and unjust?’ he thought. ‘I can’t believe it, but if it is so, it is best that no one finds out about it. But maybe I am not fit for my office. No, that is worse, I’d better not admit that I can’t see what they are weaving.’
‘Tell us what you think of it,’ demanded one of the swindlers.
‘It is beautiful. It is very lovely,’ mumbled the old scribe, adjusting his glasses. ‘What patterns! What colors! I shall tell the emperor that it pleases me ever so much.’
The two swindlers continued to demand and receive money to stimulate the weaving of more magical cloth, and whenever the king sent his head scribe, his chief counselor, or the vice-emperor to check on their progress the same thing happened.
At last the emperor himself decided to see the garment before it was removed from the loom. Attended by the most important people in the empire, among them a the head scribe, the lead counselor, and the vice-emperor who had been there before, the emperor entered the room where the weavers were weaving furiously on their empty loom.
‘Isn’t it magnifique?’ asked the vice-emperor.
‘Your Majesty, look at the colors and the patterns,’ said the head counselor, bearer of the imperial axe-and-rod.
And the two old gentlemen pointed to the empty loom, believing that all the rest of the company could see the cloth.
‘What!’ thought the emperor. ‘I can’t see a thing! Why this is a disaster! Am I cruelly unfair and unjust? Am I unfit to be emperor? Oh, it is too horrible!’ Aloud he said, “It is very lovely. It has my approval,’ while he nodded his head and looked at the empty loom.
All the counselors, ministers, and scribes, pretending to see the same thing, advised the emperor to have clothes cut and sewn, and to wear them in the procession at the kingdom’s three great public tournaments, all to be held that autumn.
When the first great tournament arrived and the emperor walked in procession in his new clothes, all the people of the town said ‘What a magnificent robe!’ None of them were willing to admit that they hadn’t seen the thing; for if anyone did, then he was either cruelly uncaring and unjust, or unfit for the job he held. Never before had the emperor’s clothes been such a success.
“But he doesn’t have anything on!” cried a little child. ‘Listen to the innocent one,’ said the proud father, an industrious tradesman. And the people whispered among each other and repeated what the child had said.
‘He doesn’t have anything on. There’s a little child who says that he has nothing on.’
‘He has nothing on!’ shouted all the people that last.
The emperor shivered, for he was certain that they were right; but he thought, ‘I must bear it until the next two tournaments are over.’ And he walked even more proudly, and the royal scribes went on praising the garment that wasn’t there.”