In Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fable, the Emperor is naked yet unashamed. Not good. But this happens when the prophetic voice is dismissed.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at leisure. Josef Pieper said leisure is the basis of culture. It’s contemplation, what prophets and priests and writers and artists are called to. Prophets especially see the gap between life as it ought to be and is. That’s foundational for making flourishing cultures. But their message is often difficult to hear.
No one likes to have assumptions challenged, so few challenge others’ assumptions. Prophets do. David Brooks says prophets say necessary things that no one else is saying. They often use satire, exposing our weakness and vanity. They help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
Henry Ward Beecher concurred: “Humor makes all things tolerable.” Being able to laugh at ourselves helps us see blind spots. In this case, the most effective form of humor is satire. Satire pokes fun at human folly. It’s not a poke in the eye. That’s sarcasm (the Greek word literally means “tearing of the flesh”).
Hans Christian Anderson’s works include satire. He penned many fables, including “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Thumbelina.” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a satirical story about an Emperor with blind spots. He commissions two weavers to sew a new suit of clothes. They stitch together a wardrobe that is invisible to those with blind spots, including the Emperor’s ministers. They cannot see the clothes but fear for their jobs. So they pretend to see.
When the suit is finished, the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, pretending to see the new outfit. Then a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
The child was a prophet.
The story ends with the crowd echoing the child’s cry. The Emperor suspects the child might be right, but the show must go on. The procession continues. He remains naked.
And therein lies the problem.
The Emperor suspects the child is right. But he isn’t self-suspicious enough to take the child’s charge seriously.
Successful leaders are prone to self-deception. Self-suspicion is taking seriously the friendly reproofs (or faithful wounds) of friends who might see blind spots. William Wilberforce wrote about this in a letter to his daughter Elizabeth in 1816. She was 15 years old. He urges her “maintain a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.” He quotes the prophet Jeremiah, that “our hearts are deceitful above all things.” He closes by cautioning that, “unless we have accustomed ourselves to self-suspicion, we never benefit as we might from the friendly reproofs of a real friend.”
Naked but unashamed leaders don’t benefit from friendly reproofs of friends. They put too much emphasis on “chapter one” of the gospel—creation—where Adam and Eve were naked yet felt no shame (Gen.2:25). They forget that Adam and Eve fell. In a fallen world, being naked but unashamed is not necessarily a virtue.
When the Corinthian church failed to follow through on the financial support they had promised Paul, the Apostle turned prophet. He broached the subject with a little satire—“bear with me in a little foolishness” (II Cor.11:1). There is no evidence that it worked, but Paul was saying necessary things that no one else was saying.
In King Arthur’s Round Table, Dagonet, the court jester, said necessary things that no one else was saying. He was a prophet. If you know the tale, you’ll remember that the knights around the table eventually dismissed Dagonet’s critiques. Merlin and Dagonet left the table, never to return. Arthur’s kingdom began to decline.
Thomas Aquinas wrote that the flourishing of human society requires “that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.” Those called to the active life look to contemplatives to help hold in tension creation and the fall. They are receptive to the prophetic voice. Otherwise, we’re blind to our blind spots—and that’s not good.
And with this, we close our meditation on leisure. At least for the time being…
 “Private Papers of William Wilberforce,” published by Burt Franklin, (New York), pp. 165-68.