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The Emperor's New Clothes

By Naomi Lewis and Angela Barrett


This story is a translation of a classic tale by Hans Christian Andersen. An Emperor of a city is fond of new clothes. Two imposter weavers enter his city and tell him that they can create a suit for him that would be invisible to people who are unfit to hold their office, or excessively simple. The Emperor orders this suit to be made for him. The weavers pretend to weave this suit but in truth weave nothing at all, and present this fake "invisible" suit to everyone in the city as if it really exists. The Emperor along with all the people who look upon the suit are troubled by what they cannot see, and whether they are inadequate or not. This causes everyone in the city, including the Emperor, to lie and say they can see the suit although in reality they cannot. The Emperor leads a parade through the city in his new suit even though he is actually naked. A child breaks everyone's delusion by shouting out "the Emperor is not wearing anything at all!"

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Mark Mudryk

This story is a classic tale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote many famous children's fairy tales in the 1800's that are still prominent today, such as The Little Mermaid, Thumbilina, and the Ugly Duckling. Like most stories of such age, this tale has multiple versions and translations, among various authors and story collections. Feel free to use any version that is available to you if you cannot acquire the one used in this module. All versions and translations typically follow the same basic plot, have the same basic elements, and present the same issues.

This story has great potential in being a prompt for philosophical discussion. When each character within the story is confronted with the invisible suit they are also confronted with a complex moral dilemma. The dilemma of whether to tell the truth (not being able to see the suit) and accept their own supposed inadequacy, or lying and saving themselves from social ridicule. This dilemma combines multiple philosophically interesting issues.


Self-deception is a process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical argument. This is seen blatantly within the story. The "rationalizing away" is seen when the characters convince themselves that they can see the suit. The "opposing evidence" is the fact that they themselves cannot see the suit. This process of self-deception is used by virtually every character in the story in order to shelter themselves from the inconvenience of the truth. Again,the truth being that they cannot see the suit themselves. Reasons for their employment of self-deception are discussed further in the sections dealing with conformity and honesty. The "logical argument" that the characters are purposefully avoiding is presented at the end of the story by the young boy of innocence. The boy can be seen as breaking the others out of their self-deception, with his proclamation that "the Emperor isn't wearing anything at all!"

This term and concept may be too difficult for kids to undertake, but the background knowledge of this process can aide in your understanding of how the characters in the story handle the dilemma of viewing the fake suit. Discussing with the children about "convincing yourself" of something may be a more appropriate analog for them to understand.


Each character's choice of whether to tell of their inability to see the suit or not, is a good prompt to the discussion of honesty. Every character in the story, except for the young boy, chose to lie rather than tell the truth about not being able to see the suit. The reasons they chose to be dishonest is a good topic for discussion. Kids can analyze the psychology behind the characters lying. A prominent reason, is the social fear and anxiety that the suit dilemma presents, that is, if one cannot see the suit, one is inadequate of their position in society. Reasons rooted in social status, conformity, judgement, trust and individual morality can all bloom from discussion of this. After this discussion about the possible reasons for being dishonest, kids can be led into the deeper philosophical questions behind these reasons. Kids can be asked about why honesty is important, or whether or not you have to be honest in order to be good. Asking when they themselves have lied can relate their personal experiences to the situation of the individuals in the story, and help them emphasize with how the characters in the story felt.

Another philosophical aspect of honesty that can be examined is what makes a lie. A lie is naturally the opponent to honesty. Examining it aides in understanding the concepts of honesty and trust.

A lie is to state something with disregard to the truth with the intention that people will accept the statement as truth. Discussion of both lying and honesty can lead to a discussion of morality. The trickster weavers made the initial lie at the beginning of the story, the lie of telling everyone they were making a magical suit when in fact they were not weaving anything at all, and then the supplementary lies in which the suits power of judgement is described. The other characters in the story believed this lie as the truth, causing them to lie themselves to support the weavers lie, and save their own reputations. Were the characters who were tricked just as morally and ethically wrong in lying, as the weavers? Were they bad guys too? This is an interesting discussion. It can be said that the weavers lied maliciously to seek personal gain, and that the characters being tricked lied out of fear and sought personal security. The question of when it is appropriate to lie can arise from discussion of this. Is it alright to lie in order to benefit yourself? What about in order to benefit the group/society? The theoretical contexts imaginable are endless. This can make for great controversial discussion between kids. The discussion will reflect greatly on the kids opinions of morality/ right and wrong.

Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to what individuals perceive is normal to their society or social group. This story does a good job to demonstrate the power of social pressures in influencing conformity. When each character confronts their inability to see the suit they begin to fear for their reputation. Every character, including the Emperor, change their perception to match that of the dominant group in order to be cohesive and harmonious with that group. The dominant group is everyone who holds the false perception of being able to see the suit. Simply put, the characters changed their perspective to match that of the groups; that is what conformity is. These dynamics of conformity can be seen in the real world. The Soloman Asch Experiments, provide great insights behind the nature of conformity and I encourage you to give them a look. One experiment can be seen here. In general there are two types of social influence which can cause people to conform. Both are seen in affect within the story. The individual dilemma that the suit creates in each character is allegorical to both these influences:

Informative influence: Informational social influence occurs when one turns to the members of one's group to obtain accurate information. Some characters in the story conformed simply because they believe in the groups ability to determine what is true, over their own perspective. Characters such as the Emperor's ministers felt this influence because they supposed "if all my colleagues see the suit surely it must exist!"

Normative influence: Normative social influence occurs when one conforms in order to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. It usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it. Practically every character in the story felt this pressure. They did not want to cause trouble within the group, so they chose to accept the public perception of the suit even if they believed differently, so they would not be an outsider. This influence was propelled further in the story by the added condition that not being able to see the suit made you inadequate in the eyes of your peers.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Personal Experience

  1. Have you ever convinced yourself that something was real/true(can use either) even if you knew it wasn't?
  2. Have you ever done something just because everyone else was doing it?
  3. Have you ever believed something because other people you knew believed the same thing? [giving your own personal example may help clarify]
  4. Have you ever lied for a good reason?
  5. Do you always feel bad when you lie?

The Story

  1. Why did the characters in the story lie and say they could see the suit even if they could not?
  2. Why is reputation so important to the characters in the story? [May have to explain the term reputation]
  3. At the end of the story the young boy tells the crowd the truth. Why did the young boy speak the truth and no one else? [absence of social pressures perhaps]
  4. Except the young boy, all the characters in the story lied . Does this make them all bad guys? Why or why not?
  5. Do you have to believe something because everyone else believes it? Why or why not?
  6. Is honesty important?
  7. Can lying be good?
  8. How do you decide who you trust?
  9. What if the suit hadn't been fake? How could one tell if it is real or not?

This book module deals with metaphysics. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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