by Steve Andreas
“Ignorance is bliss” is a statement that is often heard.This statement seems to mean that lack of knowledge is a good thing, and impliess that knowledge brings suffering. It is a nice example of a quotation being used out of context, and then widely misunderstood.
The original quotation is from a poem* by Thomas Gray, and reads, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Now it is not a statement of fact, it is a statement of a context, and clearly implies that there are also contexts in which ignorance is not bliss. In this larger context, or frame, it seems to mean something like, “IF (where) someone is happy in their ignorance, don’t mess with it.”
However, in a larger context of the previous two stanzas, it is found to mean something quite different:
“To each his suff’rings, all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
“Tis folly to be wise.
*”Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College” (1742)
In this yet larger frame, the meaning seems to be something like, “Enjoy the present and don’t let ‘wise’ thoughts of future suffering spoil it.”
However, if you read the whole poem, it starts out by the writer watching young children play, and reminiscing about his own childhood and youth.
“Alas regardless of their doom,
the little victims play.
No sense have they of ills to come.
Nor care beyond today:”
Then he lists all the destructive passions, disappointments, pains and sufferings of adulthood. In short, the poem is about a depressed man wishing that he could return to the innocence and happiness of his childhood. In this even larger context the statement is about wanting relief from a depression that he has no other solution for.
He could just as well have ignored the suffering, and written ONLY about the joys and pleasures of life instead of vice versa, as plenty of romantic poets have done. (The word “only” is always a sign that someone is deliberately dismissing a huge chunk of experience, and saying that it doesn’t “count.”) This is small example of expanding the frame and examining the meaning of a statement in a larger frame.
Most of the problems that people have result from some kind of “tunnel vision” that focuses narrowly on one small part of experience and ignores the larger frame, so re-establishing the larger context will usually change the meaning in a useful way.
Another quotation that is almost always used out of context is Shakespeare’s:
“to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day.
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
“Hamlet” (Act I, scene 3.)
It sounds like great advice, until you realize that the speaker is Polonius the fool, who not only doesn’t know himself, but is is not true to himself, and is false to everyone! In this larger context, it is actually a statement about hypocrisy!
Meanings are at the core of human probleming; learning how to change them go far beyond rapport and anchoring. Enlarging the frame is one particularly useful way to accomplish this.
*Originally published in Anchor Point, June 2000, Vol.14, No. 6