- Religion and Philosophy
Is Ignorance Bliss? Or is Bliss Ignorance?
By Joan Whetzel
The Urban Dictionary online defines the phrase ignorance is bliss as "the lack of knowledge to a situation" noting that once you find out the whole truth, you come to the realization that you weren't really happy being left in the dark. Conversely, the Urban Dictionary also defines the term as "the lack of knowledge to a situation, particularly a messy one," this time noting that once you find out the whole truth about just how awful everything really is, you realize you really were happier being left in the dark. Leading one to ask: "Is ignorance bliss, or is bliss ignorance?"
Origin of the Phrase "Ignorance is Bliss"
The phrase "ignorance is bliss" originated from the poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College written by the English poet Thomas Gray. The last stanza reads:
To each his sufferings; all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The Tender for another's pain,
The 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.
This stanza basically asks why anyone would want to know their fate since the sorrows we must face always arrive promptly on cue and our periods of true happiness never stick around. If we knew about all the things that awaited us before they ever happened, we would never be happy, so in the case of fate, ignorance is bliss. The entire poem can be read on the Thomas Gray Archive at the following link: http://www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=odec
What Is Ignorance? What Is Bliss?
Ignorance, according to most dictionaries, can be defined as a lack of knowledge or information, the state of being ignorant, the condition of being uneducated or uninformed. Bliss is defined in most dictionaries as a state of extreme happiness or ecstasy, spiritual joy, pure and heaven-like happiness, a metaphysical sweet spot between non-existence and reality, or a pleasant state of mind. The definitions of these two words don't sound like they belong together in the same sentence. There must be more to it than simply being unaware and being happy about it.
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Not Fearing the Things You Don't Know
After all, what you don't know can't hurt you, right? It's hard to be afraid of or unahppy about something if you are unaware of its existence, or don't know about the possibilities of all the things that could go wrong. On the other hand, can you truly be in a state of bliss if you don't know about all of the good things, all of the things that can go right?
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Not Knowing Everything
According to the old adage, "the more we know, the more we realize that we don't know," the very act of learning shows us just how ignorant we truly are. The question then is, can we reach a state of blissfulness in not knowing everything there is to be known? Can we be okay with the knowledge that it is impossible to know everything?
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Being Uneducated
Suppose your boss asks you to perform a task that requires knowledge or skills that you don't possess. In this case ignorance is most certainly not bliss as it could get you fired, or have that next promotion given to someone else, or at the very least, have this particular job given to someone else, someone who does have the necessary skill set. Of course, if you see the state of ignorance as an opportunity to gain the needed knowledge and skills on the fly in order to get the job done, then you could turn that ignorance into a blissful scenario. Now your ignorance of the necessary knowledge and skills may cause you to take your career in a different direction because the knowledge and skills were something you were never really interested in, you might find bliss then in a change of jobs.
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Being Uninformed
In the section above, I mentioned lacking knowledge and skills about things you were never really interested in (sports, cooking, shopping, "Susie Homemaker" skills, weight training). In this case, being uninformed may well be blissful, because you aren't forced to carry around a bunch of useless data that you will never use. You have room in your brain, and in your life, for the things that really matter to you. In this case ignorance probably is truly blissful.
Another example of being blissful by being uninformed would be a tragic situation like a shooting or a bombing. I would truly have been blissful if I had never heard of the movie theater shootings, because then I wouldn't worry about getting shot up at a movie theater. After other major tragedies, like 9/11, there was so much TV, radio, newspaper, and internet coverage I finally had to turn it off because it was way too depressing. In this case it was definitely more blissful to opt out, to choose to be uninformed about every gory detail.
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Being Unaware of a Topic
In one aspect, this plays into being uniformed about the things that don't interest you, which is a blissful state of ignorance because you aren't cluttering your brain with stuff that doesn't really matter in the long run. On the other hand, ignorance of a topic could be due to the fact that you were never aware that it existed or that you simply haven't explored the topic yet. In which case, it may or may not be blissful depending on whether it turns out that the knowledge would have been useful in certain circumstances. If it's not important, but merely interesting to you, then it can still be a blissful experience to learn what you don't know, particularly if it may become useful at sometime in the future.
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Not Seeing the Problem - Until the Consequences Show Up
Otherwise stated, this type of ignorance could be reinterpreted as "what you don't know will hurt you." As in the above scenario where the boss asks you to do a job that you are unprepared for due to a lack of knowledge or skills. Other areas where ignorance may be bliss until the consequences show up include: not paying attention to hurricane or tornado forecasts, driving drunk, letting friends talk you into something that lands you in jail, running up the credit cards. Just to name a few.
Ignorance Is Bliss Means Having a Pollyanna Attitude
Having a Pollyanna Attitude means always looking at the bright side. Which, in itself, isn't always a bad thing. Looking too long at the dark side of life, always looking out for the things that could go wrong is almost like inviting them to come into your life. On the other hand, if one remains stuck in the Pollyanna frame of mind, never looking for what might go wrong, then one is always shocked to find the wolf banging away at the front door.
This one requires a bit of balance to maintain that state of bliss. On the one hand, hanging on to the bright side around keeps the dark side from taking over. On the other, having a healthy appreciation for the negative things in life, and knowing what could happen, makes the wolf at the door far less of a threat. It's about maintaining a healthy balance between learning what you need to know and choosing to be ignorant about some things.
The Free Dictionary.
Reference.com. Origin of Ignorance Is Bliss.
Thomas Gray Archive. Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
Ronalfy. Is Ignorance Really Bliss?