The proverb proposes “ignorance is bliss.” I have often wondered the origin of the phrase with some strange hope to travel back in time, prevent its adoption into popular usage – like a literary terminator sent into the past to kill what would destroy us, forever protecting our lexicon.
Is ignorance really bliss? What does that even mean?
Alas, I am not a T-800, nor do I possess Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. What I do have is access to the internet and my google-fu is strong. I don’t have to ignorantly wonder about useless trivia for all eternity. If I want to know where something originated, I only need to spend a few of minutes with a search engine and diligent study.
While the powers to defy boundaries of time and space belong only to The Doctor and his companions: I can peruse the texts of history and Thomas Gray is safe from my intellectual wrath.
Who is Thomas Gray? Gray was an eighteenth century poet, a scholar and a professor at Cambridge University. By all accounts, he was an intelligent and eloquent man. He spent most of his free time reading or playing a harpsichord. He had an interest in botany, physical sciences, and locations of antiquity. His most famous poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ contained lines that immediately found their way into common use in the English language – phrases like “celestial fire” and “kindred spirit.”
Thomas Gray is also to blame for first penning the words “ignorance is bliss.” It is found in the final stanza of his poem, ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.’
Over the past 270 years, the original meaning of Gray’s words has been replaced. Gone is the loving nostalgia of faded youth. Gone is the fond remembrance of being in school and getting an education. Instead, the final eight words of a beautiful poem are immortalized and taken as gospel: happiness is found in ignorance and wisdom is foolish. Modern America has embraced these words to become a higher calling – that idiocy is something to which we should aspire. Ignorance is bliss. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Where did we go wrong? How did we come to interpret this work of prose into a twisted American ideal? It couldn’t have been at the birth of our nation. A little more than forty years after Gray’s Ode was published, Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography which contained his list of thirteen virtues for moral perfection: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. While recognizing it was impossible to be perfect, attempting to reach perfection made Ben better and happier.
Please note, Franklin did not list ignorance as a virtue. Yet a large portion of American culture lives as if it was, gleefully bragging about their disdain for any semblance of intellect. This is the culture that turned Honey Boo Boo into a star, clings to debunked conspiracy theories, and denigrates those with Ivy League degrees as elitists. We use ignorance as an excuse; we cannot be held accountable for things of which we were not aware, dodging personal responsibility in an effort to maintain our pursuit of happiness. We never have to be wrong nor do we ever need to be challenged. This trend is alarming, but nowhere does it concern me more than within the church.
It needs to stop. We can no longer demonize scientific inquiry as some great evil. We can no longer shun those with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. We can no longer discourage education.
If we as Christians believe in a God who literally created everything, then we must also believe the same God created the seismic shifts and eons of erosion that formed our continents and gave shape to our mountains and coastlines. If we believe in a God who was the creative spark at the origin of our species, we must also believe the same God gave us brains and intends for us to use them. If we believe in a God who wove the tapestries in this world of scenic vistas teaming with wildlife, we must also believe the same God wants us to care for and preserve that natural world. If we believe in a God who decorated the heavens with countless stars and distant galaxies, we must believe the same God wants us to explore those extraterrestrial depths and understand our universe.
That is the kind of God that King Solomon worshiped. He did not see ignorance as a virtue. Rather he valued wisdom. In the biblical book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote, “Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. Treasure wisdom, and it will make you great; hold on to it, and it will bring you honor. It will be like flowers in your hair and like a beautiful crown on your head.”
The Apostle James encourages his readers to ask God for wisdom if we lack it because God will give it to us generously and without reproach.
It is wisdom, not ignorance that will take care of us. It is wisdom, not ignorance that makes us great. We should be asking for wisdom, not ignorance. Because God gives wisdom, not ignorance.
Knowledge and wisdom are both spiritual gifts. We need to stop treating them as taboo topics or nefarious qualities. If we are to abide by the words of the first chapter of Isaiah, wisdom is essential.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
Justice requires wisdom. Caring for the orphan and widow takes wisdom. God is clearly asking his people to think. He wants us to reason together. Rational, critical thinking.
Does that mean we should ignore Thomas Gray’s poem? Of course not, but we should put it into context. He was looking at a younger generation as a reflection his own days of youth. He wondered if knowledge of the future would ruin their joy. If you knew what would happen to you over the next twenty years, would it inspire you or discourage you? Gray figured it would be better for kids to be unaware of the pains and trials of their future as it would diminish their joy.
To be ignorant of the past is dangerous. To be ignorant of current events is irrational. But to be ignorant of the future? Well, that is bliss.