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Here's the last stanza of Thomas Gray's 1742 poem, 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College':

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.

What did Gray mean by the lines in bold? To what religious or philosophical idea is he alluding? Or is the thought (as well as the expression) original to Gray?

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  • Gray was referencing Ecclesiastes and playfully inverting the conclusion of an important verse.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Ecclesiastes 1:18

Grey's poem is quite famous, as is the phrase "ignorance is bliss" and much has been written on it, but the the core meaning is quite simple.

The more knowledge one has, the greater one's grief, because this knowledge includes the inevitability of death, and that all we are and do and achieve eventually turns to dust.

Shelley referenced this in his Ozymandias, although TS Eliot's allusion in The Waste Land may be the most compact: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." The reference to dust goes back to the beginning, Genesis 3:19, and provides a basis for Ecclesiastes: "For dust you are and to dust you will return."

Remember that Ecclesiastes begins with "Vanity, vanity, vanity--all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2) and goes on to explicate this in exhaustive detail.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:11


Gray's Inversion

What makes Gray's turn of phrase so clever is the reversal of King David's conclusion:

Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done? I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.
Ecclesiastes 2:12 ff.

Of course, it gets more complicated because King David goes on:

The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.
Ecclesiastes 2:14

Gray is saying it is better to "walk in darkness", and be happy, even if that happiness is temporary, than to go through life with full knowledge of mortality and the ultimate vanity of all endeavors.

Where David concludes that even wisdom is ultimately meaningless, Gray calls it folly, and concludes that ignorance is the optimal strategy.

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The last line "'Tis folly to be wise" is a contradiction. "No more" is used as "This should stop".

The sentence becomes clear if it is extended like this:

No more; where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise. But rather: where ignorance is cowardice, it's brave to be wise.

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Gray alludes in these lines to the biblical story of the fall of man in Genesis 2–3, presenting an extended comparison between the innocent play of the boys at Eton, and the sinless existence of Adam and Eve in Eden.

Adam and Eve lived in “paradise” (the garden of Eden), in “bliss” (without toil or “sorrow”), in “ignorance” of sin, until they ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and became “wise”. But this was “folly” because God expelled them from paradise and condemned them to “labouring”, “suff’rings” and “death”: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (3:17).

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It's better not to know whats coming than to know and worry about it.

Example: If you were in Custer's Battle of the Little Big Horn Would you rather go into the fight thinking it was "just a few warriors" or know you were outnumbered 100 to 1 and still had to go. You have no chance to change the outcome so why spend anytime worrying about it.

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  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. You cite a rather specific example that does not seem very relevant to the poem's theme. I also miss an answer to the question "To what religious or philosophical idea is he alluding?" – Tsundoku Jan 23 at 23:35

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