I'm looking for a proverb that discourages knowledge or the pursuit of it.

I have only found "Ignorance is bliss", is there any other?

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    In Hans Christian Andersen's "Emperors New Clothes," the child is the hero for not knowing he was supposed to see the nonexistent fancy robes. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 20:02
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    "Out of sight, out of mind"?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 20:35
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    @YosefBaskin If you don't have the time or energy or inclination to develop your comment into an answer -- that is OK. Someone else can take your comment and develop it if they choose. Some very senior members do as you have done. I'm not a very senior member, but I am also going to leave an embryonic answer, because yard work beckons. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Anyone can gestate this, with my blessing.
    – ab2
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 20:52
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    "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to do xxx" or "It doesnt' take a rocket scientist ..." They don't discourage learning.. just say you don't need a high level of knowledge or competence to do the thing referred to.
    – Tom22
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 22:19
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    "Don´t ask. Don´t tell." Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 22:56

20 Answers 20


Not knowledge per se, but the classic warning against the pursuit of knowledge is curiosity killed the cat:


    “Curiosity killed the cat” is a proverb used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. …

The Phrase Finder:

    Inquisitiveness can lead one into dangerous situations.

The Free Dictionary:

    Prov. Being curious can get you into trouble.  (Often used to warn someone against prying into other’s affairs.)
    • Jill: Where did you get all that money?
      Jane: Curiosity killed the cat.

the Cambridge English Dictionary:

    said to warn someone not to ask too many questions about something

I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.


    I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you has become a way to let someone know they’re asking you something you don’t want to answer (and a rather colorful way of telling them to mind their own business!).

    This line comes from "The Hounds of Baskervilles" featuring Sherlock Holmes.  Here is the exchange:

    Sherlock: I never did ask, Dr. Franklyn.  What is it exactly that you do here?
    Doctor: Oh, Mr. Holmes, I would love to tell you, but then, of course, I’d have to kill you.
    Sherlock: That would be tremendously ambitious of you.


    The line has since appeared in many movies, including Top Gun with Tom Cruise.  Here’s a handy YouTube video compiling many snippets with this line and variations on it.

The Free Dictionary:

    a phrase said in answer to a question that one does not want to answer.  Don’t ask.

TV Tropes:

    Often heard in settings related to espionage and high security levels, the phrase “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” is itself probably a Dead Horse Trope by this point – whether for a serious straight use or not.

As the quotes above indicate, this has become something of a joke.

While not exactly an idiom or proverb, the phrase knew too much is evocative of the films The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a man is murdered for learning of a criminal conspiracy.  References: [IMDb 1934], [IMDb 1956][Wikipedia 1934], [Wikipedia 1956].

There’s a well-known proverb, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” often misquoted as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  For years I (mis)understood this to mean that knowledge is dangerous — so dangerous, so potent, that it is dangerous even in small quantities.  But when one sees the complete sentence, which appears in Part 2 of An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

it becomes clear that the message is that partial or incomplete knowledge is dangerous, while thorough or complete knowledge is a good thing.

The Phrase Finder:

    A small amount of knowledge can mislead people into thinking that they are more expert than they really are.


    Knowing a little about something tempts one to overestimate one’s abilities.

and from this we get the phrase (again, not exactly an idiom or proverb) knowing just enough to be dangerous.

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    +1, wish it could be more. Superb!
    – ab2
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 22:49
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    "I could tell you but I'd have to kill you" always had the feeling of a military/top secret thing to me, not an "I don't want to tell you". More of a "You don't want/cant' handle the responsibility of this knowledge".
    – Bill K
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 17:00
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    Not to be a downer... 'curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought her back'.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 1:18
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    Just because I think it's funny: someone recently subverted the "knowing just enough to be dangerous" concept to imply a good thing, and started a whole website (learnenough.com) with technical tutorials like "learn enough command line to be dangerous." :D
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 1:23
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    Point of interest: the phrase 'curiousity killed the cat' does indeed seem to warn against the pursuit of unnecessary knowledge, however the full phrase, IIRC, reads 'curiousity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back'. This doesn't invalidate it as an answer as its used to indicate the opposite today, but I find it interesting how the idiom has seemingly reversed in meaning over time.
    – CGriffin
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 18:21

"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" Ecclesiastes 1:18


What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve

…is another example, beloved of my dear late mother, and is almost identical in meaning to “ignorance is bliss”.

The linked source adds “over”, which is a variant. I dislike the latter as I feel it spoils the rhythm and near-rhyme of the final words; but that may just be familiarity with the former version.

  • (1) Well, clearly you could change it to “What the eye does not perceive, the heart does not grieve”, but I could find no evidence that that version has ever been used.  (2) This answer reminds me of the foolhardy adage, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 22:30
  • I've edited this slightly. The version with "over" may just be a variant. I can't get Google ngram to check for usage, though.
    – David
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 9:48

This one is more for personal knowledge (like your partner is cheating on you) than for book knowledge, but it definitely discourages knowledge:

What you don't know can't hurt you



One saying that has some application to the idea of avoiding the acquisition or dissemination of knowledge is:

"He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace"

According to various sources this is a translation of a traditional Sicilian proverb,

Cu è surdu, orbu e taci, campa cent'anni 'mpaci

I cannot vouch for whether the original source is correct but the English translation does have some small traction.

EDIT: There is a striking parallel with the English saying, "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil", which, as pointed out in a comment below, is associated with the "three wise monkeys" commonly depicted in statuettes and comprising a cultural phenomenon that has spread from Japan since the 17th century. It is not clear to me what direct connection, if any, exists between the Sicilian phrase and the proverb associated with the three monkeys.


I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.

William F. Buckley, Jr., according to this source.


You'd have to have a Ph D from Harvard to believe something that foolish.

No attribution that I could find


And further, my son, be admonished. Of the writing of books there is no end, and too much study is wearisome to the soul. - Ecclesiastes 12:12 (NKJV)

It's perhaps not discouraging knowledge, as such. It is, however, discouraging the pursuit of knowledge to the exclusion of all else.


"Jack of all trades is master of none"

This quote discourages people from seeking knowledge/practice of too many things, as they may be the master of none of them. I always disliked this saying, as I like to think I know a little about a lot of different areas.

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    I have to agree, on technicality. The implication is not merely "don't try to learn too many things", but also "focus on learning a lot about fewer things instead", so it's not perfect because it actually encourages a certain kind of learning. But technically it does discourage another kind.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 2:46
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    I disagree. Jack of all trades and master of none just refers to a non-specialist. There's no discouragement (or encouragement) to being such.
    – mcalex
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 4:39
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    I disagree. The quote only expresses the limitations of what one can possibly learn; as opposed to arguing that knowledge should be avoided or discouraged. The saying is closer to "you can't know everything (about everything)", rather than "you shouldn't know everything (about everything)". Or, analogously, it is saying that you can't have your cake and eat it; as opposed to saying that cake should be avoided.
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 12:03
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    "Jack of all trades, master of none" is a pejorative, mostly because of the "master of none" part. When there is a positive spin on it, the second half is omitted: "I can do all kinds of jobs; I'm kind of a jack of all trades".
    – Kaz
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 21:44

The Story of Adam and Eve

Nobody has yet mentioned the story of Adam and Eve. Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge and dooms humanity to original sin.

Genesis 2:17

"[...] but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Genesis 3:7

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

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    Actually it was mentioned in the comments (but not as answer, and providing an answer based on a comment is fine). But could you work this into the requested "idiom or proverb"?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:47
  • @AndrewLeach Sorry, I hadn't read all the comments. Also, I had parable in my head instead of proverb.
    – cOborski
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:53
  • Well, no problem with repeating a comment if it should have been an answer in the first place. But it can definitely help to get the question right!
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:55

"Knowledge is Power"

At first, it might not seem like a proverb or idiom that discourages knowledge but think about it from the perspective of a large corporation or a large (and possibly) government. Suppressing knowledge diminishes the power the citizens (employees) have thereby augmenting their own power.

So to those governments or corporations or entities, it warns (and reminds) them of the dangers of encouraging knowledge.


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    Congratularions for making the connection "knowledge is power = control of knowledge is concentration of power" which I was thinking about along general lines but you expressed just right in your answer; I appreciate and upvote! Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 9:57
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    ARPANET helped to bring down the Soviet Union as much as anything else. In the Soviet Union, information was compartmentalized; even "Scientific American" was classified and its circulation restricted. Easy access to information speed the development of new defense (and nondefense) systems and vastly reduced their cost. All in the way of saying that there is a downside to augmenting one's power by keeping others ignorant. Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 18:35

A 19th-century proverb from the Indian subcontinent:

Educating your girl is like watering another man's field.

(Several variations can be found online)

Meaning and context

This came to be when the male-dominated society was heavily biased against women empowerment. The point of this statement is that the education of girls is as unbeneficial and optional as watering another man's fields. Your girls aren't actually yours; they all have to go to another man's (father-in-law's and husband's) house at the end. If you educate your girl, all you're doing is enlightening someone, who is to be another man's property.

Among the Muslims, it was even more popular. Earlier, Muslims practiced the Purdah and no Muslim girl was allowed see or talk to any man (or woman for that matter), except her own mother and father (and after they're married off, their in-laws and husband). They were taught only to read Arbi and Farsi. They were not literate even in their own tongue. Hindu women, on the other hand, were educated to some extent, if not as much as their male counterparts.


that it's not general and applies to only women. And it's more of a prejudice than a proverb. In addition, only people who understand the Indian culture will understand this. (By India, I mean the whole Indian subcontinent.) Don't think that such beliefs still persist. Indian people have a much more improved mindset now, and most women are educated and seek empowerment.

  • I would not recommend using this proverb in any predominately English speaking country. It might be commonly heard in the Indian subcontinent, (I don't know) but unfortunately, India is not notorious for respecting women's rights.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 6:03
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    @Mari-LouA Which is exactly why I included that note. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 8:31
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    And who says every answer has to be useful? The information is related, what's bad in knowing something new but different from my purpose? Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 8:57
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    @EnglishStudent Exactly. That's my point. Answer has been edited. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 4:12
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    @Soha Farhin In fact traditionalist and especially patriarchal societies generally discourage even men from seeking much knowledge, because knowledge encourages a person to question the established principles of society and threatens the stability and legitimacy of the 'ruling social order' -- you might like to add just one more sentence in your 'note' that much progress has been made in the last 30 years and all women in the Subcontinent are nowadays working very hard towards their own empowerment! Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 9:00

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, in 1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issued a famous joint statement which is often summarised by an extract:

[Those] who know most are the most gloomy.

It's known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

Also related is this quote from Cicero:

There is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by some philosopher.

The idea seems to be that "higher" learning sometimes enables one to believe things which normal minds cannot ... And this is at least not always a good thing.

  • Just noting for the sake of notifications, that I've edited my answer to include a quote from Cicero. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 6:40

"I know that I know nothing"

From Socrates? . The more you know, the more aware you are about your own ignorance. That's a paradox that suggest that acquiring more knowledge is self defeating. But, ignorance is a bliss, is not? Who knows.

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    I don't think I've ever seen that quote used like this before - it's not a paradox; when ignorant, you're unaware of how little you know. As you learn more, you become more aware of the fact that there's much you (still) don't know
    – Daenyth
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 17:30
  • @Daenyth Actually, the quote itself represents a self-referential paradox. If more knowledge only produces even more ignorance (more unanswered questions ), then that's consistent with the definition of paradox. Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 3:15
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    @Alex It doesn't produce more ignorance. In fact, you're less ignorant, because (a) you have more knowledge and (b) you are more aware of the limits of your knowledge (as you stated in your answer). Is your point that being aware of those limits can be a negative (e.g. it may be depressing)? In other words: ignorance is bliss?
    – tjalling
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 10:15
  • @tjalling Having more knowledge doesn't mean that you are less ignorant. You might be aware of the limits of your knowledge, but you don't know the limits of your ignorance, which seems to be infinite. How then can you say that you are less ignorant when you learn more new unanswered questions for each previously answered question?. This is not about depression, this is just a proposed paradox. But if you prefer to think that you are just less ignorant , that this paradox is not real and is just pure nonsense, then don't worry, be happy. I won't even pretend to argue any further Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 15:42
  • I disagree. But I think the differences between our lines of reasoning are purely academical anyway, so indeed, let's stop arguing. (And I hope the "you" in the latter part of you comment isn't directed at me personally ;-))
    – tjalling
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 9:49

From William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part2, Act IV, Scene 2: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" said by Dick the Butcher, who was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade. Cade thought that if he got rid of the people who understood the laws and disrupted order, he could become king. Rather than being an insult or lawyer joke, Shakespeare intended this as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society. Clearly, the flip side is that if you have too much knowledge (admittedly of a specific type in this instance), you can be a target.

Consider also Mao Zedong's killing of teachers during the Cultural Revolution: "The early enforcers were the Red Guards, a proxy army of children and young adults that violently struck out at anyone not toeing the Maoist line. Intellectuals, educators as well as artifacts were all targeted. A favorite method was to whip their elders with the heavy metal buckles on their leather belts." (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/04/world/asia/china-maoist-scars/index.html)

Akin to Shakespeare on this point, one Maoist slogan is "The three supremes (三个至上) 2007" "It might sound like a Motown group, but in Hu Jintao's mind it was a way of controlling an increasingly reform-minded judiciary. 'In their work, the grand judges and grand procurators shall always regard as supreme the party's cause, the people's interest, and the constitution and law,' he said. Mr Hu effectively shut down the discussion of legal reforms by appointing as Supreme Court president Wang Shengjun, an apparatchik with no legal training. Mr Wang set about making sure the courts obeyed the three supremes doctrine. Since then, the interests of the party have reigned supreme over the other two supremes. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-24923993)


A few idiomatic near misses - 'too clever by half' and 'too smart for their own good' - usually meaning you're acting as if you have more knowledge than you really do, or applying too much complexity to a problem, but also can be used to mean someone who really does have more knowledge than they need.

The thinking classes: too clever by half

A study attacks today's intellectuals for being too willing to dumb down. Rubbish, it's just a new style of democracy https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/sep/12/society


Too clever by half

A third of graduates believe they are overqualified for the job they are in, according to research from Kent University.


Also 'knows too much', though that's more often operational knowledge rather than learning.

  • I've marked this down because 'too clever by half' and 'too smart for their own good' are not generally understood as advocating having less knowledge, rather less ill founded confidence. As such, this doesn't offer and answer to the question.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:12

I would not use but I have heard the expression "to be (as) happy as a pig in (four letter word meaning excrement). That is pretty close to "ignorance is bliss".


A little learning is a dang’rous thing, perhaps, from Alexander Pope's (1688-1744) 'An Essay on Criticism', although this is primarily a warning about 'dabbling': Either dive in and read deeply, or don't bother at all!


"Steal a man's wallet and he'll be poor for a day. Teach him to play the guitar and he'll be poor for a lifetime."


Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. ― Lao Tzu
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 5:3
Please don't confuse with simple - minded

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    These don't speak about discouraging knowledge. The Lao Tzu quote speaks about whether one has knowledge, and the Matthew 5:3 quote speaks about humility.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 23:11
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    What does the second line have to do with the question? What does the third line have to do with anything? — it isn't even a complete thought. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 1:01

The legal term "willful blindness" might fit your purpose.

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    Welcome to SE EL&U. If you had taken the introductory tour and read the help you would have seen that here we're looking for answers of sufficient length that provide some explanation and context. Please explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed. In this case we need a link to a definition of this legal term. This is easy to obtain, so please edit your post accordingly.
    – David
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 22:34

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