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The meaning and origin of the expression: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'?

The rash or inexperienced will attempt things that wiser people are more cautious of.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'?

'Fool' is now a more derogatory insult than it was when this proverb was coined, in the early 18th century. At that time a fool wasn't a simpleton, lacking in intelligence, simply someone who had behaved foolishly.

Fools rush in'Fools rush in...' has a precise derivation, in that it is a quotation from the English poet Alexander Pope's An essay on criticism, 1709:

Such shameless Bards we have; and yet 'tis true,
There are as mad, abandon'd Criticks too.
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read,
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head,
With his own Tongue still edifies his Ears,
And always List'ning to Himself appears.
All Books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden's Fables down to Durfey's Tales.
With him, most Authors steal their Works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new Play, and he's the Poet's Friend,
Nay show'd his Faults - but when wou'd Poets mend?
No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr'd,
Nor is Paul's Church more safe than Paul's Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

The 'fools' that Pope targetted there were the literary critics of the day.

The line has been taken up by a string of notable writers since:

- Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790:

What ought to be the heads, the hearts, the dispositions that are qualified or that dare, not only to make laws under a fixed constitution, but at one heat to strike out a totally new constitution for a great kingdom, and in every part of it, from the monarch on the throne to the vestry of a parish? But — "fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

- Thomas Hardy, in The Woodlanders, 1887:

"He felt shy of entering Grace's presence as her reconstituted lover - before definite information as to her future state was forthcoming; it seemed too nearly like the act of those who rush in where angels fear to tread."

- E. M. Forster - the title of his first novel - Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905.

- James Joyce, in Ulysses, 1922:

"And later on at a propitious opportunity he purposed (Bloom did), without anyway prying into his private affairs on the 'fools step in where angels' principle, advising him to sever his connection with a certain budding practitioner."

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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