The age of knowledge
Knowledge is power, it is often said. And when the man of knowledge comes we rise in salutation, paying him generous homage. His intellect, generally regarded as the seat of that knowledge, is praised. We look at him in awe; we look at him in admiration. The man of knowledge is celebrated from land to land, from one end of the world to the other.
The man of knowledge is he who has read far and wide. He has read The Life of Rousseau. He has studied Alchemy. He has read about Apollonius Hipparchus. He is familiar with Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. He has read T. S. Eliot, Soyinka, William Wordsworth, J.P. Clark, Achebe. He is familiar with John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty and the latter work, The Affluent Society. The man of knowledge is one who has read Flora Nwapa. He speaks about Vincent Ike with uncommon familiarity. About Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard. And about Osofisan’s works. He is one who has grappled with Sofowote’s English As She Is Spoke which Alfred Opubor describes as, in his words, “a confident road map, produced by a teacher who has earned his stripes in the heart of the Nigerian battlefield for language excellence.”
The man of knowledge is one who has read, digested and made the content of William Shakespeare’s works his own. He is familiar with the thought of Heracleides of Heraclea Pontica that the earth turns on its axis and that Mercury and Venus revolves round the sun. He is familiar with Archimedes of Syracuse of “Give me where to stand and I will move the earth” fame. He has read about Herophilus and his discovery of the nerves and differentiation of the cerebrum and cerebellum. He has read about Pythagoras and Plato as the fathers of geometry who, it was reported, brought its development to such a stage that the inscription over Plato’s Academy could not but read: “Let none enter who knows not geometry.”
He is regarded as a man of knowledge who speaks as if he was an eye-witness to the French Revolution. He is familiar with the thoughts of Karl Marx and the Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung. He is familiar with the work of Mozart. He is conversant with the work of Handel. He is one who asked if he has read Winston Churchill’s Second World War Alone, he speaks in the affirmative. Has he read Okigbo, the poet? A man of knowledge is one who has read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. He is one who has acquainted himself with the critiques of Adelugba. He is said to be one, in the words of one-time action Governor of Lagos State Lateef Jakande, who knows something about everything and everything about something.
In the ages past, the universally accepted knowledge was that stored in stones, skins, trees, scrolls or walls such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Today, the universally accepted knowledge is that documented in books, and books are kept in libraries. Thus, the man of knowledge today is one who is expected to have waded through libraries. No, I take that again. Today, the universally accepted knowledge is that also documented in the e-books and in the magic, all pervading Internet as well as in links and its portals Mr. Google, Google and its variants—Face Book, YouTube and Twitter with Donald Trump as the chief librarian and editor-in-chief.
Books contain thoughts of the writer who, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men…” his writing has brought about the commonality of language and revealed the world of universalism. Knowledge brings confidence. It engenders a feeling of wellbeing. There is an air of being on top of the world. In the early days, university students were often referred to as the leaders of tomorrow. In testimony to this, in all parts of the world, the men of knowledge have been in power in all countries for upwards of two centuries today. They control influence and opportunities. They spread privileges.
I remember Chike Obi pressing hard in 1964, in the First Republic that a thorough knowledge of Pythagoras’s Theorem should be the minimum qualification for Nigerian legislators. He spoke in Parliament. He spoke using the vehicle of his radical, non-conformist Dynamic Party.
Through knowledge, there have been discoveries. The knowledge itself may have derived from observation of phenomena. It has been observed, for example, that energy radiates—although the source of the energy is not generally known. Yet, energy must have a source. Discoveries have brought about great improvements in our lives. Through observations, experimentation, and cognitions, the working of life’s principles became established. And these mechanisms have been used to bring about inventions which have facilitated life. The invention of electricity by Michael Faraday will live in the hearts of men eternally. The principles of the invention have today become widespread knowledge. Subsequent attempts after him have been to polish and perfect his efforts.
Systems, practices and cultures of different peoples are observed and documented to form a body of knowledge. So is the behaviour of man under different circumstances and environments, be it politics, or economic pursuits. Reports of such behaviourial studies abound.
In the age knowledge had not lost its innocence, learning became a power rated far above wealth. Then, the craving was for worth, not wealth. He would have the best women if he could conjugate in Latin—because knowledge, it was strongly held, moulds character. Early writers evincing knowledge were courted by kings, by the powerful and the mighty among men. Learning has been essentially regarded as the route to knowledge. As proof of learning, books have sprouted.
If in spite of knowledge man has not known peace and joy, the secret of what scholarship is expected to unravel, should the world not spare some moments of thinking of alternatives? Should searching and questioning not have begun bearing that without reservations about what one holds in his hand, he cannot begin to ask questions, the right questions, and without questions being asked, there can be no answers, and without answers, there can be no progress. Should we not ask questions such as Wither our world? Does the knowledge we brandish say anything about who we are? Do we have knowledge of ourselves? Do we have knowledge of how our world is run or should be governed?
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece bore the inscription, “Man, know thyself.” The guiding rule of Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Greece, said: “I must first know myself as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.” If our knowledge does not include revelation about ourselves, how can we address what is in our interest and how do we know our goal?
What does our knowledge say about the economy of the world, politics and nation-building—all of which are giving way if we care to see, and if we care to hear? After all, knowledge is about truth, and truth is about reality. Thus, knowledge being truth and truth being light illumines, dispersing ignorance and lack of clarity.
This piece, updated, was first published on this page on November 18, 1993. It is being rerun because of its relevance in our today’s world.
Next week, I will continue with this piece on “The Age of Knowledge.”