The purpose of knowledge was to improve human society in both thoughts and deeds, and dedicated to improve life in harmony with nature.
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said once: “Only knowledge, then, is power and freedom; and the only permanent happiness is the pursuit of knowledge and joy of understanding.”
At the time of Socrates, the widely used phrase “knowledge is power” was unknown, rather “knowledge is virtue” was the popular concept. The term “virtue” indicates power of acting, a form of ability to do good to humanity and to oneself.
The more a man can preserve his being and seek what is useful to him, the greater is his virtue. In the long journey, the pursuit of knowledge gave pleasure or virtue, and gave more space to power and freedom.
As the world stepped into modernity, the term virtue eroded and power emerged.
Power in modernity
Why do men need power?
The primordial history of mankind suggests that they needed power to survive against the odds of nature or hunt animals. There was no race for power but cooperation to gain power to protect themselves.
Social formation evolved from the necessity of organised cooperation needed to distribute food to the whole of community. The need for some kind of social contract became essential to maintain order in the community.
Power was again dominant to maintain that kind of contract to ensure that kind of order.
Individual satisfaction replaced societal responsibilities in the name of individual sovereignty in the post-enlightenment era.
The primordial period reveals that discovery of newer knowledge was dedicated to the service of humanity, and philosophers used to extract pleasure out of the discovery of newer knowledge.
There was no patents, no intellectual property rights -- service to human beings was the only goal of pursuing new knowledge.
Knowledge was, thus, popularised as virtue and preponderant over power.
Is the term power derogative?
The term power denotes “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.” There is no place for honour, chivalry, or fair play in power. Any means can be used to attain power, where success is the key.
Therefore, the goals changed, and race for competition began replacing cooperation.
Pursuit of knowledge was more directed towards attaining power for self-satisfaction far from virtuous goals.
Virtue took a back seat as human beings preferred to live happily more as individuals, rather than social beings.
The notion of sovereignty first arose when hunter-gatherers domesticated plants and animals and needed a space free from any external interference to enjoy this domestication in a relatively peaceful manner.
To settle disputes, arose the notion of kingship and the notion of their sovereignty from trying to maintain a space for the tribe or community.
Sovereignty and the new world
Westphalian sovereignty surfaced with a stronger sense of chauvinistic nationalism. The post-Westphalia world drew line between temporal and spiritual life of human beings, and devised new systems of statehood with mammoth changes in the social and political practice.
Moral practice was no more put under spiritual scrutiny; rather left out to individual choice and destiny. The concept of community, political education in civic virtue lost their way to power and recognition overshadowing virtue.
Knowledge declared sovereignty in the individual satisfaction to enhance individual gains or glory.
Does sovereignty mean individual satisfaction, or a specific social group or political community?
The Hobbesian idea of popular sovereignty and Locke’s individual liberty brought a sense of individual recognition to the forefront.
Sovereignty of the individual surfaced much higher than any social group. Accordingly, pursuit of knowledge remained no more a matter of happiness, and joy of understanding rather turned into an unholy race to attain power for better recognition.
The core of education must be so that it can turn its people into social capital
Despite advances in modern technology, notion of individual and national sovereignty spawned not only crass materialism and commercialism, but caused degradation of moral values clouded by curtains between the temporal and spiritual life.
Religion has tried, in a somewhat feeble way, to get us out of this “knowledge is power” mess, but the attempts have failed repeatedly even in the early stages, merely through the dictum that “my religion is superior to yours.”
Separating knowledge from sovereignty
The majority of current conflict in the world results from this misconception and lack of efforts to view knowledge from balanced perspectives.
If knowledge has to add to human values and dignity, it is time to approach knowledge from all directions.
Should that knowledge be utilised for peaceful means of social good or to extend hegemony of the sovereign or to raise unholy greed for individual glory?
A peaceful pursuit of knowledge to fulfill material and spiritual needs will add dignity; otherwise, knowledge, through abuse, will become a means to accumulate power and ultimately, lead to the fall of both sovereignty of individual and the sovereign.
The world is spending billions of dollars for weapons. It is only enlarging the domain of human conflicts.
Only virtuous activities directed towards community goals can redeem the world from this conflicting situation.
Money spent for education, health development, food production can be useful to turn knowledge into virtue, rather than power and sovereignty into dignity. The essence of sovereignty can lie in the sense of dignity of life, self-empowerment, self-determination, and right education to cope with and gain from both the temporal and spiritual reality.
A nation needs to develop its education with an unsentimental understanding of its own situation in order to build its leadership, who can prepare their citizens to cope with multi-perspective realities.
The core of education must be so that it can turn its people into social capital, who can maturely understand their stake to develop national culture and institutions, and manage the republic, satisfying the temporal and spiritual need.
A nation with such virtuous education can only make sovereignty worthwhile and dignified.
Brigadier General AF Jaglul Ahmed is Commandant, East Bengal Regimental Centre.