Almost nobody paid attention to the prophetic words of the 5th century Gallo-Roman poet and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris. Referring to a world on the brink of collapse – the Roman world as he knew it –, Sidonius wrote:
Now that the old degrees of official rank are swept away, those degrees by which the highest in the land used to be distinguished from the lowest, the only token of ability will henceforth be a knowledge of letters.’
There was nothing in 5th-century Gaul to suggest that books and knowledge were the way forward, but Sidonius saw clearly through the fog of war and confusion. He may have been one of the earliest to recognise the earthly implications of Jesus’ words in Luke 13: ‘provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, nor moth corrupteth’. Invest in low-risk, high-value assets.
The treasures of Sidonius’ world were the same as any world before or since: material wealth, power alliances, strategic offices. Treasures that may disappear overnight. Sidonius understood that education was unalienable, once you’ve received the letters, you can’t unreceive them. Even books may be a questionable treasure. The knowledge derived from them, however, is not.
It took the West over a millennium to fulfil Sidonius’ prophecy. We may even say that it fulfilled it a bit too well. The future may soon be decided by those who know at the expense of those who don’t or can’t, if we believe critics of new technologies like Shoshana Zuboff or Siva Vaidhyanathan. To say that knowledge is key is no longer a radical thing, as it may have been in the past. Lives, careers and power landscapes are being shaped and reshaped by the constant negotiation of knowledge between those who have it and those who don’t.