"All men by nature desire to know." Aristotle, when he wrote this, was saying that the thing that makes human beings different from other creatures, the thing that defines us, is the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge. This is not just to say that we human beings are curious creatures; it is to say that our ability to think about and to act on the world around us is bound up with our ability to know it. To be alive as a human being is to know in the same way as it is to have a heart that beats.
We all understand this in mundane ways. We understand, for instance, that part of being a fully independent adult, making choices about life, is learning about the world around us and informing our choices with that learning.
In the Book of Proverbs it says, "By wisdom a house is built and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures." But there is something more to all of this. The very next saying in Proverbs is, "The wise are mightier than the strong." This is the earliest occurrence known to me of the now well-known idea: knowledge is power. To keep a person ignorant is to place them in a cage.
So it follows that the powerful, if they want to keep their power, will try to know as much about us as they can and they will try to make sure that we know as little about them as is possible. I see this inside everywhere: both in religious writings, which promised emancipation from political repression, and in the revolutionary works promising liberation from the repressive dogmas of the church and the state.
The powerful throughout history have understood this. The invention of the printing press was opposed by the old powers of Europe because it spelled the end of their control of knowledge and therefore the end of their tenure as power brokers. The Protestant Reformation was not just a religious movement, but a political struggle: the fight to liberate hoarded knowledge through translation and dissemination. Through the confessional system, the Catholic Church spied upon the lives of its congregants, while Latin mass excluded most people who could not speak Latin from an understanding of the very system of thought that bound them.
Knowledge has always flowed upwards to bishops and kings, not downward to serfs and slaves. The principle remains the same in the present era. Documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that governments dare to aspire—through their intelligence agencies—to a God-like knowledge about each and every one of us. But at the same time they hide their actions behind official secrecy. As our governments and corporations know more and more about us, we know less and less about them. The policy, as always, is to channel the decisive information upwards, never downwards.
Today remember that it is good to seek to empower the powerless through knowledge and to drag the machinations of the powerful into the daylight. We must be unapologetic about that most basic of humanities: the desire to know.
The powerful would do well to remember the words of one of history's great activists as recorded in the Book of Matthew: "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed at last from rooftop to rooftop."