Essay about Knowledge and Power

Knowledge is power – or is it?  The assertion that knowledge is power has been variously attributed to Sir Francis Bacon and Albert Einstein, as well as many other notable and obscure figures.  But perhaps Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Richard Wright all know otherwise, as demonstrated in their respective stories:  “The Worn Path,” “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” and “The Man Who Was Almost A Man.”

These stories each show that knowledge is not an absolute bestower of power; that power does not logically and necessarily follow once one possesses knowledge.  Neither are the terms knowledge and power mutually exclusive, but, as can be seen in the following analysis of the short stories mentioned above, the power resulting from knowledge only comes if the person possessing the knowledge knows how to use it, and if the person then also feels powerful.  The power gained from knowledge is not an absolute power, but is, to a certain extent, subjective.

Let us first look at Phoenix Jackson, the central character in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” and perhaps the most powerful character in any of the three stories.   Phoenix has gained knowledge, and therefore power, from years of quietly studying human behavior, from paying close attention to her surroundings, and from her own self-awareness of how she affects others in the world.  Phoenix Jackson might appear at first glance to be lacking any power: she is an elderly, frail-looking woman whose eyesight is failing.

Phoenix is also a very poor woman with few valuable possessions; poor people in her position are virtually always seen as lacking power.  However, upon closer observation the reader can see that Phoenix is a very powerful woman indeed.  Phoenix uses her knowledge of her physical surroundings to enable her to move about in a rather dangerous world, full of obstacles both animate and inanimate.  On her journey into town Phoenix encounters many potential dangers, but because she is knowledgeable about their existence, she avoids harm.  This capacity to keep herself safe is one trait which makes her a powerful woman.

Phoenix even appears to use visualization to help her get across the creek; her ability to visualize the log and her safe passage is another form of knowledge which makes her powerful.  Phoenix has “body knowledge” – she has developed the capacity to remember where her body should go, even as her eyesight fails her.  The reason this body knowledge makes Phoenix powerful is that she is conscious of the knowledge and of how to use it; for example, when Phoenix reaches the city and “depended on her feet to know where to take her.” (Welty, p. 5).  Later in the story we see Phoenix walking up the steps of her destination, “until her feet knew to stop.” (Welty, p. 6)

Phoenix Jackson has also gained power during her long life with her knowledge about human behavior.  Phoenix knows how to use both her own self as well as others’ reactions for her own purposes.  Phoenix is seen manipulating the white hunter so that she can put his fallen money into her own pocket.  Phoenix knows, after only a very brief encounter, that the hunter’s ego can be easily manipulated for her own purposes.  The hunter wishes to appear strong and in control, which Phoenix knows as she reminds the hunter that she needs to be “rescued” from the cur which ahs knocked her over.  Phoenix is able to pocket the money while the hunter is occupied with ridding her of the dog.

One cannot manipulate others without possessing some sort of power, and powerful Phoenix is seen manipulating others at least twice more as the story proceeds.   Phoenix knows, almost instinctively it seems, who she can stop on the street to ask for assistance with her shoes.  But this small gesture is full of knowledge; Phoenix could have stopped any number of people on the busy street, but consciously chose to stop a certain woman.  Perhaps Phoenix knew that this particular woman would be more inclined to help her, as she appears to be a “nice lady” (Welty, p. 6) full of Christmas spirit, heavy as her arms are with presents.

Phoenix again uses her knowledge about human behavior in order to manipulate the attendant at the clinic, who feels compelled to give a pitiful old woman some money.  It is not clear whether Phoenix is manipulating the nurse in order to get medication for herself or whether she does indeed have a grandson waiting at home, but the nurse is manipulated by Phoenix nevertheless, as she uses her age as an excuse for memory loss.

The grandmother in Flannery O’ Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” is not so self-aware as Phoenix and it is her failure to use her knowledge powerfully which gets her killed in the end.  The grandmother does indeed have knowledge but somehow is unable to use it to her advantage.

It is an interesting side-note that the grandmother, the mother, and Red Sam’s wife are the only characters in O’Connor’s story who are not given names; even the cat has a name.  Perhaps O’Connor used this as a subtle indicator of who did and did not have power.  Indeed, neither the grandmother nor the mother appear to be very powerful characters in this story; and Red Sam’s wife, though not a central character, is portrayed as simply chattel for her husband, who orders her around and treats her dismissively.

John Wesley’s and June Star’s grandmother knows from her years on earth that a good man is indeed hard to find; she knows that truly trustworthy people are rare treasures among the human race.  The grandmother’s discussion with Red Sam shows us that she is aware of just how devious people can be.  The grandmother knows that people are inherently untrustworthy.

However, the grandmother’s knowledge does not then result in her having power, for she does not use the knowledge correctly.  The grandmother gave up the potential power of her knowledge when she revealed what she knew during the encounter with the Misfit.   When the grandmother recognized the Misfit, she could have used this knowledge to protect her family.

Perhaps Eudora Welty’s Phoenix Jackson would have used the grandmother’s knowledge in some cunning way to manipulate the Misfit.  But O’Connor’s grandmother is not as powerful as Welty’s character, simply because she fails to cultivate her knowledge into a powerful tool.  The grandmother was knowledgeable but still powerless to save her own and her family’s lives.

The third character who shows us that knowledge is not necessarily power is Dave, in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.”  Dave shows us that the power from knowledge is partially subjective and not an indisputable fact.  The reader sees very quickly that Dave feels “small,” not only in his physical stature but in his standing among his peers in the community.  This feeling of smallness is what makes Dave feel virtually powerless.

Dave appears to have very limited knowledge of human behavior and of himself as a developing man.   Fear is a large factor in Dave’s twisted perception of what will give him power.  Dave is scared of other boys who are all bigger than him; he has also been raised to be scared of the adults in his life.  This fear has given Dave the “knowledge” that, if one is feared, one has power.  Of course this knowledge is flawed.

But Dave’s knowledge is not a mature, conscious knowledge; it is a knowledge born of his own very limited backwoods experience in the world.  Dave sees that, if he can scare others as others have scared him, he will become a powerful man.  Once Dave has knowledge of how a gun makes him feel, he thinks he has discovered an important part of becoming a man.  Perhaps the most important discovery made by Dave is that his actions have consequences; once Dave kills the mule, he sees that something he has done has made a difference, albeit a negative difference, but a difference in the world all the same.

Although Dave’s knowledge has the potential to give him power, it is not well developed and is based in fear.  Therefore his knowledge may make him an even less powerful person.  Dave does not know how to use his new-found knowledge.  Instead of making him a powerful person, his knowledge may be turning him into a dangerous person as the flawed knowledge becomes more entrenched into his personality.

Knowledge is power….the central characters in the stories analyzed above each show us, in their own way, that this statement is very over-simplified and not necessarily true.  Power can indeed come from having knowledge.  But that knowledge must be carefully cultivated and used appropriately in order to then provide power.  And there are occasions when we can have knowledge but lack the awareness to use that knowledge to our advantage, or power.

Last, if we have knowledge but lack the conviction that we have power to use our knowledge in useful ways, we are still left as powerless as if we did not have the knowledge at all.  So power resulting from knowledge must also include self-awareness, awareness of others, and the ability to adapt our knowledge to particular situations.  Only then can we say that knowledge is power.

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