Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Writer: Lesley Kay Hanson, A Philanthropist and Animal Rights Activist

The Cambridge Dictionary website states that “thinking and writing have more influence on people and events than the use of force or violence”! The English language is full of well-worn phrases called cliches, colloquialisms, idioms, and proverbs. Many of these are difficult to understand as they often bear no resemblance to their original context.  One such phrase being, ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’!  What does it mean, and what is its origin?

The phrase was first written by the novelist and playwright, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, when in his play ‘Cardinal Richelieu’, a plot is discovered to kill King Louis XIII, but being a man of God, he is unable to fight.  His servant suggests “now there are other weapons, my good lord”. Cardinal Richelieu agrees “The pen is mightier than the sword”.

It is worthy of note that there are other references to words being more powerful than force.  For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet we read, ‘Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills (pens) and scarce come thither’.  Similarly, in George Whetstone’s publication in 1582, it suggests that “The dash of a pen, is more grievous than the counter use of a lance”. Then in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy ‘A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword’.   

Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly stated that ‘Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared then a thousand bayonets’.  He feared and respected the press, so when he succeeded to power, suppressed all but a handful of publications.  He later realised that in the writing of his memoirs, his pen could undermine the allies who defeated him.

As an antithesis to this, the Roman poet Virgil says, ‘In the face of weapons of war, my songs avail as much as doves in the face of eagles’.  He clearly states that the words of his songs are useless against armaments.  Much earlier than this Euripides said that ‘the tongue is less reliable than deeds’.  Alternatively, actions speak louder than words.

We must take note of who is holding the pen and if they are worthy of attention.  A demonstration was staged by the staff of Charlie Hebdo after a staff member was shot.  Ultimately, the message was that the gun would be defeated by many pens and that a broken pencil becomes two pencils.  However, freedom of speech and expression must be accompanied by a modicum of responsibility, without insulting a large section of the world for just being who they are.  A recent depiction of the Prophet Mohammad sent shockwaves of imagery and content worldwide by attacking and insulting the very heart of Islamic beliefs.  

To conclude, the written word can be scrutinised and meaning extracted from it.  It can endure through time and educate the reader, inspire and persuade.  A spoken word is fleeting in the moment and passes in seconds, but can also inspire and persuade.  A sword can indeed persuade but cannot inspire or educate.  It can only destroy or kill.  The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.