The Global Human: Social Comments

The Might of the Pen

Posted in Writings by Solveig Hansen on 2015/05/26

Text: Solveig Hansen

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” we frequently say, even more so after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The man to thank for this phrase is Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873).

Cambridge Dictionaries defines this idiom as “thinking and writing have more influence on people than the use of force or violence.” Isn’t that what writers aspire to: find the right composition of words that moves and shakes and transforms – or maybe puts a smile on the reader’s face?

The pencil & sword analogy is not a new one. In the biblical Epistle to the Hebrews, for instance, verse 4:12 reads: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

According to Wikipedia, “The pen is mightier than the sword” as a phrase was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his historical play about Cardinal Richelieu (1839). Richelieu discovers a plot to kill him, but as a priest he cannot take up arms against his enemies. His page, Francis, tells him: But now, at your command are other weapons, my good Lord. Richelieu agrees: The pen is mightier than the sword, he says, Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!

A literature critic wrote that Bulwer-Lytton had achieved something that few men could hope to do: write a line that is likely to live for ages. Of course, today we just call them one-liners.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He is also renowned for the opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Although the phrase was penned by Bulwer-Lytton, there are earlier texts emphasizing the power of words:

Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying: The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.

William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, Act 2: … many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.

Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly said: Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.

Going back to the 4th century BC, the Greek playwright Euripides supposedly wrote: The tongue is mightier than the blade.

BBC: Who first said ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’?


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