The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword: Its Origin And Other Similar Ideas

pen-sword-twain

From the first edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Note how suggestively close the words “pen” and “is” are. Perhaps, this was the idea of either Twain or his illustrator, True Williams.

We often hear or read the expression, “The pen is mightier than the sword” which made it seems to be an old proverb. The origin of this quotation is much more recent though. It first appeared in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu (1839):

Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanter’s wand! itself a nothing!
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! Take away the sword;
States can be saved without it!

Bulwer-Lytton is known for coining the phrases, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the great unwashed”, “dweller on the threshold”. He is also known for popularizing the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night”, a notoriously well-known opening line for his novel Paul Clifford (1830).

While Bulwer-Lytton created the phrase, the sentiment is not new. According to Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin’s book, Old Testament Parallels3rd ed. (2007), Ahiqar, a sage of Assyria, stated: “The word is mightier than the sword.” It was found written in “Teachings of Ahiqar”, which dates back to 500 BC.

In Hebrews 4:12 of the New Testament has been translated as: “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.”

“The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr,” is attributed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Antonio de Guevara compared the pen to a lance, books to weapons, and the life of warfare to a life learning in Reloj de Principes (1529). In 1582, the de Guevara’s analogy appeared once again in George Whetstone’s An Heptameron of Civil Discourses: “The dashe of a Pen, is more greeuous than the counterbuse of a Launce.”

In 1896, Syad Muhammad Latif quoted King Abdullah-Khan II of Bokhara (1533/4–1598) in Agra, Historical & Descriptive: With an Account of Akbar and His Court and of the Modern City of Agra, as having said: “He was more afraid of Abu’l-Fazl’s pen than of Akbar’s sword.”

William Shakespeare, in his play Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2 (1600) wrote: “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.” It has some parallels with the old English proverb, “A goose quill is more dangerous than a lion’s claw.”

In 1621, Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “It is an old saying, A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword: and many men are as much galled with a calumny, a scurrilous and bitter jest, a libel, a pasquil, satire, apologue, epigram, stage-play or the like, as with any misfortune whatsoever.” He then gave several examples from history that supported his point. He finally said, “Hinc quam sit calamus saevior ense patet” (“From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.”).

William King, in his poem, “The Eagle and the Robin” (1712) wrote:

One day poor Bob, puff’d up with pride,
Thinking the combat to abide,
A goose quill on for weapon ty’d,
Knowing by use, that, now and then,
A sword less hurts than a pen.

On June 19, 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following as a concluding remark to his letter to Thomas Payne: “Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Y[ou]rs. &c. Thomas Jefferson.”

The French Emperor Napoleon Bonapart was aware of the power of the press. Thus, he used his power to suppress almost all the newspaper publications in France, and tightly sanctioning the few publications that he allowed to continue to exist. The quotation, “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” was attributed to him. However, I’m not sure if he really said it since I can’t find a reliable reference to where or when he said it. Another similar quotation said by Napoleon was, “Il n’y a que deux puissances au monde, le sabre et l’esprit : à la longue, le sabre est toujours vaincu par l’esprit.” (“There are only two powers in the world, saber and mind; at the end, saber is always defeated by mind”).

Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon (1830)  has this passage: “”the word had a greater tendency to lead the people to do that which was just; yea, it had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword.”

Others have an entirely different point of view. For example, in Virgil’s Eclogues 9 (published in around 38 BC), he wrote: “You had heard, and so the story ran. But amid the weapons of war, Lycidas, our songs avail as much as, they say, Dodona’s doves when the eagle comes.” Another one is from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) wrote: “Let none presume to tell me that the Pen is preferable to the Sword; for be they who they will, I shall tell them they know not what they say.”

Finally, I’ll conclude this post with this quotation: “The pin is mightier than the fork.” Anyone who plays chess and knows some chess tactics would understand this.

About Edmark M. Law

My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. I blog at learnfunfacts.com. You can find me on Twitter @EdmarkMLaw and Facebook. My email is learnfunfacts@gmail.com
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18 Responses to The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword: Its Origin And Other Similar Ideas

  1. WWMB says:

    In libraries this week, we are recognizing Banned Books and the right to read. Your article is a nice tie in!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting post. I’m afraid you lost me on the final quote!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Frank Hubeny says:

    Very interesting history of that phrase.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Mitch, great post. I have found that the sword will draw only blood, as the pen will draw Life.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Very interesting! 🙂
    From E.E.Cummings:
    The pigpen is mightier than the sword.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Arbie says:

    I loved all of these different examples! Great post! Unfortunately I’m rubbish at chess and know next to nothing about it… Probably why I’m rubbish at it! 😝

    Liked by 1 person

  7. paolsoren says:

    And the opposite concept can also be translated into school yard battles as “Stick and stones can break my bone but names will never hurt me.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. paolsoren says:

    Ah well, never mind. It’s probably just another Australian improvement on an older tired saying.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. And the opposite concept can also be translated into schooltime railyard battles as “Stick and stones can recess my osseous tissue but names will never hurt me. That’s expected if you assume’t have it off about Bromus secalinus 🙂

    Like

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