Quote or No Quote: “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword”

Ah, I’m a Romantic at heart. And, apart from seeing the sunlight glinting through Lady Buzzkill’s golden tresses, the thing I like best in this world is hearing from you, dear listeners. And I’ve certainly heard from a lot of you recently. We did a Woman Crush Wednesday show on the great Chinese revolutionary writer, Qiu Jin, and I ended the episode wondering whether her life showed that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

Many of you wrote in asking me to trace that very phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword” for a Quote or No Quote episode. Was it Shakespeare, Voltaire, or Thomas Jefferson? Some of you have even seen it attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and that famous magnet for all quotations, Winston Churchill. Well, despite the fact that the phrase adorns one of the walls at the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, and even though Winston Churchill’s facility with the pen was indeed mightier than his sword-wielding in battle, it originates with neither one.

It’s not Shakespeare’s, nor Voltaire’s either. At least, not those exact words in that exact order. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” sprang first from the English writer and politician, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century and is also responsible for the phrases “the great unwashed,” and “pursuit of the almighty dollar.” He also wrote the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which has been mocked and parodied ever since

In 1839, Bulwer-Lytton published a play about Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful 17th-Century French bishop and politician. The play wasn’t all that historically accurate, but it did include Richelieu musing about the nature and fragility of political power. In Act II, Scene II, the Cardinal says,

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

The play itself was not among the 19th Century’s most successful, but the line, “the pen is mightier than the sword” lived on. By the 1840s, within only a few years of the Richelieu play appearing, Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase was practically a cliche.

Although the exact wording of “the pen is mightier than the sword” comes from him, the concept seems to be as old as human civilization. An ancient Assyrian philosopher wrote around 500 BC that “the word is mightier than the sword.” The Old Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews, includes the phrase, “Indeed, as the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword…”

The same basic idea occurs in other ancient and medieval literature in the east and west, and is used especially often in early modern literature, including Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act 2, scene II, includes the observation, “…many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.” By the 1620s, it was referred to as an “old saying.” Thomas Jefferson used a variation of it in the early 1790s. Napoleon Bonaparte famously wrote “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” and Mormon pioneer Joseph Smith wrote in 1830 that, “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.”

So the concept clearly has a history as long as human literature itself. But as a young Buzzkiller I was always under the impression that it had a purely pacifist meaning — that the written word was more effective at convincing people to do something right than the tip of a blade; that argument was always more effective than threats of bloodshed.

As usual, however, I have been schooled by human nature and the modern world that the pen can (and was) used as an awful instrument to promote violence.

And, as a grown-up over the last few decades, I’ve come to wonder and worry whether the pen that transcribed Jesus’s Beatitudes in the New Testament was mightier than the one that wrote Mein Kampf. Was Martin Luther King’s pen that wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech mightier than the racist weapons that struck down and killed so many civil rights protesters in our own time?

Given how awful the 20th and 21st centuries have been in terms of bloodshed and killing, and given that people in prior centuries seem to have pushed the technological limits of their abilities to kill, it’s difficult to come to an uplifting conclusion that the peace-loving pen is mightier than violence-inducing sword.

I’d like to think, however, that we can still try to make it so.

This episode owes a great deal to the professional work of Susan Ratcliffe of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations by Subject; Garson O’Toole, the Quote Investigator; and Fred Shapiro of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Susan Ratcliffe, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations by Subject

Here are more than 7,000 quotations, ranging from the wisdom of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the great philosophers to the more modern meditations of Bono, J. K. Rowling, and George W. Bush. There is Yogi Berra’s immortal “The future ain’t what it used to be,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Wine is bottled poetry,” and Lao Tzu’s “A good traveler has no fixed plans.” Arranged thematically for ease of use, the volume covers more than 600 subjects, from Beauty and Baseball to Patriotism, Power, and The Past. Themes new to this edition include Babies, Birthdays, Nine-Eleven, Retirement, and Toasts. Also new to this edition are an increased number of contemporary and motivational quotations, a full index allowing readers to search the text by author as well as theme, and an improved layout to make using this book easier than ever. From literature to the law, music to the movies, readers will find an abundance of classic quotes and little known gems to enliven their speeches, conversation, reports and correspondence.

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