The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword: History and Meaning

Laptop with pen and paper

The phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword” is most often attributed to the playwriter, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He used these words in 1839 in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu. The character Richelieu is a priest who discovers a plot against his life but feels he cannot take up a sword to defend himself. Nevertheless, he is determined to overcome the threat against him by using his words and his writing to move the minds of the people and gain support.

However, some have claimed to note even earlier uses of the phrase. The words may have been first used in a newspaper from Ireland, The Northern Whig a few years earlier in 1832. There are even earlier expressions of the same sentiment as well from centuries prior. Thomas Jefferson, William Shakespeare, and others are noted to have expressed the sentiment in different terms. Nevertheless, it was Bulwer-Lytton and his famous play which no doubt popularized the phrase and led it to become a common idiom in the minds of future generations. The phrase went onto be used in numerous publications for its relevance to the power of the media and newspapers over force and armies.

There is much truth to this old adage. It is understood in a modern context that the “pen” and “sword” are metaphorical. The pen represents words, speech, or the ability to convince and persuade others. The sword represents physical force or different forms of violence used to coerce, intimidate, or pressure others. The context in which both tools are applied is in the pursuant of gaining power, support, resources, or other goals.

With that said, the pen is mightier than the sword as a greater instrument of change. It is widely understood that convincing people to support a cause by appealing to them is more productive and also more successful than trying to force them to do something through violence or coercion. The pen inspires cooperation or friendly competition whereas the sword instills animosity and fierce resistance. It also takes more time and effort to build than it does to destroy, so finding peaceful and harmonious solutions to get people to work together is beneficial to everyone involved, especially long-term.

While few would contest the truth in the phrase, there are some who do, and I would be remiss not to share some insight from the other side of the spectrum. Firstly, it is often those who wield the pen exclusively who subscribe to its mightiness. It is all they know, for they cannot or do not know how to wield the metaphorical sword. Of course pen-wielders would say the pen is mightier and would defend that sentiment most ardently, crafting grandiose narratives to endorse it and convince themselves of it more so than others. Secondly, there is the issue of the pen not having much affect against the techniques of the sword when push comes to shove, so to speak. Sword-wielders tend to be in power, and they can have pen-wielders under them who operate at their behest.

What do I think? Well, I think the truth, as it often is, lies closer to the middle. I do understand the points from both side, which is why I try to explain that the strengths of the pen and sword are different. As such, they are not always directly comparable. However, there may be a greater tendency of the pen to have might if the message is delivered successfully. This is why I advocate for knowledge to wield both the metaphorical pen and sword, as is the namesake of this blog. It is better to be able to wield both than one or the other. Foolish is the writer who thinks their pen will always save them, as is the warrior who thinks their sword is all they need.

What do you think? Do you agree with the common perspective, or do you feel more inclined to believe the sword is actually mightier? Feel free to share your thoughts. Also, please share and stay tuned for next week’s post.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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