Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword


The last few days has seen horrific terrorist attacks in France that left 17 dead and several injured. However the attacks were followed by a rally of nearly 4 million people in Paris (including 40 world leaders) in support of free speech and as a show of unity against terror. The Charlie Hebdo attacks have generated a lot of discussion about the importance of free speech and writing, and the rally in Paris this weekend has clearly demonstrated that, despite the cruel murder of 17 innocent civilians, unity, speaking out and standing up for our values is more powerful than the use of violence. I read a very interesting article on the BBC discussing who first said 'the pen is mightier than the sword', a phrase which has often been used when discussing the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I have summarised the article below:

The English words "The pen is mightier than the sword" were first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII, discovered a plot to kill him, but as a priest he was unable to take up arms against his enemies. His page, Francois, told him "But now, at your command are other weapons, my good Lord." To which Richelieu said "The pen is mightier than the sword... Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!"

The saying quickly gained popularity and by the 1840s it was commonplace. Today it is used in many languages, mostly translated from the English. The French version is: "La plume est plus forte que l'epee."

The saying emphasises that thinking and writing have more influence on people and events than the use of force or violence. However Bulwer-Lytton was not necessarily the first to express this thought. Napoleon is often quoted as saying. "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonets." He respected and feared the press, realising the power of literature. Napoleon suppressed most of the newspaper in France, sanctioning just a handful of publications. He also undermined the allies who had defeated him through his memoirs.

Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in the early 17th Century, describes how bitter jests and satire can cause distress - and he suggests that "A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword" was already, even in his day, an "old saying".

In George Whetstone's Heptameron of Civil Discourses, published in 1582, it says "The dashe of a Pen, is more greeuous then the counterbuse of a Launce." Going back further, the Greek poet Euripides, who died about 406 BC, is sometimes quoted as writing: "The tongue is mightier than the blade."


There was a belief in classical times that the written word had the power to survive and transcend even the bloodiest events, even if they didn't actually prevail against arms in the short term.

The cartoons published in tribute to the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff carry a range of messages - that the pencil will ultimately defeat the gunman, that one pencil when broken will become two, or that every gun will find itself opposed by many pens. The demonstrators holding pencils aloft are signing up to the same set of ideas.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30729480