By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The phrase has the ring of proverb about it, and most proverbs don’t have an author: they’re anonymous nuggets of wisdom handed down from generation to generation, part of an oral rather than written tradition. But we can actually trace ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ to a clear source – at least, in a sense.
The phrase came about in 1839 when it was invented by a nineteenth-century writer named Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), in a play about Cardinal Richelieu. Bulwer-Lytton was himself a fascinating figure who would also gain notoriety for inventing the most laughably clichéd opening line in all of literature, as we revealed in a post on five fascinating facts about him.
He would also inspire the name of the drink known as Bovril, as well as being offered the throne of Greece – quite an eventful life, although Lytton’s star has faded somewhat since he died (and, indeed, it had begun to do so even while he lived). He also made a lasting contribution to men’s fashion that is still with us, though many people don’t realise we have him to thank for this (we also have more on that in the post we link to above).
In Richelieu (1839), Bulwer-Lytton (or Lytton – whichever you prefer) has the eponymous cardinal declare:
But although Lytton’s wording appears to have been original, the sentiment was not: the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Proverbs lists several precursors to this famous statement, which, although worded differently, convey the same idea. Cicero, in his De Officiis (44 BC), declares ‘cedant arma togae‘, which roughly translates as ‘arms give way to persuasion’.
George Whetstone, in part iii of his Heptameron of Civil Discourses, writes, ‘The dashe of a Pen, is more greeuous then the counter use of a Launce’. This is from 1582 – three years before Richelieu, the subject of Lytton’s play, was even born, and over two centuries before Lytton’s own birth. In his 1712 poem ‘The Eagle and the Robin‘, William King wrote that ‘now and then, / A sword less hurt does than a pen.’
Other precursors to Lytton’s phrase are provided by Statemaster, who mention the Epistle to the Hebrews, 4:12, written c. AD 63-4: ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’
And on 19 June 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Paine – whose extraordinary life we have written about here – that Paine should ‘Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.’ The Wikipedia page for the phrase lists some other examples, including some from Hamlet and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.
So, although the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ appears to have been original to Lytton, one of the reasons it has the ring of timeless proverb about it is that it has been around, albeit expressed in slightly different ways, for a couple of thousand years.
In the illustration above (and enlarged left), Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase adorns the walls of the school where Tom Sawyer studies, in one of the original illustrations to Mark Twain’s 1876 novel. As has been suggested, the words ‘pen’ and ‘is’ are placed quite close together – suggestively so, we might say.