“The pen is mightier than the sword”- Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1839
This quote is so familiar these days and has been almost instantly since the 1840’s, that even that pretentious friend at your dinner party won’t dare try to throw it in your face. You know, the one that nobody can figure out who invited.
You can search the internet and have your pick of articles that theorize the origin of the sentiment. It’s widely agreed that it was not an original idea belonging to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but, apparently, he indeed executed it better than anyone else. I’m not here to regurgitate that.
What does it mean? Again, you could make quick work of this question with a simple Google search. What you might find is someone that wrote an article filled with information from internet searches of their own. Undoubtedly, it would be full of instances of who said something similar before, what it means, and why it is or is not different or the same. To be honest, I know the saying, all adults do, but I had no clue who Edward Bulwer-Lytton was before my search, and, unlike some folk, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.
The appeal to this particular quote is rather uncomplicated. First, it’s short and to the point, which allows it some mysterious bonus points that I just made up. Second, the quote expresses so much with the use of so few words. Imagine the bonus points now. Finally, it’s easy to remember, perhaps the best part. I just quit keeping score.
I think it speaks directly to our desire to cheer for the underdog. The pen is clearly David while the sword must be Goliath. However, the conundrum has to be that after history has taught generations these same lessons, at what point does David become the sword. Oddly, as I write that, the words somehow do not make much sense, but I completely understand the meaning of them. Perhaps that is the point.
The Crusades are an excellent example, in my opinion. Now, I’m hardly an expert on the matter, and I always give the lessons to be learned from history much more weight than the facts, which are debated infinitely in some cases. In this case, the pen, written word or at least the interpretation of it, were widely used, on all sides, to convince people to fight for holy land. The actual reasons behind that are not a matter for debate as far as this post is concerned. I’m merely going to bend this example to my will to further my point. What did you expect?
The pen creates the word that inspires thousands, millions maybe, to take up their sword in defense of one cause or another. Strangely, the attackers and defenders were always fighting to “defend” something. So, it’s defenders versus defenders now. In other words, I’m right, my mind won’t change, and you think you’re right, you won’t change either. See what I did there? The only option is a battle to the death, Kirk vs. Spock style I hope. At this point, you should be shouting “Aaron Burr” with a mouthful of peanut butter.
There are other mighty pens; the Fisher Space Pen comes to mind. People widely believed, even I thought it at one point, that NASA spent millions developing a pen that could write in outer space while the Russians were happy to use pencils. It’s untrue. Long story short, NASA did not spend any taxpayer money to develop it, and the space pen saved them money in the end. Even the Russians used it. If you think it’s still dumb, realize that when an astronaut sharpens a pencil, the shavings can wreak havoc in zero gravity, letting slip the dogs of war. Okay, maybe that last part was too dramatic, on purpose.
In my mind, a pen is the father of the pencil, but, in essence, they are the same thing. On the one hand, we have a pencil who’s shavings could cause a space shuttle to explode. That’s rather mighty. On the contrary, we have a pen that can write in space, already potent, and cost the equivalent of seven or eight million dollars, in 2016 dollars, to develop. That will buy a lot of assault rifles, so I think it’s fair to say that pen is also plenty mighty.
The pen, as in penitentiary, is also incredibly mighty. If you factor in mandatory minimums, I think it’s an easy decision to make. In fact, the good ole USA has about five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. I’m not shedding new light on this by any means. Sadly, this fact is as well known as the quote that we are talking about here, maybe more so. I don’t think we should ruin the lives of young people for making one mistake just because that error involved drugs. There are even people in jail only because they cannot afford bail and ultimately plead guilty to crimes that they often have not committed. These issues deserve more time than I can give in a paragraph, so let’s move on. Suffice to say; this is yet another mighty pen, justice need not apply.
In summary, the pen is mightier than the sword. In many situations, the pen is the sword. Perhaps the quote should be, “The pen is a tiny sword,” or “The pen is the mightiest sword.” Whatever the case may be, it all comes down to an individual’s point of view, like so many things in life. Okay, I concede that the penitentiary was a bit of a stretch. Was it, though? It strikes at the heart of the meaning of the quote; an idea put into practice is far stronger than the tool of a trade. Even when that trade is a warrior, and that tool is an instrument of death.
Copyright © 2016 by Adam L. Cobden. All Rights Reserved.