The pen is mightier than the sword

An illustration of Cardinal Richelieu holding a sword, by H. A. Ogden, 1892, from The Works of Edward Bulwer Lytton

"The pen is mightier than the sword" is a metonymic adage indicating that communication (particularly written language), or in some interpretations, administrative power or advocacy of an independent press, is a more effective tool than direct violence.


The sentence (if not the idea, which had been expressed in various earlier forms) was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.[1][2] The play was about Cardinal Richelieu, though in the author's words "license with dates and details ... has been, though not unsparingly, indulged".[1] The Cardinal's line in Act II, scene II, was more fully:[3]

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 opened at London's Covent Garden Theatre on 7 March 1839 with William Charles Macready in the lead role.[4] Macready believed its opening night success was "unequivocal"; Queen Victoria attended a performance on 14 March.[4]

In 1870, literary critic Edward Sherman Gould wrote that Bulwer "had the good fortune to do, what few men can hope to do: he wrote a line that is likely to live for ages".[2] By 1888 another author, Charles Sharp, feared that repeating the phrase "might sound trite and commonplace".[5] The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which opened in 1897, has the adage decorating an interior wall.[6][7] Though Bulwer's phrasing was novel, the idea of communication surpassing violence in efficacy had numerous predecessors.


Assyrian sage Ahiqar, who reputedly lived during the early 7th century BC, coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BC, states, "The word is mightier than the sword."[8]

According to the website,[9] the book The People's Almanac by Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky lists several supposed predecessors to Bulwer's phrasing.

Their first example comes from the Greek playwright Euripides, who died c. 406 BC. He is supposed to have written: "The tongue is mightier than the blade."[9] If the People's Almanac is correct, it should be possible to source this to an extant work by Euripides; however, the quote does appear in the 1935 fictional work Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina by Robert Graves,[10] and is thus possibly an anachronism.

Several possible precursors do appear in the Old and New Testaments,[11] for example, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose authorship is uncertain, verse 4:12 has been translated as: "Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart."[12]

An incident in the Babylonian Talmud refers to the Roman troops entering the synagogue classrooms. "And when the enemy entered there, these schoolchildren stabbed them with their pens [behotreihen - a type of sharp stick used with waxed tablets]. And when the enemy prevailed and caught them, they wrapped the children in their scrolls and lit them on fire. [13]

The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr".[14][15]

In 1529, Antonio de Guevara, in Reloj de príncipes, compared a pen to a lance, books to arms, and a life of studying to a life of war.[16][17] Thomas North, in 1557, translated Reloj de príncipes into English as Diall of Princes.[17] The analogy would appear in again in 1582, in George Whetstone's An Heptameron of Civil Discourses: "The dashe of a Pen, is more greeuous than the counterbuse of a Launce."[18][19]

Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, who died in 1602 and was personal scribe and vizier to Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (Akbar the Great), wrote of a gentleman put in charge of a fiefdom having "been promoted from the pen to the sword and taken his place among those who join the sword to the pen, and are masters both of peace and war."[20][21] Syad Muhammad Latif, in his 1896 history of Agra, quoted King Abdullah of Bokhara (Abdullah-Khan II), who died in 1598, as saying that "He was more afraid of Abu'l-Fazl's pen than of Akbar's sword."[22]

William Shakespeare in 1600, in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, wrote: "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills."[9][23]

Robert Burton, in 1621, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, stated: "It is an old saying, A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword: and many men are as much galled with a calumny, a scurrilous and bitter jest, a libel, a pasquil, satire, apologue, epigram, stage-play or the like, as with any misfortune whatsoever."[24] After listing several historical examples he concludes: "Hinc quam sit calamus saevior ense patet",[24] which translates as "From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword."[9]

Thomas Jefferson, on June 19, 1792, ended a letter to Thomas Paine with: "Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Y[ou]rs. &c. Thomas Jefferson"[9][25]

The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), known to history for his military conquests, also left this oft-quoted remark: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets." He also said: "There are only two powers in the world, saber and mind; at the end, saber is always defeated by mind" ("Il n'y a que deux puissances au monde, le sabre et l'esprit : à la longue, le sabre est toujours vaincu par l'esprit.")

Published in 1830, by Joseph Smith, an account in the Book of Mormon related, "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".[26]

Netizens have suggested that a 1571 edition of Erasmus' Institution of a Christian Prince contains the words "There is no sworde to bee feared more than the Learned pen"[27][28] but this is not evident from modern translations[29] and this could be merely a spurious quotation.

As motto and slogan

See also


  1. 1 2 Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy: A Play in Five Acts. (second ed.). London. 1839.
  2. 1 2 Gould, Edward Sherman (1870). Good English. New York: W.J. Widdleton. p. 63.
  3. Lord Lytton (1892). The Dramatic Works of Auston. IX. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier. p. 136.
  4. 1 2 Macready, William Charles (1875). Sir Frederick Pollock, ed. Macready's Reminiscences, and Selections from His Diaries and Letters. New York: MacMillan and Co. p. 471.
  5. Sharp, Charles (1888). The Sovereignty of Art. London: T. Fisher Unwin. p. 67.
  6. Reynolds, Charles B (1897). Library of Congress and the Interior Decorations: A Practical Guide for Visitors. New York, Washington, St. Augustine: Foster & Reynolds. p. 15.
  7. Specifically, the west wall of the entrance pavilion's second floor south corridor
  8. Matthews, Victor and Benjamin, Don (2006). Old Testament Parallels (3rd ed.). Paulist Press. p. 304.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 "About the history and origins behind the famous saying the pen is mightier than the sword.". citing Wallechinsky, David, Irving Wallace (1981). The People's Almanac.
  10. Graves, Robert (1935). Claudius, the God and His Wife Messalina. H. Smith and R. Haas. p. 122.
  11. see also "New American Bible, Revelation Chapter 1:16 (footnote)". Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. 2002. Retrieved 13 November 2006. Notes similar imagery also used in Revelation verses 1:16, 2:16, and 19:15; Ephesians 6:17; as well as in the Old Testament: Wisdom 18:15; and Isaiah 11:4; 49:2.
  12. "New American Bible, Hebrews 4:12". Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. 2002. Retrieved 13 November 2006.
  13. Gitten, Daf 58A. |title=Koren Talmud Bavli, The Noe Edition |publisher=Shefa Foundation, Koren Publishers |location=Jerusalem |year=2015
  14. "Unparalleled Scientific Legacy of Islam". Story of Pakistan. 2003-07-26. Retrieved 2014-01-20.
  16. In Spanish: "¡Cuánta diferencia vaya de mojar la péñola de la tinta a teñir la lanza en la sangre, y estar rodeados de libros o estar cargados de armas, de estudiar cómo cada uno ha de vivir o andar a saltear en la guerra para a su prójimo matar!"
  17. 1 2 Di Salvo, Angelo J. (1989). "Spanish Guides to Princes and the Political Theories in Don Quijote". The Cervantes Society of America. Retrieved 12 November 2006.
  18. Whetstone, George (1582-02-03). "thyrd Daies Exercise". An heptameron of ciuill discourses (2nd ed.). Richard Iones, at the signe of the Rose and the Crowne, neare Holburne Bridge. STC (2nd ed.) / 25337.
  19. It appears as a marginal note to the passage: "The Doctor, that had giuen as many déepe woundes with his Pen, as euer he had doone with his Launce, shronke no more at these threates, then an Oke at the Helue of an Are, but coldely wylled him, to vse his pleasure, he was ready to defend (or to die, in) his oppinion."
  20. Beveridge, H. (1902). "The Akbarnama Of Abu-l-Fazl". Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  21. A source has Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak in Āīn-e Akbari (the third volume of the Akbarnama), quoting his master as saying to his calligraphers "Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword" but this is spurious. Source is: Ahmed, Firoz Bakht (2002-04-01). "Writing their own epitaph...". The Hindu. Retrieved 13 November 2006.
  22. Latif, Syad Muhammad (2003). Agra Historical & Descriptive with an Account of Akbar and His Court and of the Modern City of Agra, 1896. Asian Educational Services. p. 264. ISBN 81-206-1709-6.
  23. Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark". Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  24. 1 2 Burton, Robert (as Democritus Junior). Karl Hagen, ed. "The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, and several cures of it". Part i, Sect. 2, Memb. 4, Subsect. 4. Project Gutenberg.
  25. Jefferson, Thomas (1792-06-19). "To Thomas Paine Philadelphia, June 19, 1792". From Revolution to Reconstruction. Retrieved 13 November 2006.
  26. Smith, Jr., Joseph (1830-03-26). "The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi". Palmyra, New York: E. B. Grandin. p. 310.
  27. Re: Pen vs. sword which cites Titelman, Gregory Y. (1996). Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. New York: Random House.
  28. "the pen is mightier.....". March 2003. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  29. Born, Lester K. (1963). "Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince (1516)". New York: Octagon Books. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  30. Boston (Mass.). City Council (1852). The Railroad Jubilee. An Account of the Celebration Commemorative of the Opening of Railroad Communication Between Boston and Canada. J. E. Eastburn, city printer. p. 139.
  31. Ensor, Allison R. (1989). "Mightier Than the Sword" An Undetected Obscenity in the First Edition of TOM SAWYER". 27 (1, Spring). Mark Twain Journal. p. 25.

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