The pen is mightier than the sword. Or at least it is according to the politician, novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who coined the expression in 1839 in his historical play about Cardinal Richelieu.
Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII of France, discovers a plot to kill him, but as a priest he is unable to fight his foes by taking up arms.
His page, François, argues: “But now, at your command are other weapons, my good Lord.”
Richelieu agrees: “The pen is mightier than the sword… Take away the sword – States can be saved without it!”
It’s an uplifting idea, and as a communications professional I’m attracted to the notion of the power of the written word, for good or ill.
To take a current example: the emphatic nature of yesterday’s report by Sir Laurie Magnus, the prime minister’s ethics adviser, was enough to see Nadhim Zahawi instantaneously dispatched by Rishi Sunak from his UK government job and the post of conservative party chairman, because of his “serious breach of the ministerial code” over previously unpaid tax.
However, if bullets are firing and missiles exploding (as continues to be the case in Ukraine and other parts of the world), it’s surely hard to sustain the argument that, in the moment, words are more powerful than weapons.
I think it’s more accurate to say that the word is more enduring than the sword.
Eventually, the issues that give rise to battle fade into history, and wars are rendered irrelevant to the modern world. Like vast numbers of pupils in successive generations, I studied the origins of the First World War at school, but I’m still a bit hazy as to what actually caused it. The world has been made and unmade again many times since.
Where conflict can become blurred or even forgotten, the word – if preserved – retains its clarity and potence.
A question that could be asked in a pointy-headed pub quiz would be the name of the very first known writer in history. People might say Homer, but in any event would invariably opt for a famous man from the ancient world. And they would be wrong.
The correct answer is a woman: Enheduanna. She was a princess and a priestess, a writer and a poet, who lived in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) from approximately 2285 to 2250 BC. Her works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets, which survive in later copies. In her temple hymns, Enheduanna knew the value and originality of her writings, concluding with: “The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”
Whatever you might be writing about this week, I’m not claiming it will be poured over by scholars more than four millennia from now. But what would it tell people of the future about our world if it was?