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 metonymicadage indicating that communication, or in some interpretations, administrative power, is a more effective tool than direct violence. Some modern day sources (see examples listed below) use irony to humorously invert the original intent of the observation, often by a character using the quote after a pen has been used as a physical weapon.
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. The play was about Cardinal Richelieu, though in the author's words "license with dates and details... has been, though not unsparingly, indulged." The Cardinal's line in Act II, scene II, was more fully:
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!
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." By 1888 another author, Charles Sharp, feared that repeating the phrase "might sound trite and commonplace". The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which opened in 1897, has the adage decorating an interior wall. 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 that "The word is mightier than the sword."
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." 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, and is thus possibly an anachronism.
Several possible precursors do appear in the Old and New Testaments, 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."
The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr".
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." 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."
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." After listing several historical examples he concludes: "Hinc quam sit calamus saevior ense patet", which translates as "From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword."
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"
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, Jr, 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".
The phrase appeared as the motto of gold pen manufacturer Levi Willcutt during a Railroad Jubilee in Boston, Massachusetts which ran during the week beginning 17 September 1852.
The motto appears in the school room illustration on page 168 of the first edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). The words "pen" and "is" are suspiciously close together leading some scholars to speculate that the illustrator, True Williams, deliberately chose the narrow spacing as a subtle obscene prank.
In the 1989 film Batman, the insane criminal known as The Joker uses the phrase in a darkly literal sense, after wielding a fountain pen like a dart to wound a rival crime lord.
British music photographer Kevin Cummins once shot The Smiths vocalist Morrissey in front of a handwritten "pen is mightier than the sword" poster in the background. The writing was styled so that the first two words appeared to be "penis".
A recurring GEICO commercial uses the phrase as a question, "Is the pen mightier than the sword?" It shows a ninja wielding and brandishing a sword with elite skills; an amateur defeats him by signing (with a pen) a package for a taser, with which he then shoots the sword-wielder.
In the 1989 film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", Marcus Brody, the companion of Henry Jones, remarks that they had just borne witness to the fact that the "Pen is mightier than the sword".
^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!"
^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.Check date values in: |date= (help)
^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."
^Beveridge, H. (1902). "XLVI". The Akbarnama Of Abu-l-Fazl2. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
^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.
^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. ISBN81-206-1709-6.
^ abBurton, Robert (as Democritus Junior). "Part i, Sect. 2, Memb. 4, Subsect. 4". In Karl Hagen. The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, and several cures of it. Project Gutenberg.
^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.
^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.