October 16, 2012
The precise formulation: “The pen is mightier than the sword” first appeared in English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. But over the centuries many writers have stated the same or similar sentiment in other words.
Assyrian sage Ahiqar, who reputedly lived during the early seventh century BC, coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BCE, states that "The word is mightier than the sword."
The Greek playwright Euripides, who died circa 406 BCE is supposed to have written: "The tongue is mightier than the blade."
The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr".
William Shakespeare in 1600, in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, wrote: "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.
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.
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.”
Is it true? Is the pen mightier than the sword? Or is this just a literary conceit emanating from the desire of these writers to express affinity for peaceful discourse in human relations over the recourse to physical violence?
The pen is mightier than the sword boils down to a comparison between the psychological power of language to influence behavior and the power of physical violence to achieve the same thing. How is it possible to analyze this comparison and this contest?
Language (the pen) exercises psychological influence on many planes. When the mind is informed by the contents of a written book that is a psychological process called learning. A horror story on the other hand can evoke fear, which is also a psychological state. An article critical of some government corruption can evoke anger. There is no question but that the human mind is strongly affected by written language. And the mind -- what people think -- is the source for what they do. That’s true for language that employs the truth as well as when it employs deceit.
The Nazis routinely employed deceit in carrying out the genocide of European Jewry in World War II. Millions of Jews were told they were being transported to work camps, and this disarmed them from the fear they were being led to the slaughter. In the camps also, the Nazis told the Jewish murder victims they were going to showers, not the gas chambers, and this also disarmed their minds from thinking about self defense. The Nazi deceit in this case was a form of psychological violence that removed from the minds of the Jews the idea of resisting.
Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany fear verbal resistance precisely because their entire grasp of power is based on lies. Criticism of the regime in print is obviously verboten because the truth undermines their very hold on power. But in order to effectively undermine a totalitarian regime it isn’t feasible to depend solely on verbal resistance.
Physical violence has two provinces: crime and war. In criminal acts the perpetrator employs a deadly weapon, a gun or a knife or a bomb, for the purpose of forcing his will on the victim whether it is an armed robbery, murder, or rape or other violent crime. In war, lethal weapons are obviously employed for the purpose of forcing the enemy to surrender. Psychological violence is also a known quantity and includes all kinds of verbal harassment and humiliation through language. But psychological violence isn’t a crime or a military battle obviously. The use of naked physical violence in crime and in war takes a leap beyond language and psychology and resorts to the influence of force per se. It boils down to facing mortal fear. Life or death. Not psychology. Although there is unquestionably a psychological effect in being subjected to machine gun fire or aerial bombardment. This naked use of force is the key element in making the enemy see for himself that his fate is doomed. Make him lose hope of achieving victory. But language does not achieve this in a war. Only violent weapons. Psychological warfare is a highly developed area of warfare that employs language and psychological tactics to persuade the enemy to give up. But psychological warfare alone does not win wars.
Reality based conclusion -- The pen is not mightier than the sword. Naked physical force will trump the psychological force of language in every contest. The idea that language can somehow trump violence is a literary conceit emanating from the world of ideas and humane letters not reality. It is pleasant and literary to think it is so, but the bottom line is that language is no contest for violence, and that is how the world works, and has worked throughout history. The psychological power of language has power and influence on many planes and human frameworks. But it will never succeed in defeating physical violence as an instrument of persuasion and purpose if one is set against the other in any contest.
The most significant and largest contests in history in human and physical terms, the ones that have had the most far reaching consequences, have not been between the pen and the sword, as it were, but between the sword and the sword. It wasn’t language that defeated Germany and Japan in World War II. But by the same token it was the allied sword in WWII that saved the world for the practice of humane letters. The war against Islam in the world today needs to attain the same objective.
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