The pen is mightier than the sword

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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 the written word is more effective than violence as a means of social or political change. This sentiment has been expressed with metaphorical contrasts of writing implements and weapons for thousands of years. The specific wording that "the pen is mightier than the sword" was first used by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839.

Under some interpretations, written communication can refer to administrative power or an independent news media.


The exact sentence 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]

Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand!— itself a 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![4]

The play opened at London's Covent Garden Theatre on 7 March 1839 with William Charles Macready in the lead role.[5] Macready believed its opening night success was "unequivocal"; Queen Victoria attended a performance on 14 March.[5]

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".[6] The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which opened in 1897, has the adage decorating an interior wall.[7][8] Although Bulwer's phrasing was novel, the idea of communication surpassing violence in efficacy had numerous predecessors.

The saying quickly gained currency, says Susan Ratcliffe, associate editor of the Oxford Quotations Dictionaries. "By the 1840s it was a commonplace."[9]


Earliest sources[edit]

Assyrian sage Ahiqar, who reputedly lived during the early 7th century BCE, coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BCE, states, "The word is mightier than the sword."[10]

According to the website Trivia Library,[12] the book The People's Almanac[11] provides another very early example from Greek playwright Euripides, who died c. 406 BCE. He is supposed to have written: "The tongue is mightier than the blade."[12][a]

Islamic sources[edit]

The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted, in a saying narrated by 'Abdullah ibn Amr: "There will be a tribulation that will wipe out the Arabs in which those killed on both sides are in the Hellfire. In that time the spoken word will be stronger than the sword".[14]

Abu'l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, who died in 1602 and was personal scribe and vizier to 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."[15][17] 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."[18]

In contrast, Abu Tammam's Ode on the Conquest of Amorium poem intro: "The sword is the truest news [in comparison with] books... In its sharpness, the boundary between seriousness and play".[19]

Early pre-enlightenment sources[edit]

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.[20][21] Thomas North, in 1557, translated Reloj de príncipes into English as Diall of Princes.[21] 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."[22][b]

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",[23][24] but this is not evident from modern translations[25] and this could be merely a spurious quotation.

William Shakespeare in 1600, in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, wrote: "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills."[12][26]

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."[27] After listing several historical examples he concludes: "Hinc quam sit calamus saevior ense patet",[27] which translates as "From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword."[12]

Early modern sources[edit]

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.").

Thomas Jefferson, on 19 June 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"[12][28]

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".[29]

As motto and slogan[edit]

  • 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.[30]
  • 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.[31]
  • It is the motto of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority.
  • It is also the motto of Kaisei Academy in Tokyo, Japan.
  • In its Latinized form, Calamus Gladio Fortior, it is the motto of Keio University in Tokyo, Japan.
  • In another Latinized form, Cedit Ensis Calamo, it is the motto of the Authors' Club of London, founded by Walter Besant in 1891.
  • In another Latinized form, Doctrina Fortior Armis, it is the motto of Hipperholme Grammar School, in West Yorkshire, England.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ If The People's Almanac[11] is correct, it should be possible to source the expression to one of the extant works of Euripides. However, because the quote does appear in the 1935 fictional work Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina by Robert Graves,[13] it is possibly an anachronism.
  2. ^ 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."


  1. ^ a b Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy: A Play in Five Acts (second ed.). London. 1839.
  2. ^ a b Gould, Edward Sherman (1870). Good English. New York: W.J. Widdleton. p. 63.
  3. ^ Lytton, Lord (1892). The Dramatic Works of Auston. Vol. IX. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier. p. 136.
  4. ^ Richelieu: or, The conspiracy : A Play, in Five Acts. To Which are added, Historical Odes on The last days of Elizabeth; Cromwell's dream; The death of Nelson by the Author of the "Lady of Lyon", "Eugene Aram" & c. (1 ed.). London: Saunders and Otley, Conduit Street. 1839. p. 39. Retrieved 8 December 2016 – via Internet Archive.
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ Sharp, Charles (1888). The Sovereignty of Art. London: T. Fisher Unwin. p. 67.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Specifically, the west wall of the entrance pavilion's second floor south corridor
  9. ^ The - Online Idioms Dictionary
  10. ^ Matthews, Victor and Benjamin, Don (2006). Old Testament Parallels (3rd ed.). Paulist Press. p. 304.
  11. ^ a b c Wallace, Irving; Wallechinsky, David (1981). The People's Almanac. New York, NY: Doubleday.
  12. ^ a b c d e "About the history and origins behind the famous saying the pen is mightier than the sword". which cites Wallechinsky & Wallace (1981).[11]
  13. ^ Graves, Robert (1935). Claudius, the God and His Wife Messalina. H. Smith and R. Haas. p. 122.
  14. ^ "Source: Musnad Aḥmad 6941, which has been graded Sahih (authentic) according to Ahmad Shakir". 30 January 2014.
  15. ^ Beveridge, H. (1902). "The Akbarnama Of Abu-l-Fazl". Chapter XLVI. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  16. ^ Ahmed, Firoz Bakht (1 April 2002). "Writing their own epitaph ..." The Hindu. Archived from the original on 23 October 2002. Retrieved 13 November 2006.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  17. ^ 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. The source is a newspaper article by Ahmed (2002).[16]
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Arberry 1965, p. 52.
  20. ^ 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!"
  21. ^ a b 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.
  22. ^ Whetstone, George (3 February 1582). "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 / 25337.
  23. ^ "Re: Pen vs. sword". which cites Titelman, Gregory Y. (1996). Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. New York: Random House.
  24. ^ "the pen is mightier ..." March 2003. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  25. ^ Born, Lester K. (1963) [1516]. "Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince". New York: Octagon Books. Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  26. ^ Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark". Retrieved 15 November 2006.
  27. ^ a b Burton, Robert (as Democritus Junior). Hagen, Karl (ed.). "The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, and several cures of it". Project Gutenberg. Part i, Sect. 2, Memb. 4, Subsect. 4.
  28. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (19 June 1792). "To Thomas Paine Philadelphia, June 19, 1792". From Revolution to Reconstruction. Retrieved 13 November 2006.
  29. ^ Smith, Jr., Joseph (26 March 1830). "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.
  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". Vol. 27, no. 1, Spring. Mark Twain Journal. p. 25.