September 25, 2023

The Pen vs The Sword

A conceit in which I contend they are the same

In an electronic world is one permitted to muse upon the future of expressions such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’? Today, can we say, ‘the (computer) key is mightier than the sword? Or, more appropriately, the ‘chip is mightier than the missile’? Then too, with the integration of computers/electronics and warheads/missiles does a comparison exist? After all neither one can be mightier than the other when they are, in fact, the same. Or, should we, in musing, revert to what the expression originally meant, ‘that an idea expressed in words can effect more change faster and sooner and with further reaching implications than a single, short, swift death’?

Somehow having explained the proverb in such detail, the essence of its trenchant wit is lost in a mire of, what can one call it in modern parlance, subtext? No, that doesn’t do justice to the wealth of implication, understanding and complex comprehension that goes into the appreciation of that aphorism. So we must return in time to that period in human history when a pen was a mere feather and a sword a heavy, ungainly shaft of beaten steel at best. The only resemblance between the two at the time was the fact that they both ended in sharp points. And there the similarity ended. The methods of employment and the end results were distinctly different. A pen was dipped in ink and then it ‘stabbed’ at parchment or paper. A sword, on the other hand, stabbed at a body and then was dipped in blood. The words stabbed out by a pen often lived on in the minds and hearts of readers; however, a body stabbed often died and was heard no more.

What paths did these two disparate instruments travel? What happened to their evolution? The quill evolved into the fountain pen and the ballpoint pen. The sword, which once killed man to man, withdrew further and further away from physical contact and grew into the blunderbuss, the shotgun, the rifle – and various versions thereof – to the missile/ rocket. When did the distance from mortal combat of the one shrink and collapse into the immortality of the other? When did the pen lose its point in preference to the soft smooth bluntness of the key?

Their journey to convergence, through some vat and cosmic irony is that in our times, the ‘pen’ is the ‘sword’ is the ‘key’ is the missile. And if one key (pen) were so arranged that a single missive could be linked to a missile, powerful enough to annihilate the world, then indeed it would be the mightiest of all. Its effects would be so far reaching that there would be no need to ponder on the future of such expressions as there could well be no future at all.

And yet we pray for peace in our times.


12 Comments on The Pen vs The Sword

  1. Perhaps I would be stating the obvious. The debatable question that you have raised is a rather time-enduring one. I would with youthful ignorance prefer to eliminate the words “Pen”, “mightier” and “Sword” and replace them with “Speech” (or dialogue), “effective” and “violence or rebellion”.

    This was true in 1947 and is true today as well. And this is true of a State or a family, work place or public encounter. The proverb originally crafted by an ingenious Engllish author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 was as a matter of fact smartly alluded by Thomas Jefferson in a letter sent to Thomas Paine in 1796, in which he wrote: “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.”

    The proverb shall never be changed for its soul continues to live.

  2. Welcome to the ‘penned’ world of authors that sharply penetrate the minds of the readers, with this interesting article in The Flaneur! Enjoyed the viewpoint on the convergence and the final test of world annihilation that we all pray for not happening – other than in debates. At the same time, the strength of the pen, keyboard, parchment or paper, images or script, the monitor screen et all to create that often moves the world so significantly in very desirable directions should not be missed either.

    Keep it up…

  3. Ideas are just as dangerous as weapons, in the wrong hands. Just now we hear that the Bhagavad Gita ( an Indian treatise which has the status of a holy book) may be banned in some countries as it could be interpreted to absolve a person of the responsibility for their misdeeds! Ie do whatever you want to do, or are ordered to do, the result is not yours to ponder on! When all it says is – do your duty without regard for the reward!

    In fact, this particular phrase always leads me to ponder on another – “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

    Does this mean that good and bad are relative? Yes. Does it mean that we have a duty to think and reason out the good and bad of each situation and act to reduce the evil? Yes. Are these viewpoints two somehow opposed? Yes. So where does that leave us?

    Actually, precisely where the Gita pointed us – do your duty, as you see it, without concern for reward.

    Some paraphrase the Gita to say that the end justifies the means. Others prefer to abdicate all responsibility for their actions under cover of its advice.

  4. KK – I agree with you the spirit of the proverb remains, until it is all telescoped. What I aver is that today the point of separation is blurred and one could so well lead to another.

    Ashitda, Thanks for your encouragement and wisdom.

    Mallika – What you say is so true and with the blurring of lines makes the future of peace doubtful, which is why I ended on that note, “and yet we pray for peace in our times.”
    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  5. Since neither the pen nor the sword has resulted in peace — I wonder what else we can try … not sure what would work.

    “And yet we pray for peace in our times.” Well said, Rohini.

  6. Here is a quote from the writer and comedian Simon Munnery:

    “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Indeed – likewise he who lives by the pen, he who lives by the word processor, he who who lives by the fax machine all shall die by the sword. Only he who lives by the tank shall remain immune.”

  7. well written Rohini! Interesting evolution of two powerful tools. I like the idea of convergence as it is fitting in these technological times and the power it yields as one, is undeniable.

  8. An excellent piece Rohini. It’s a troubling thought as to what other weapon we can use to try…and stop violence. We need – oh how we need…less sheep thinkers and more outside of the box!

  9. So good to see that these are still on the site Jonathan. Thank you and I am so pleased with how The Flaneur has evolved. Sorry I’m not contributing as regularly as I could, but I don’t know how now!

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