If you are old enough, remind yourself of, but if you are younger, accustom yourself with this famous old metonymic adage - “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Coined by an English writer Edward Bulwer Lytton in 1839 in his play Cardinal Richelieu, the validity of the message he puts across to the contemporary world then, is being frugally tested by current realities. Does the message still hold today?
Metonymy is a literary device, a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for its’ rhetorical or contextual effect. It is a figure of speech that substitutes the name of an attribute or characteristic for that of something else with which it is closely associated either in application and or effect. In this historical case, Bulwer used a pen to refer to the written word or communication and the sword to refer to militancy and violence.
Literally translated, “written communication is more powerful, more impactful compared to force or violence”. As to whether this opinion held true then or (still) does today largely depend on the frame of reference against which interpretation is made, and hence its prudence logically rests in the eyes of the beholder.
While a pen and sword are quite distinct in their nature, and whose comparison may not bear any logical inferences, the rationality in their comparison lies with their ability and extent to cause impact. It is stated that there are two powers in the world - one is the sword and the other is the pen. The pen causes mental impact while the sword or violence causes physical impact, which also decodes into mental effect. Bulwer through the proverb ‘Pen is Mightier than the Sword’, intended to portray that the power and strength of writing is stronger and more impactful than the influence of violence or war.
This firm Bulwer supposition comes into relatively sharp contrast with yet another famous quote – ‘Actions speak louder than words’, which more or less implies that actions are more powerful and impactful than words, whether written or spoken. This supposition lends credence to postulates that physically, actions whether positive or negative, have greater effect compared to words, seen in the same light.
Experientially, many souls will concur with this presume.
Looking at the world today through the lenses of these two famous quotations, we get constantly confronted with spectres depicting force of action rather than the power of the written word as the predominant driving force shaping today’s world.
It is not uncommon anymore, perhaps as it may have always been, to hear people with authority pledging allegiance to the power of the sword in preference to the might of the word, even the ones they themselves inscribed.
Allegiance to the products of a pen is not lucrative as it does not guarantee the investors their preferred outcomes and returns as the sword does.
Humans just as seen in the animal kingdom, are oriented towards establishing pecking orders, the hierarchical pattern of social organization where authority is established based on the pecking power one possesses, broadly stated, this is establishing a dominance hierarchy. The sword, violence is the effective currency used in this enterprise, not the pen.
The electoral arena world over is evidently getting less and less governed by the ballot, but by the sword. References have been made of the ballot as mere piece of paper that should not be expected to be used to change leadership. This is one of the most vivid examples of our times demonstrating validation of this hypothesis.
Instruments for governance and regulation of business within and among states and organisations - charters, commissions and constitutions are often manifestly dishonoured, relegated and substituted with confrontation. People subscribing to these projects do not see reflections of their subjective objectives in the blueprints and hence coopt the sword, the end justifying the means, not inherent in the means. It is easier and more conspicuous to write oneself into history with sword and blood than with pen and ink.
The neo socio-political dictates have made the pen superfluous and redundant in practice, rendering it largely an inconsequential, ceremonial entity that is evoked only when our dominions are not at-stake.