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"The pen is mightier than the sword" is a metonymic adage 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:

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

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 Buildingmarker of the Library of Congressmarker, 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.

As motto and slogan



Predecessors

According to the website Trivia-Library.com, the book The People's Almanac by Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky lists several supposed predecessors to Bulwer's phrasing.

Their first example comes from the Greek playwright Euripides, who died circa 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 reads: "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".

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. Thomas North, in 1557, translated Reloj de príncipes into English as Diall of Princes. 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."

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 Agramarker, quoted King Abdullah of Bokharamarker (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."

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

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 pasquilmarker, 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.”

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".

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" but this is not evident from modern translations and this could be merely a spurious quotation.

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