Most people are familiar with the expression “the pen is mightier than the sword”, but where does it come from?
This may have been the first usage in English, but Bulwer-Lytton appears to have borrowed from a longer tradition.
Napoleon Bonaparte, known more for his military conquests than his thinking, is known to have remarked that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
The Prophet Muhammad has been quoted as saying “the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr”.
And Greek playwright Euripides is thought to have written “the tongue is mightier than the blade” in circa 406 BC.
A long history indeed, but what does the expression actually mean?
To get at the meaning behind the expression, it may help to go back to basics.
A pen is a tool which can be used to write, and writing is a creative act that can be used to inform, entertain, and solve problems. The writer creates something that didn’t exist before and in doing so, assuming the writing has some merit, gives something to the reader which makes her better off as a result.
In contrast, a sword is a tool which can be used to fight, conquer, and acquire by force.
Writers share information and create intellectual property, and writing is the work of the educator, the scientist, and the author.
In contrast, fighters defend or acquire existing resources like land, property and oil reserves, and fighting is the province of the military, common thugs, and investment bankers.
For many of the world’s largest corporations, such as McDonald’s, Virgin and Apple, intellectual property is their most valuable asset.
The golden arches are one of the most recognisable trademarks in the world and have helped McDonald’s sell millions of BigMacs. Apple’s brand strength has consistently allowed it to enter new markets while its rivals have routinely struggled. And the power of Virgin’s reputation has allowed the company to enter a diverse range of unrelated markets including trains, planes, space travel, and hotels.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” is not just a pithy expression. If properly understood, it has real relevance for business leaders and the strategies that they choose to employ to sustain and grow their organisations.