2010 – Most Philosophical Student in America

Achutha Raman, Massachusetts.

Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?

Words compose the fabric of modern society. With words we clothe our emotions, feed our minds, and communicate our ideas. Through words, not violence, we are inspired and inspire, shaping the thoughts of both individuals and masses, and ultimately provoking lasting change.

It demands an exceptional commander, a Caesar or Napoleon, to achieve even moderate military success and maintain stability and control. Nonetheless, the result cannot last and empires bred of violence invariably collapse. It may take a decade or even a few centuries, but the crumbling will occur, be it Napoleon’s Empire erupting after defeat at Waterloo or Stalinist Russia, bred from the violence of Marxism, eventually melting from the heat of the Cold War and economic failures.

On the other hand, writers and speakers need not have a prodigious grasp of language to succeed. For example, while well-written propaganda pieces may be influential, far more often we see words held together not by mechanics, but by provocative ideas. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no literary masterpiece, but the abolitionist ideas that underlie it were so provocative at publication that the book became the best-selling novel of the 1800s and is widely considered a primary instigator for the massive Civil War.

Yet, not only do words communicate the ideas that begin a conflict- they also describe the clash itself. When a war is fought in the distance, people cannot rely on their own empirical observations, but instead must depend on news- words that have a certain spin, be it from a soldier himself or a reporter with a particular political affiliation. Any information that civilians receive during times of war is the result of pens scribbling furiously, already angled in some way, and these words prompt continued action or inaction; the pen thus is continually at work, sketching and re-sketching the physique of the sword.

Martyrs perhaps best exemplify the triumph of language over violence. These individuals are physically destroyed by violence, but through words, they and their ideals are resurrected. From Jesus Christ to James Brown of the antebellum era to Stephen Biko of the apartheid struggles, successful martyrs abound in history, inciting both immediate and lasting action. They show that in a one-on-one battle between the pen and sword, the pen deals the final blow.

Yet, this should not be too surprising. The pen, after all, is itself a mighty sword, a barrel of ink sheathed in a plastic scabbard, with a metal tip that bleeds into the world. A sword may have the power to decapitate and destroy immediately, but the pen has long-term influence. A pen can not only destroy, as all too often it is used to slander reputations, but far more importantly, it can create. It can clarify and quantify, build off of what is already alive. it can unleash new thoughts into the world, and in this way forge legacies that will be remembered long after individual conflicts have passed.


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