The truth of this proverb may not be realised at first sight. Wars, revolutions, and conquest of one country by another loom large in the history of the world. While a dictator or a commander of an army struts about in the limelight, a poet or a novelist, shut up in his humble study, seems to be a neglected figure.
Yet, on closer reflection, it will be found that the written word is more powerful than physical force. Ideas expressed in words can reach millions of hearts and move them to action. Shelley has said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
The changes brought about military strength, though sudden and spectacular, are short-lived; the changes effected by literature, though slow and imperceptible, are lasting.
It will be noticed that several revolutions and wars themselves have been the result of certain books and pamphlets. The writings of Rousseau and Voltaire kindled the flame of the French Revolution, while Karl Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ paved the way for the Russian Revolution. An important force behind our struggle for independence was our study of English literature which instilled into our minds love of freedom and democracy.
Some books have so powerfully attacked certain social evils that governments have been compelled to abolish them. The novels of Dickens and H. C. Wells and the plays of Bernard Shaw were responsible for several social reforms. For example, Shaw’s exposure of the evils of private practice in medicine in The Doctor’s Dilemma led to the nationalization of the medical profession in England. Another example of the power of the pen is the influence of newspapers in democratic countries. Long ago, Burke described the Press as the fourth estate. Governments, though supported by the army and the police, have to be afraid of public opinion, and public opinion is largely shaped by newspapers.
Empires founded on military strength have disappeared, while masterpieces of literature like the plays of Kalidasa and Shakespeare survive. Carlyle said that, if he were to choose between Shakespeare and the Indian Empire, he would prefer Shakespeare. He was right, for the Indian Empire, the accomplishment of the sword, has vanished, while Shakespeare’s plays, the products of the pen, have stood the test of time.