The Sword is mightier than the Pen

Jose Rizal, the radical Philippine national hero who used intelligence over violence, reechoed a classic adage which says: “the pen is mightier than the sword” – making known the revolution of ideas that changed the mentality of the oppressed Indios in strategizing a quasi-Crusade victory against the colonizers. Attacking with jabs of propagandas and hooks of anti-Spanish pamphlets, the brilliance and return of the Illustrados – the Filipinos who studied in Europe bringing the Enlightenment to Philippine shore – brought to light the human condition at that time.

The well-known quote was influential in earning Rizal the title national hero over Andres Bonifacio, the poor and unschooled yet intelligent father of the revolution in the Philippines who led physical warfare. But to dwell on this concern on whether the braniac deserves better than the doer and vice-versa could go around in circles, which is probably why the title, inclusive of a holiday to celebrate it, is secondarily shared with Bonifacio. We can still of course enter into this whole idea-action, theory-praxis, perpetual struggle but the game has already changed.

In the upcoming Philippine elections, who among the ‘presidentiables’ now can bring weight to this dimension of who is mightier to influence the revolutionary course of our time. Who can manifest the essence of a hero who will enlighten the darkened paths of a corrupted nation? If this is the struggle we are talking about, then it would boil down only to Santiago-Duterte: the former a highly-esteemed lawyer whose internationally-renowned CV can make one tremble and the latter a Mayor who is an embodiment of trembling itself for criminals in his territory. But the enigma of the pen and sword is more crucial than this paradigm.



New forms of the pen signal the affluent articulations of this heroic might: the epiphany of social media, the codification and analysis of poll opinions, and the parade of truthful entries by netizens’ digital personas. The pen, albeit now digitalized and veiled by the anonymity of the so-called freedom of expression (or misrepresentation?), reveals the truth more than ever. It presents a psychoanalytical paradox: those who express in any form of this pen, e.g. social media, more truthfully represent themselves compared to their actual wretched working class lives. The pen’s influence voices the current mindset of the land, and the wilderness has never been this jam-packed with prophetic declarations. The pen wielded by the Illustrados has passed through the machines of industrialism and the business transactions of capitalism that it has become a by-product in the skirmish for freedom: there is not one pen anymore, but many in the voice of those survivors who entered the digital era. The narrative of anyone who has this pen can now wield the freedom to express and criticize on a global scale, as if the fire of Prometheus has again been disseminated and morphed into batteries energizing anyone’s phone.

On a deeper level, not only does the digitized pen able to show the formerly repressed condition of a citizen, but it also articulates the kind of freedom one acquires with it. Did I not mention that the pens underwent the marque of capitalism? The pen one gets serves a truth only as good as its market-value. It has become a matter of label: from disposable brands to a Parker trademark. And the more expensive the pen is, the more impact it exudes.

Herein lies the point of reversal: while the pen represents the varying degrees of freedom and influence, the same gradation opens a weakness for the sword to enter.  The sword today can enforce lesser pens and give them credence equal to or more than the greater ones. It reveals the vulnerable reminder of a pen’s privation of its substratum – its ink – recounted in one of Žižek’s investigations:

“In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink.” And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants—the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we “feel free” because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict—“war on terror,” “democracy and freedom,” “human rights,” etc.—are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. The task today is to give the protesters red ink.”[1]

Sad to say, the missing red ink which exposes the deprived state of the pen is also the same blackmail the sword uses to cajole it. Many of those who wanted to show the truth are hindered by their own lack of power to communicate it freely. How many writers have been caught with this dilemma of biased reporting, this trap of covering only portions of what is truly happening? How many of them, terrified of the authorities better left unmentioned, barely conducted Husserl’s epoché in the bad light? How many of the underpaid teachers violate professional ethics and resort to bribery from their students? How many students have ventured on the idea that education is the only way out of economical poverty but ended up facing the deadly light of the speeding train heading towards them smashing their supposed-hope of the proverbial light of the tunnel? How many of us today who have the chance of making a sincere opinion of the world, went back to the herd of inarticulate slaves, reorganized as ignorant and misinformed vox populi, relapsed into a petrified cynicism, and surrendered our freedom to those who feed us? In short, how many of us have failed to grasp that today, knowledge is no longer power but at the mercy of power?

More from this hindrance is the strong emotional bond resembling a psychological apparatus attached to it like the Filipino concept of utang na loob (which means “debt of gratitude”). Apart from its meaning, its literal interpretation converges the terms utang (loan) and loob (self). In other words, the gratitude you owe cannot be paid by the exact value you loaned because it entails a higher payment: the sacrifice of the self or at the expense of one’s freedom.

While Muhammad says the truth that “the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr”[2], I say that the ink itself is the blood of every sojourner of life whose expression of oneself testifies to the oppressing reality. And the sword cuts through this bond and owns the blood as the main ingredient for the missing red ink. Those who stay in power grip the guts of everyone in dire need, as if all their endeavors serve only the interest of the former.

The sword today is precisely this privation of every powerless freedom: the controlling hegemony of ideological franchise. The necessary win-over-the-other identity of itself is a conditio sine qua non from the start: without the sword, whose branches of capitalism and neo-totalitarianism pervade throughout the battle for one’s rights, there would be no by-product such as the pen or expression of (un)freedom whatsoever to play the doomed anti-thesis for the day. Those who have the sword controls the pen, and to the Rizalists who elevated Rizal religiously as a deity, the same fate binds them to the Promethean fire which is actually a hellish flame of enslavement.



[1] Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso, 2002, 1.

[2] “Unparalleled Scientific Legacy of Islam”, Story of Pakistan, 7-26-2003.


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