One of my favorite topics is the use of language and the power words have to redefine and change our world. There's a very old saying that, "The pen is mightier than the sword," and in many respects it's true. That saying, by the way, was written by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for a play about Cardinal Richelieu, but that's an entirely different story.
Words can be used to inspire, to provide insight, to calm, to placate, or for a hundred other purposes. If written by a true master of language, words can change the world, immortalize the author, and live on forever. I do not flatter myself that I write anything more than light extemporania. How do I know? It's very easy to be humbled by those who truly have the training and the exceptional gift for wordsmithing. Or put another way, one generally can spot truly great writing when one reads it!
Take, for example, the writings of one of the greatest men of the 20th century, Sir Winston Churchill. Here is a sample of his writing skill that comes from a radio address he gave June 18, 1940, during the darkest days of World War II when it seemed likely that the Nazis would invade England. Here's what Churchill said, "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, the whole world, including the Unites States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ÔThis was their finest hour.'"
Think about the beauty of the sentence: "If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands." The imagery created by that sentence is nothing short of masterful.
And, yet, I think, perhaps, one of the greatest masters of the English language was a man from the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a man of humble origins who had the gift to inspire a nation with his use of language. Take two passages from Lincoln's second inaugural address, given March 4, 1865, for example. "On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without warÑseeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came." The last sentence of that quotation is a magnificent expression of the power of language.
Even more memorable is the last paragraph of Lincoln's second inaugural address. People simply do not talk this way any more, and it's a pity. This paragraph clearly shows a master's touch. The words crafted by Lincoln say much about the man and his view of the times in which he was living. They also elevate the tragic conflict of the American Civil War to an immortal expression about a larger world view of the importance of peace and reconciliation. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Finally, it is worth noting that, as great as Lincoln's second inaugural address is, it was also Lincoln who gave the world, in only 10 sentences, a summary of the true meaning of the American Civil War. Books have been written about Lincoln's use of language in his address at Gettysburg on the occasion of the dedication of the national cemetery there on November 19, 1863. Author Garry Wills writes in "Lincoln at Gettysburg" that there are parallels between Lincoln's short speech and Pericles' Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War as reported by Thucydides some 400 years before the birth of Christ. Not bad for a self-educated man who was born in Kentucky and grew up in Indiana.
The most powerful lines come at the end of Lincoln's speech. He said: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usÑthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotionÑthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vainÑthat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomÑand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Both Lincoln's and Churchill's words clearly demonstrates the power of language and its ability to make the men who spoke them immortal. Thus, it seems to be true that the pen is far mightier than the sword.
That's Ñ30Ñ for this week.