It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword ‘ and for the most part this is true when we look at some of history’s greatest speakers and writers using their powers of language to persuade. Words change opinions, words shape the course of history and when the swords have been put down, it is words that form countries from the ashes of the bloodshed of the old.
The man who arguably began the concept of the debate, Plato was a fine writer and philosopher and makes up a trio with Aristotle and Socrates. Many of his ‘dialogues’ are in written form and address specific issues brought up with other Greek thinkers. He is most famous for the Gorgias Dialogue in which he seeks the true definition of rhetoric ‘ one of the key principles in the debating process. He also critiques Athenian oratory in the text.
2. Marcus Tullius Cicero
The Roman Republic’s greatest orator and one of the figures so influential in understanding political thought of the era, he gave a series of speeches to the Roman Senate denouncing Catiline ‘ a man attempting to be elected to the consulship. It was believed by Cicero and others that Catiline would seize control of the government. Catiline had tried to bribe and bully his way to the top leading Cicero to denounce him in public. The vote that resulted from Cicero’s speeches (Catiline Orations) led to Cicero’s immediate (and temporary) election to Dictator until the crisis was solved.
3. Saint Augustine of Hippo
One of the best-known early Christian thinkers, Augustine is honoured with the foundation of a monastic order later on after his death. Some credit his thoughts and words for being a major influence on the Reformation. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who cited the figure and his works frequently in his denunciations of Papal authority. His debate versus Pelagius was the pinnacle of his debating career in which they discussed the nature and concept of Original Sin.
4. Guilhabert de Castres
One of history’s forgotten debaters, he was the former Bishop of Toulouse of the Cathar sect and one of the most powerful figures ever in the movement. Concerned about its spread through Europe, the Catholic Church sent many notable theologians to Languedoc to counter their beliefs ‘ amongst the Catholic debaters were Saint Dominic and Saint Bernard. The debates, which were expected to destroy the movement through the power of words, failed miserably and led to the slaughter of the Cathars. Guilhabert de Castres was the debater on the Cathar side for the most part.
5. Martin Luther
The man who led a theological revolution was able to persuade many through the power of his arguments. His most famous debate is known as the Leipzig debate, though he was not initially part of the proceedings. The original combatants were Johann Eck and Andreas Karlstadt (the latter being a supporter of Luther). At the end of the month-long debates, the university refused to issue a verdict. Following the Reformation, Luther would eventually be drawn into similar debates with his fellow Protestants and find disagreements with both Calvin and Zwingli.
6. HonorÃƒ© Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
Little-known in the Anglophone world, to the French he is the Father of the Revolution, a famous orator, journalist and politician. He was also the voice of reason when the calls began to abolish the monarchy, debating with the crown to remodel itself as a constitutional monarchy similar to that which Britain had recently enacted. Bothe sides feared and respected his strength in equal measure and he hosted many acts of mediation between the people and the nobility.
7. Abraham Lincoln
Going down as one of the greatest US Presidents of all time, Lincoln’s very public and vocal opposition to the expansion of slavery resulted in a series of seven debates in 1858 with Stephen Douglas. It must be noted at this time that Lincoln was not yet an abolitionist ‘ but his success in the debates would be responsible for his nomination to the Presidency. He would go on to be the President that would oversee a civil war and enact the abolition before his assassination in 1865.
8. Thomas Henry Huxley
Nicknamed ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ for being the strong arm of the emerging evolution movement, Huxley was the man who pressured Darwin into publishing his work. He is most famous for one debate in particular: the 1860 formal debate with Samuel Wilberforce. He argued so convincingly for the descent of man through evolution of natural selection, that many observers believed that the sudden uptake was purely as a result of that. Any credibility Wilberforce might have had went out of the window when he sarcastically asked if Huxley was descended from monkeys on his mother’s or father’s side.
9. Winston Churchill
One of history’s finest orators, he was capable of rousing an entire continent against the threat of Nazi Germany. Most famous for the declaration of the ‘unconditional surrender’ to the Allied forces, it was six years before war broke out in Europe that put him in place to be one of the world’s greatest debaters. His words at a Parliamentary debate in 1936 demonstrated that Germany was preparing for war and showed Chamberlain’s government as indecisive and even inept. He criticised the Prime Minister’s lack of action or response and this led others to recognise his great oratory and debating skills.
10. Christopher Hitchens
The late polemicist was famous for going toe to toe with many of his opponents on religion, politics and other social issues. Notable debates included various rabbis and religious leaders. However, many think he was at his most convincing when he went up against former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on whether religion was a force for good or bad in society. He managed to convince a great many of those who sat in the middle of the debate. The poll saw a 15% swing toward Hitchens at the end.
The ten figures above ‘ for better or for worse ‘ used the power of their speeches and their writing to change opinions and in some cases, even shape history. Though many are famous figures around whom history is built, for others they were little more than a catalyst, that first spark of change. Then pen is indeed mightier than the sword.