The pen isn’t mightier, but equal to the sword.

“It is said the warrior’s is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way.”

— Miyomoto Musashi, “A Book Of Five Rings”, Victor Harris translation

Our modern society often encourages us to specialize. Economically, this has done wonderful things for the world in general. Matt Ridley in his book “The Rational Optimist explains generalist hunter-gatherers lived a subsistence life, spending their entire day in the pursuit of 4 things: food, fuel, clothing, or shelter. Notice leisure and study weren’t on the list.

Fortunately for us, this is no longer the case. We focus on one thing we can do well and rely on others to provide us the necessities we can’t produce. However, are we missing something without the more generalized approach to life our early ancestors lived? One of the most specialized professions ever, the samurai, believed so.

Victor Harris in his translation of “A Book Of Five Rings”, introduces us to the complex figure of Miyomoto Musashi. Despite being considered one of the greatest samurai who ever lived, he also became well known for his art and design prowess. Harris explains while the West says the pen is mightier than the sword, Musashi believed the pen and sword should be in accord.

This specialized warrior turns out to be the ultimate generalist. He not only focused on the art of warfare, but also calligraphy, painting, architecture, and literature. However, Musashi wasn’t unique in this regard. He taps into the Japanese belief of pen and sword, which ascribes to creating a multi-dimensional individual.

Warrior Scholars And Balance

Mark Schreiber in the Japan Times mentions the Japanese saying of bunbu ryodō, which encompasses this multi-dimensional pen and sword ideal into a phrase. He says bun means writing or arts involving literature, while bu relates to war or martial ability. Ryodō can be translated as “both ways”.

He also notes the idea of a “warrior scholar”. These individuals not only led armies, but were skilled in literature and writing, much like Musashi. Schreiber also explains bun is the base of bunmei, which is “civilization”. So, the warrior scholars mixed opposing forces of literary arts — which create civilization — with martial practices that could destroy it.

However, this idea extends beyond just educated warriors with creation and destruction. Schreiber also applies the idea to the opposites of physical and mental pursuits. So, the mixture of athlete and scholar.

The Education in Japan Community Blog also mentions bunbu ryodō has come to mean “balance” in modern times. They note the term originated when Japan came under the power of a Shogun and the warring period ended. The practice was meant to help samurai adjust to a time of peace and become “more complete human beings”.

The blog also describes the work of Dr. Jigoro Kano, creator of Kodokan Judo and director of primary education in Japan during the early 1900’s. Kano mixed the martial arts of Kendo and Judo into the curriculum of public schools while helping to modernize them. Like the samurai, he believed athlete scholars were more rounded or balanced.

Pen And Sword Beyond Japan

While our examination of this concept begins in the East, it’s more than just a Japanese concept. Cultures independently around the world have developed their own versions of pen and sword or bunbu ryodō. A quite famous example of this balance is passed to us in philosophy from ancient Greece.

Ryan Holiday in his book “Lives of the Stoics”, describes the stoic philosopher Cleanthes, who arrived in Athens in about 250BC dead broke. In order to feed himself, he got a job carrying heavy jugs to water lavish gardens. He’d work at night, while studying philosophy during the day.

Holiday points out that Cleanthes “the water carrier” eventually became famous around Athens for his philosophical knowledge. Wealthy patrons soon offered to pay him just to practice philosophy — a sort of ancient Patreon. However, the philosopher refused, choosing to work even though he didn’t have to. Holiday says there was a purpose to this.

“To Cleanthes labor and philosophy were not rivals. They were two sides of the same coin — pursuits that furthered and enabled one another.”

Similarly Henry VIII embodied the balanced concept of a “Renaissance Man”, pursuing all sorts of knowledge and physical development. The same could be said for President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid boxer and athlete who wrote 32 books and spoke fondly about living a “strenuous life”. Furthermore, the Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris regularly trains in Brazilian Jujitsu. And don’t forget about Winston Churchill, who mixed painting with bricklaying in order to achieve his own sort of balance.

Achieving Our Balance

Wild Geese And Reeds (17th Century) — Miyomoto Musashi [Public Domain]

Our society and economy have adapted to specialization, but it doesn’t mean we have to personally. We’re often told knowledge is the key to advancement and growth, which is very well true. Although there’s much more to knowledge than classwork and stuffing your face into a book or staring at a screen. There are many things that can only be learned through physical exertion and moving your body.

When I was young, I listened to the advice about knowledge being the key. I studied hard in school and attempted to learn outside of it. I grew mentally, but also ignored any kind of physical development. I could have told you a lot about the world at the time but wasn’t mentally or physically strong enough to change the world around me.

A whole new world of knowledge came to me when I picked up my first free weight. It was a learning process which could never be found in a book. Similarly, I found this type of knowledge in martial arts classes. Between the two, I was able to gain enough physical confidence to stand up in front of rooms of strangers and speak and teach. A book or computer screen could never give me this — it was a roundness school never taught me.

This is the concept of pen and sword in action. It’s a balance we must strive to achieve in order to round ourselves in our world of specialization. Water must be carried, not out of necessity, but for self-improvement. Conversely, the literary world must also be embraced by athletes as well. Musashi could have told you the necessity of bunbu ryodō centuries ago as he put down his sword and picked up a pen to write.

This concept may be ancient, but you see it expressed in modern historical characters like Churchill, Harris, and Roosevelt. It’s also universal, stretching from the islands of Japan and England to the city states of ancient Greece. It’s timeless and universal because it’s effective.

We must not forget this lesson in our ever more specialized world. A well rounded physical and mental generalist is always necessary. The pen isn’t mightier, but equal to the sword.

Originally published by Erik Brown for Mind Cafe on


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