"Because we see the visible side of people plainly and they see ours plainly, we all appear much more definite to one another than we do to ourselves. If the invisible side of people were discerned as easily as the visible side, we would live in a new humanity. As we are, we live in visible humanity, a humanity of appearances. In consequence, an extraordinary number of misunderstandings inevitably exist."
—Maurice Nicoll, Living Time
Once, in the early days of Chronogram, a group of schoolchildren made a tour of our office to learn about the work of publishing a magazine. The editor described how he works with writers, the art director talked about assigning illustrations and photography, and a sales person told the children about canvassing local business owners to place advertising.
When it was my turn to address the cohort of fidgeting preadolescents, I had nothing in mind to tell them about the role of publisher. I followed the advice of one of my teachers who had told me, "If you don't have anything to say open your mouth and see what comes out."
"Did you ever hear the expression 'The pen is mightier than the sword?'" I asked them.
None of them had heard it. I told them the statement has appeared in myriad formulations through recorded time including by Euripedes as "the tongue is mightier than the blade," and Shakespeare, who wrote with august wit in "Hamlet": "many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills."
I could see I was beginning to lose the interest of the group of students, and invited them to consider their own experience. What occurs to you, I asked them, before you do something: writing in a notebook, brushing your teeth, petting your dog, anything.
They looked at me blankly, and finally one child, a girl, smaller than the rest, with shiny brown curls and big eyes spoke suddenly, as though receiving a jolt of electricity.
"A thought!" she said.
Right, I responded, pausing to let it sink in. Thoughts are the cause of everything you see, everything you do, every act, and everything created or built by human beings. Everything begins with a thought or an image. Everything human beings manifest begins with an idea.
By this time, I could see that I had the attention of most of the students. Their minds were working this over, and the realization of the magnitude of the power of ideas was dawning in them. I was struck by the correlative action of this particular idea—the idea of ideas—as a demonstration of the power of ideas overall. In particular, the impact on the psyches of the children as the idea landed and took root in their minds. The realization was instantaneous and carried with it a packet of energy that lit their young faces. I saw I could go a step further.
"Can you see ideas?" I asked them. They all agreed they could not. So, I continued: Ideas are invisible and yet they are the cause of everything we do, and everything everyone does. In this way, the invisible is the cause of the visible, apparent world.
Which is more real, I asked them, the invisible world of ideas or their visible results?
At this point, we were all confused. I myself didn't know what I was talking about, as I had just opened my mouth to see what would come out, but then I found that what I was saying made sense. All together, we realized that contrary to appearances, the invisible world of ideas has greater substance and power, in a word, more reality than the outer world of objects, behaviors, and appearances.
Here's the kicker, I found myself saying, everything you think of as yourself, your name, thoughts, tastes and preferences, your awareness—your whole inner life and the idea of who you are—is invisible to everyone else, and so is everyone else's inner life invisible to you. From the ordinary standpoint, none of that even exists. You don't exist. But of course you know you do exist, so the ordinary view needs revision.
By then it was apparent I was losing my audience, so I cut to the conclusion.
"So you see, this is what is meant by the saying 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' and this is what publishing is all about."