79 Caesar, Machiavelli, You and Me

Thomas Good

Spring 2022

Why are we where we are today? Let’s consider some vital elements of Western thinking.

“Divide and conquer” is a strategy going back at least to Julius Caesar. Its tactics are psychological and economic as well as military. In the “divide and conquer” paradigm, a dominant institution or subculture is predisposed to divide its subjects into competing or conflicting groups to avoid being threatened with disempowerment.

For example, if poor whites are encouraged by their masters to feel superior to poor blacks, the poor whites will act out this perceived superiority on poor blacks, and at the same time be rendered impotent as a potential threat to the empowered. Poor blacks become objectified and dehumanized by poor whites, just as yacht-laden overlords objectify and dehumanize their various political and economic subjects. Having someone “lesser” to feel superior to can powerfully abate one’s pain.

We are all familiar with the “divide and conquer” strategy because of its use in our history classes going back to childhood. Of course, how this paradigm is applied can vary by person or situation.

Caesar was updated by Machiavelli in the early 1500s. For some reason, Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is still taught in high schools and colleges, and is understood as a model tactic for success. In it, Machiavelli advises his “prince” (expanded definition: any authority) to maintain power at any cost using tactics including but certainly not limited to treachery, lies, coercion, theft and murder, both overt and subtle. The prince’s goals justify any means of accomplishment, ethical implications notwithstanding.

To Machiavelli, fear is more important than love; and instilling fear into one’s subordinates and competitors is how to maintain power.

Our problem is, Machiavelli has been and is treated as a role model, both overtly and behaviorally, in and by any number of different power entities. Machiavelli’s tactics may be effective, but why is he still presented as ideal in any way? What real values does this reflect?

All of this works in favor of the wealthy and powerful. The rest of us need to stay as aware as possible and consider our possibilities.

If history is taught flatly and uncritically, society will proceed, in Howard Zinn’s words, to continue “as we have been going on, and then we’ll have the kind of world that we have had so far, which is not good enough, a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism. We want to get away from that.”  [Speech to NCSS conference, Houston, November 16, 2008.]

This argues that if history is taught critically, allowing for ethical considerations, alternative analyses that challenge conventional thinking, and indeed idealism, a space for potential constructive change is opened up.

But, to maintain power, one must justify oneself. The saying “History is written by the victor” goes back much further than Churchill, Napoleon, or Henry VII (Tudor). The medieval Roman church wiped out centuries of Celtic knowledge. If the western press has it right, Chinese students are taught a perniciously distorted view of history; but so were German students under Nazi rule. The German example, though, provides hope that some recovery is possible.

So, what are our real values? By saying “All’s fair in love and war” we say that in some situations the end justifies any means. War is not always military; it’s often economic, as we can amply see; and can also take other forms. The consequences are always tragic. And yet we proceed.


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