Famous Sayings #105 — ‘Divide and Conquer’

May 20, 2018

The best way to neutralize the opposition is to divide and conquer.

divide and conquer, strategy, Machiavelli, famous sayings, social, military, political
Image via Flickr by -Nicola-. Some rights reserved.

Today, I decided to go with a familiar phrase that is highly relevant and may always be. On one hand, this phrase is used in reference to sinister strategies that have altered the course of history. On the other hand, a divide and conquer strategy or protocol can have practical uses to it.

While most of us may understand what it means to “divide and conquer,” most of us haven’t really thought about the origin of the phrase, let alone the first use of such a strategy.

Who First Used the Phrase ‘Divide and Conquer’?

It’s unclear, but the use of the idea has been around for millennia. It has also been connected to Machiavelli, especially from the ideas he put forth in some of his works.

The phrase “divide and conquer” comes from the Latin phrase divide et impera (which translates to “divide and rule”). According to two sources I consulted (TheIdioms.com and the Online Etymology Dictionary), the phrase divide and conquer first appeared in the English language in 1600 A.D.

What Does It Mean to ‘Divide and Conquer’?

Generally, the divide-and-conquer strategy involves one group pitting smaller groups against each other to obtain (and keep) power (over a populace). A divide-and-conquer strategy can also be used in computing, but which an algorithm allows a machine to break up a complex problem into smaller problems until all the problems are solved (Wiktionary).

Militarily speaking: To conquer, the first group must already have some form of power and access to adequate economic, political, and/or military forces. For the conquerors to maintain their power and influence, they often work to keep smaller groups or forces from uniting.

Machiavelli was known to have alluded to the divide-and-conquer strategy in two of his most important works, The Prince (1513) and The Art of War (1521). In short, he wrote about weakening the enemy by getting men in opposing ranks to distrust each other (Chadwick). Through his writings, Machiavelli has become synonymous with deceit and treachery (Mansfield). Likewise, so has such a strategy (whether you are talking about being Machiavellian or using a divide-and-conquer strategy on people).

The divide-and-conquer strategy has been used throughout history, primarily in the militaristic sense. As pointed out on wiseGEEK, this strategy was used by the Romans when they took Britain; by the British Empire when it was extending to India, and; by the Anglo-Normans when they took over Ireland.

How Is This Phrase Relevant Today?

Today, the phrase divide and conquer is most commonly used in the political and social sense. A “political staple,” it is highly effective because the people who use it often have extensive knowledge of the groups they are controlling, and people do not realize that the tactic is being used on them most of the time (wiseGEEK). However, even when people are aware of this, they are still stuck in their tribalistic tendencies.

We can see these principles are work every day. Some of the most pressing problems we have are income inequality, a broken elections system, racial inequality, and the dangers presented to the environment. Of course, have not been able to make as much progress in these areas due to greed, but another factor is that the powerful have used a divide-and-conquer strategy to discredit their opposition and to get the people who need the most help to fight amongst themselves.

For example:

We can’t get poor and middle-class people to band together because they often cling to their deep-seated prejudices, particularly those based on race and religion. At the same, we are told to blame people less fortunate for our problems, and this extends to an anti-immigration sentiment. This is called punching down and while we do it, we ignore the ones who are causing inequality or fomenting it for their own personal gain.

Additionally, the powerful like to propagandize people from causes that might help the many and not the few but associating those causes with discredited or despised people. And the people we are told to despise might be the targets of misinformation campaigns. Again, all of this is done for greed and personal gain.

How Do We Overcome the Use of Divide-and-Conquer Strategies?

As alluded to above, it will take us being cognizant that the such a strategy is in use but being strong enough to fight it and educate ourselves. We need to first recognize what our biases are, work past them, and do our own research to counter propaganda so we can reach better outcomes. Humans benefit when they work together, but to get to that point, we must decide which is more important: a decent standard of living or an undeserved sense of superiority. The latter is empty, especially when it’s used as a tool to distract us and keep us down.

Works Cited

Chadwick, Ian. “Chapter 26: The Forest and the Trees.” The Municipal Machiavelli. Weblog. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <http://ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/chapters-22-26/chapter-26-the-forest-and-the-trees/>.

“divide and conquer.” Definitions.net. STANDS4 LLC; 2018. Web. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <https://www.definitions.net/definition/divide%20and%20conquer>.

“divide and conquer or rule.” TheIdioms.com. Web. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <https://www.theidioms.com/divide-and-conquer-or-rule/>.

Harper, Douglas. “divide | Origin and meaning of divide by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/word/divide>.

Mansfield, Harvey. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1 May 2018. Web. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Machiavelli>.

Various. “divide and conquer.” Wiktionary. Last Updated 28 Apr 2018. Web. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/divide_and_conquer>.

“What is a Divide and Conquer Strategy.” wiseGEEK. Web. Retrieved 20 May 2018. <http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-divide-and-conquer-strategy.htm>.


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