Machiavelli and David

Machiavelli's treatment of the story of David in chapter thirteen of The Prince is quite brief. He is, however, quite telling in his choice of examples and words. Discrepancies between his version of the encounter and that of the Bible itself certainly hint at something. He also puts this example of the much revered David, favoured by God, just after that of a less reputable character, Hiero of Syracuse. If one examines the potential parallel between the two, one will find a theme both revealing and familiar from Machiavelli’s assessment of a certain other Old Testament character.

In Machiavelli’s account of the story, David offers to go and fight the Philistine challenger Goliath. Saul gives David Saul’s own arms, “to give him spirit.” (56) David puts them on, but then refuses them immediately “saying that with them he could not give a good account of himself, and so he would rather meet the enemy with his sling and his knife.” (56) The most striking difference between Machiavelli’s account and the Biblical story is that David doesn’t refuse them immediately, but only after seeing that they encumber him and that he can’t use them properly. David is not concerned with his ‘account’. Also, the Bible explicitly states in 1Sam 17:51 that David had no weapon other than his sling and the stones. After knocking Goliath down, David uses Goliath’s own sword to kill and behead him.

Why these differences? Machiavelli was not a careless writer, and very likely was not ignorant of the Biblical account. He knows his less attentive readers will pass this over without notice, but that the readers who are paying attention will realize he is trying to say something to them. The main purpose of the discrepancies, quite likely, is to have them act as a signal that Machiavelli wishes to make a point about David. He is making the reader go back to the story and compare it to his account. Those who do will notice that David refuses the arms of others when it is inconvenient to him, but takes them up when he can wield them for himself, when the former owner is safely incapacitated. The arms of another can only hurt one, unless one can make them his own.

On further examination one also notices that the Israelite army camps in a valley, while the Philistines are on a hill above them. The Israelite army, however, faces the Philistines from a hill they have mounted. This brings to mind the mountain and valley metaphor of the dedicatory letter, and in the example of Philopoemen, later, in chapter fourteen. This could be yet another allusion to Machiavelli’s plotting to assault the high places from the low.

The fact that David shares a paragraph with Hiero leads a careful reader to consider whether Machiavelli is trying to draw a parallel. In chapter thirteen, Hiero disposes of mercenary arms because they are not useful. In Machiavelli’s account, David disposes of Saul’s arms because he could not give a good account of himself, and attacks with his sling and knife. In the Bible, however, David simply can’t use Saul’s arms. He goes against Goliath with only a sling, and after knocking Goliath down, seizes Goliath’s arms and kills him. In chapter 6, Machiavelli tells us that Hiero became king of Syracuse after being only a private citizen, “nor did he receive anything more from fortune than the opportunity. For when the Syracusans were oppressed, they chose him as their captain, and from there he proved worthy of being made their prince.”(25) David also eventually became king from being a private citizen. He was chosen as champion of the Israelites against Goliath, afterwards became a highly successful military commander under Saul, and eventually became king. Through all this, despite many troubles, he acquired, as Hiero did, “friendships and soldiers that were his own,” and “he could build anything on top of such a foundation; so he went through a great deal of trouble to acquire, and little to maintain.” (25) Machiavelli wants us to draw a parallel here between Hiero and David. What Machiavelli did earlier to Moses in chapter six, he now wishes to do to David. Namely, Machiavelli is trying to set David on the same level as a far lower figure, and to imply that all David did was by his own strength, and not through God, as the Bible says.

Machiavelli, through both his choice of words when describing David’s story and through his suggested parallel with Hiero, draws the reader in. He tries to make the reader reach conclusions not obvious from the surface text. Machiavelli makes both his point on using the arms of others, and manages to grind his anti-Christian axe as well.

This a short essay I did for a political theory class I took this past year at the University of Toronto.

All citations from: Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, The University of Chicago Press, 1998.