In The Prince, is Machiavelli simply describing what happens in fact in politics; or is he recommending how one ought to behave in politics?
I think it is clear that Machiavelli's purpose in The Prince is twofold. First, he is trying to describe how things actually work in politics. Secondly, he is arguing for specific types of action that princes should undertake. Leo Strauss has desribed this dual nature of The Prince by calling it a ’treatise’ on the one hand and a ’tract for the times’ on the other (Strauss, 1957: 13-14).
Obviously, Machiavelli is describing what he sees as the realities of politics. He notes that "Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist ..." (Machiavelli, 2003: 50) and points out that he is talking only about those things "which truly exist" (Machiavelli, 2003: 30). He presents a number of historical and contemporary examples of successful or not so successful princes, attempting to explain their victories or downfalls. His varied examples from both antiquity and Renaissance Italy and his application of similar principles to both shows, I think, that he is not only talking about the realities of Italian politics of his time, but rather what he sees as the realities of politics in all times.
Machiavelli offers general descriptions of such things as human nature and fortune. These from the context for the realities of politics. Thus, because human beings are "wretched creatures” according to Machiavelli, a successful prince is not good. His favourite example of a successful prince is Cesare Borgia, who employed deception and murder to great effect. Machiavelli does not seem to be concerned by the moral difficulties arising from such actions, judging princes merely on their success. Of Cesare Borgia he writes: “Cesare Borgia was accounted cruel; nevertheless, this cruelty of his reformed the Romagna, brought it unity, and restored order and obedience.” (Machiavelli, 2003: 53) I think this air of objectivity lends support to the idea that Machiavelli is indeed describing what actually happens in politics.
The second purpose is evident in Machiavelli's letter to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence at the time of the writing of the book. Machiavelli says: "... if you read and consider it (The Prince) diligently, you will discover in it my urgent wish that you reach the eminence that fortune and your other qualities promise you." (Machiavelli, 2003: 4) This, of course, implies that if Lorenzo de Medici were to read the book, he would succeed in his political ambitions, suggesting that the book not only describes the realities of politics but also tells princes how to act within those realities.
A clearer example of this is the book's final chapter, entitled Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians. He writes: "... if your illustrious House wants to emulate those eminent men who saved their countries, before all else it is essential for it ... to raise a citizen army ... It is necessary ... to raise such an army, in order to base our defence against the invaders on Italian strength. ... you can develop a new type (of army), capable of withstanding cavalry and undaunted by other infantry." (Machiavelli, 2003: 84) This is obviously a description of how a certain prince, Lorenzo de Medici, should act. If Machiavelli's intention was simply to describe the realities of politics, it is difficult to explain why he has included this last chapter. Since the ending of the book is a call to action, surely it follows that the advice in the rest of the book is meant to be used as a tool in this action.
There have been many different interpretations of what Machiavelli tried to achieve with The Prince. Some, such as Rousseau, have argued that Machiavelli's intention in The Prince was to show republicans the means used by tyrants, and thus enable them to resist them. Some have argued that Machiavelli's purpose was to deceive Lorenzo de Medici and bring about his downfall and the restoration of the Florentine republic by giving him bad advice. Still others have adopted the position that the advice contained in the Prince was meant to be used by princes to consolidate their position and so that they could thereafter institute a more republican form of government as explained in the Discourses (Langton & Dietz, 1987).
I think it seems clear that Machiavelli was giving Lorenzo de Medici advice on how to achieve his political ambitions, and the notion that his intention was to help, not deceive, Lorenzo seems more credible. However, it is not possible to infer from this that he is describing how one should generally behave in politics, rather than just giving advice in the specific context of his own time. His admiration of the Romans suggests that his doctrine is not restricted to Renaissance Italy. One might also argue that the fact that he uses historical examples and formulates universal rules of politics implies that he thinks one should generally behave in politics in the way he describes in The Prince. But surely he would not have wanted the French or Spanish king to subdue Italy by adhering to the principles of the book, though he might have admired their political ability had they done so. Thus, I think the answer to my question is that Machiavelli not only describes what actually happens in politics in The Prince, but also gives advice at least to Lorenzo de Medici. Whether his description of how the prince should act applies to other rulers as well, seems unclear.
Langton, John & Deitz, Mary G. 'Machiavelli's Paradox: Trapping or Teaching the Prince' in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 1277-1288.
Machiavelli, Niccolo (2003) The Prince (London, Penguin Books)
Strauss, Leo 'Machiavelli's Intention: The Prince' in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 13-40.
This is a presentation for a seminar for a course on political philosophy I did at the University of York.