Autodidact: Filmer’s Patriarcha, Part I
I have been asked, many times, to explain my objections to John Locke and his theory of natural rights and the social contract. One way to address that question is the discussion of Sir Robert Filmer Patriarcha I undertook some years ago. I am revising and condensing those pieces for our newer and better project. Patriarcha was actually written before Locke Treatises, which effectively debunks the mythology. During the month of June, I will be posting paragraphs of the work, making comments, taking questions and comments from participants in the discussion. The book is available online at
but I also urge you to locate Peter Laslett's excellent edition.
Before discussing Filmer, we should bear in mind several points. First, he was not a philosopher, only a crotchety Tory with a nose that could detect nonsense. Nonetheless, he is less interested in truth per se, than in finding arguments to destroy the opposition, which is the theory of natural rights. This theory had been revived, during the Renaissance, by Catholic political theorists whose interest was in defending the Church authority against the intrusion of the ambitious rulers of nation-states. In casting about for weapons, writers like Suarez and Bellarmine lit upon natural-rights theory, which conferred upon individuals and groups the natural right to resist their sovereign. This was, I believe, a laudable goal, just as the goal of the pro-life movement is eminently laudable, but since the arguments are not rooted either in reality or in the Christian tradition, they were soon to be taken up by the enemies not only of the Catholic Church but of Christianity as a whole.
Sir Robert Filmer lived through a difficult period in English history; his lifetime spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell. As a staunch partisan of the Stuarts, he was imprisoned by the Parliamentary party. Patriarcha, his best-known work, appears to have been written early in the reign of Charles I (1628). His defense of monarchical absolutism must be understood not as an argument for tyranny but as a defense of the British constitutional order, but the Tory doctrine of non-resistance (as it developed especially under Charles II and James II) should be seen for what it is: a tactic to keep the Whigs from establishing a power monopoly through parliament.
To understand the political struggles of that era, you might read the relevant passages in David Hume's History of England. Hume, although a religious skeptic, is one of the most acute English philosophers and one of the most important conservatives in the British tradition. As a Scot, he was happy to debunk the Whig myth of the good Tudors and bad Stuarts, and his history, though experts today know many more details, is the wisest introduction to the period.
So, then, let us read this short work together, appreciating the historical context and the polemical nature of the work, but, at the same time, focusing on the actual arguments and issues that are relevant to the formation of an anti-liberal political philosophy. Are men really born equal? Was there ever a state of nature? Can we deduce rights today from a supposed “original position” (as John Rawls says we can)? Aristotle and Cicero are ultimately far more important than Filmer, but his little polemic is a good place to begin the discussion.
Let us begin at the beginning. Sir Robert declares his object plainly, which is to refute the erroneous and dangerous opinion that mankind is possessed of natural liberty, which he admirably summarizes as:
Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at the first by human right bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.
He attributes this false doctrine to schoolmen and papists, but adds that it has been adopted by the divines of the Reformed Churches. Nonetheless, this opinion is not to be found in the Church Fathers and it is contradicted by the history and teachings of the Scriptures, by history, and by the very principles of natural law.
This is a sweeping condemnation, and Filmer will spend the rest of his discourse filling in the details. Before proceeding, however, he cautions us against assuming he has anything to do with practical politics or that in condemning a false opinion he is necessarily condemning the whole of a writer. Significantly he adds that even though he is a great admirer of Aristotle and Hooker, he has objections to make against them in this matter though, he concedes, it is their errors that have led him to the truth. Well take up those objectives when we reach that point of the discussion, but it is important to note who are his proclaimed heroes. He might have added Thomas Aquinas, who is very close to Aristotle in political matters, but it could hardly have been safe to quote from an author whose works had been stripped from university libraries and publicly burned by the Tudors.