Filmer’s Patriarcha, Conclusion

Thomas Fleming


May 18, 2017

Filmer's Patriarcha, Conclusion

Most of the most important topics that Filmer takes up have been covered, but there are a few points in the latter parts of the work that are worth pointing out and possibly talking about.  Let me list them briefly.

1) In his discussion of John Selden (VIII), Filmer cleverly notes the discrepancy in the arguments of those who flatly rejection the idea  that sovereign power can be traced to Adam but eagerly embrace the notion that property rights derive from the first man.  I didnt' know there were already libertarians in the 17th century.  In his critique of Grotius (IX), Filmer points out that the tendency of state-of-nature arguments points toward communism. If government and private property are unnatural inventions, mightn’t there come a time when we could do without them?

2) The discussion of fatherhood (XI-XII) is quite interesting.  Filmer cleaves to Aristotle in opposition to the Jesuit Suarez, who tried to define paternal authority in economic terms, i.e., management of the household.  Now, neither Filmer nor Aristotle were anthropologists—though Aristotle did sent his students around the Mediterranean collecting evidence of “constitutions, that is, of differing social and political systems.   Humbly following in their footsteps, I spent at least 10 years collecting information on paternal authority for my first book, and while it is certainly true that each society is different, the rules of deference are universal: Young defer to old, female to male, outsiders to insiders, and so on.  Where a father’s authority is not more or less absolute in a pre-modern society, that is because it is checked by tradition and by the authority of other males within the family, e.g., grandfather, and paternal or maternal uncles.  The males of the family only concede so much sovereignty as the social circumstances seem to require.  Thus the German fathers who invaded Europe and brought down the Roman Empire had far more power than their Roman counterparts at that time—though no more than early Romans.

3) Finally, we should not Filmer’s excellent attack on democracy as a dangerous form of government.  This is a clever mode of attack, since most of Filmers opponents disliked democracy and would have resented his use of the term.  If any of our readers would like a more detailed account of these  (or other) points, they have only to propose the questions.

Sir Robert Filmer, then, with a combination of common sense and conservative instinct, tried to buck the Epicurean understand of man as a prisoner of materialist forces and society as an artificial construction.  He had his axes to grind, it goes without saying, but who does not?  His little book is far more than a defense of monarchy:  It is a rational debunking of the evil and false mythology that would lead to the destructive theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Marx, fanciful nonsense that is the basis of virtually all political thought today.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Just now finished. What could have been tedious reading is rendered into a flowing, pleasant read by Filmer’s style, and in fact the ending comes rather abruptly and almost makes you wish for more.

    I can’t find fault with his arguments. Indeed, what I thought might be counter arguments turn out to be part of his own argument and help make some of his points,

    His description of popular government and it’s evil tendencies read like a description of modern America, especially when he describes how they encourage the worst kind of people to rise in importance and distinction, and also when he says that they need an external threat to hold them together.

    I was also pleasantly surprised when, in XV, he pointed out that until the reign of Henry V, the king, when presented with a bill passed by both houses of parliament, picked out what he liked and discarded the rest, enacting only what he chose. Line item veto! I thought that was a Confederate invention, but they were only reviving something that had passed out of use. There is nothing new under the sun. This veto power also makes kings look less tyrannical than people might usually think of them as being, because here the king served as a check on a potentially abusive or irresponsible parliament.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    Also, in V, 3rd paragraph, Filmer seems to be arguing against an idea that may one day devolve into multiculturalism.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    The part V referred to above is actually in chapter II, but it seems relevant.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    i can Thanks for the astute and helpful comments. Perhaps tomorrow we can develop the points. We’re just back fro “one of those lunches” with Mark Beasley–whom some of our readers know–and it is time either for language tapes or a nap.