Filmer’s Patriarcha II and III

Filmer begins his detailed argument with an attack on Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, one of the greatest of the Jesuits and a doctor of the Church.  Bellarmine was a widely respected thinker, a man of sound judgment and excellent reason, whose arguments against Protestantism were credited with saving some parts of Europe from the Reformation and restoring many doubting souls.  He played a creditable role in the controversy over Galileo and deserves to be better appreciated today.

Like several other Jesuits, Bellarmine wanted to protect the power of the Church (and its earthly head) from the ambitions of the nation states that had found such vigor during the Renaissance.  While earlier generations of theologians and Popes (going back at least to Saint Gregory the Great) had argued that God had established twin authorities in the persons of the Emperor and the Pope, the Jesuits were coming to view secular powers as, at their best, possessed of merely human authority, and, at the worst, the enemies of the Church.

How this took place is a long story.   The struggle between popes and emperors, which had been long and bloody, was augmented in the 16th century by the challenges being posed by rulers in Protestant and Catholic Europe.  A pope had released the subjects of Elizabeth from their obedience--but this was not an innovation.  Holy Roman Emperors, when they had been declared apostate and excommunicate (Henry IV, Frederick II) were treated similarly.  The problem was, in an increasingly secular and suspicious age, the authority of the Church was no longer taken seriously as a challenge to the rulers of Europe.  Thus the solution was to revive a theory of natural rights and natural liberty that would serve as a useful tool in deposing hostile rulers or, at least, in making life hot for them.

Bellarmine was a brilliant man, but political theory was not his forte.  As Filmer shows, his argument that democracy is more or less natural and monarchy artificial (and thus the people have a right to alter or abolish their government) is contradicted by his other writings.  In fact, in his most celebrated book, Bellarmine had offended Sixtus V, who disliked his argument that the Pope’s power over temporal authorities was only secondary and not primary.  Indeed, the invocation of democracy as a bulwark of the Church was a trap into which, alas, too many well-intentioned Catholic political thinkers have fallen.  It is strange that there is not much trace of democratism in the traditional order of not just Catholic but of also Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist churches, in which some mixture of the monarchy and oligarchy is always predominant.  James I may have been a bit off his nut, but his formula, “No bishops, no King,” is valid even when turned around to “No King, no bishop.”  I sometimes wonder if the last Shah of Iran ever repented of his modernizing efforts to minimize the authority of the Islamic clergy.  No mullah, no Shah.

Bellarmine  did concede that Adam and the patriarchs had monarchical power over their posterity, and Filmer draws from this the conclusion:”I see not then how the children of Adam, or of any man else, can be free from subjection to their parents.  And this subordination of children is the fountain of all regal authority.”  This patriarchal power, which includes the power over life and death, was handed down to the patriarchs after the flood.

Thus, in its simplest form, Filmer denies the possibility of natural liberty by showing that it is not consistent with the account of human origins and history in the Old Testament, an account accepted by Bellarmine and all other Christian exponents of natural liberty.

Is this a valid argument against democratic theory?  If not, why not?  I should make it plain, at this point, that I am neither a monarchist nor an anti-monarchist.  There are certainly many positive aspects to inherited monarchy, but there are also drawbacks, such as the likelihood that a degraded idiot like Commodus or a pious but feeble son will come to the throne.  More importantly, there is no human institution that has ever or can ever reach perfection.  As even Plato learned to his sorrow, his Republic was constructed for angels and demi-gods, not for the human all too human people he met in Sicily.

Avatar photo

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

7 Responses

  1. James Kabala says:

    I am the rankest of amateurs on this issue, but that never stopped any American from expressing his opinion.

    Filmer has an argument that seems airtight in theory – and yet Bellarmine (and Locke) seem correct that at some point the chain of succession was broken in practice – that no later king ever grounded his succession in his descent from Adam (or whatever his own society called the first man). I think of very ancient societies such as Egypt and China that changed dynasties frequently without many qualms. Even in the Bible – birthright and hereditary succession are certainly major issues in Genesis, but by the time the Israelite monarchy is actually established in 1 Samuel, the question “If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had an heir, who would he be?” is one that no one asks. (If there was such a person, it was certainly neither Saul, descended from Jacob’s youngest son, nor David, the youngest is his own family.)

  2. James Kabala says:

    Last words should read “the youngest IN his own family.”

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You are no ranker than Locke who made this criticism. Unfortunately, it is not quite Filmer’s position. While he does trace monarchical authority to Adam, in principle, he does not press that point in arguing for the legitimacy of particular dynasties. We’ll look more closely at this when we get to the passages, and I am relying mostly on conclusions I remembered drawing about 40 years ago. Perhaps I was wrong. We shall see.

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    I fear Filmer to be right, yet, is it not also true that the people of Israel demanded a king, but God warned them against it? It is also true that some kings and emperors were elected in one way or another, though not usually by popular vote. Early, pre-migration Gothic kings come to mind if memory serves, elected by nobles, and as we all know, some Roman emperors, by army or senate or both, and of course, Holy Roman emperors by electors, and also Michael Romanov by the zemskiy sobor. But of course these examples were not democracy in any modern, popular sense. Even so, they do seem to bear on the issue of rule by birthright or by natural extension of parental authority. Who can elect a parent?

    If monarchy is extension of parental authority, then it might follow that the decay of the family must follow the end of monarchy unless something can take it’s place.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The stories in Samuel are a bit dodgy, since we get, as I recall, three versions of Saul’s selection as king. Presumably, the text is a composite of different versions, and one of the later concerns was to point the finger at the Jewish kings who were bad rulers–for whom Saul then becomes the model. In a more straightforward fundamentalist manner, we might say that only two forms of government are recommended in the Scriptures: The decentralized tribal federalism of the Torah (which led, ultimately, to inter-tribal wars when they reached Canaan) and monarchy, whether of the Jewish kings or the Roman emperors.

    Filmer is a simple soul, and does not trouble his head too much about history; nonetheless, he certainly knew enough Roman and European history to know that dynasties failed or were over thrown and rulers chosen by the army, the barons, or even the legislature. For him, that is not the point, which is, in fact, to show the absurdity of the social contract and state of nature arguments used to justify resistance to royal authority and even open rebellion.

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    As is my (bad?) habit, I am also reading Family and Civilization by Zimmerman while reading Filmer.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I think Filmer’s description of popular government in section 14 of chapter 2 to rings true.