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.