Filmer’s Patriarcha, IV-VII (FREE)

Filmer is typically accused of tracing the legitimacy of Charles I, back, in an unbroken line, to Adam.  What he actually argues is something different.  In the first place, he points out that, at least in principle,  there is always an heir, even if that heir is unknown.  If Adam were still alive and died today, there would be an heir, though no one would be able to discover who it was.  On the strength of the Old Testament, he assumes that the principle of primogeniture is universal, when it is not.  The privilege given first-born sons is a natural tendency, but German kings and Roman emperors (and Popes) were often chosen on different principles.  Even in the Old Testament, the first-born son only inherits an extra portion of the estate, partly (it would seem) to cover the expenses of the obligations he also inherited.  The variety of inheritance laws in no way vitiates his argument, which is that power descends in legitimate lines and in a manner that does not depend on the will of the people.  The Roman mob did not acclaim Galba or Vespasian, much less Septimius Severus: It was the army.

This leads us to one of his most important points.  What happens when an heir cannot be found or is rejected?  Power in that event does not fall into the hands of the general mob.  No: The royal power escheats in such a case to the prime and independent heads of families, for every kingdom is resolved into those principles whereof at first it was made.  At the heart of Filmers political vision is Aristotle's understanding (in the Politics) that the commonwealth evolved out of the coalescence of villages (made up of several lineages), and that those villages were created by the unification of several kin-groups, whose existence is based ultimately on the household.

A similar account, more feudal in character, is given by Althusius, the German Calvinist, whose more rigorous work can be profitably read with Filmer's.  Althusius' vision was based on the reality of the Holy Roman Empire.  In the Empire, if a reigning house failed (as, for example, the Carolingian, the Saxon, Salian, and Swabian lines failed), authority for selecting the next emperor did not lie in the hands of the people--or rather peoples--of the empire, but in the electors, those secular and ecclesiastical rulers who were the chief princes of the empire.


In this key chapter, Filmer insists that the parallel between king and father is no mere metaphor, but that the king is the father writ large.  It is an effective argument, especially for those who are prepared to admit the claims of monarchy in principle.  But it is also effective on another level.  Setting aside one's view of monarchism, his argument comes down to this: that the just powers of government derive naturally from paternal authority and not from a social contract of the consent of the governed.

Man is therefore by nature, as Aristotle had said, a  zoon politikon, a creature framed to live within society, a being made to exercise citizenship.  Thus the liberals--the classical liberals calling themselves conservatives as well as the  libertarians--are quite wrong in their most basic conception.  As David Hume pointed out in his great essay On the Original Contract,  man born into a family, with a mother and father, is compelled to maintain society.  We are, at the core, social and thus political beings and not random individuals free to make any sort of contracts with each other, as we like.

We do not choose our parents or our brothers and sisters, and we have less legitimate power than we might think in choosing offspring.  Our basic choices are 1) to marry or not marry, and 2) to select a mate that is acceptable to our parents, who, in better days,  did the selecting.  Once we have married, we have entered into a non-contractual relationship (though there are contractual elements--Hegel calls it a contract to transcend contract--but the contract originally was between families and not individuals.  We are not morally free to deny our wives or our parents the offspring that represent the primary object of marriage.  If you do not want children, then you can either be chaste or sin, but to choose, deliberately,  a childless marriage is not a legitimate option.  I am speaking now in general terms.  Exceptions do come to mind, but they do not change the nature of marriage any more than the existence of a one-legged moron can change the definition of man as a rational biped.

While Marx can say (to the applause of liberals) that man is the creature who makes his own nature, Aristotle and Filmer (and anyone who goes through life with his eyes open) knows that we are not free to violate our own nature.  The attempt to do so--by hedonists,  Marxists, and transsexuals--always end in personal catastrophe.

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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

2 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    In section 7 of chapter 2, Filmer says one is required to obey illegal orders and fight in unjust wars if mandated by the king because the individual is not equipped to properly evaluate what is legal or just.

    Am I reading this correctly? How does this apply to us?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Filmer is pretty much in line on this with traditional moral theology, and you will find a similar argument even in Saint Alphonsus de Liguori. If everyone could decide which wars he would fight in, the whole notion of a country disappears. That is why, though I have no problem with Julian Assange, I think the whistle-blowers in the military deserve to be executed. Of course getting a sex-change operation is a fate worse than death… In our modern case, of course, one is morally responsible if one joins the military with a realization that he may be ordered to fight in unjust wars and perform criminal acts.