Filmer and patriarchalism

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Rembrandt - Abraham & Isaac (1634)


Politics and the family

bulletDuring the  eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, Sir Robert Filmer was regarded almost as a joke - remembered only because John Locke's First Treatise was written against his views.

"It was at this time that those strange theories which Filmer afterwards formed into a system and which became the badge of the most violent class of Tories and high churchmen, first emerged into notice.  … It is evident that this theory, though intended to strengthen the foundations of government, altogether unsettles them."

(Macaulay, History of England)

However, J.N.Figgis in the late nineteenth and J.W.Allen in the early twentieth century began to reconsider Filmer's ideas seriously. More recent scholars also have treated Filmer as a worthy object of study - for example Gordon Schochet, James Daly, Carole Pateman and Linda Nicholson.

bulletFilmer pointed out the inconsistency of Natural Law theorists who accepted the father's power over his children and the husband's over his wife, and yet declared that all people were born free and equal.

Filmer's political ideas were rooted in the patriarchal attitudes of early-modern England, but as social mores shifted, his ideas grew less fashionable



  Sir Robert Filmer

Sir Edward Filmer

Sir Robert Filmer was born in 1588, the eldest son of Sir Edward Filmer of East Sutton, Kent. Robert was the eldest of eighteen children, and inherited his father's estates in 1629.
[Read a poem in praise of Filmer's sister].

He studied at Trinity College Cambridge at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. His friends included the High Church cleric, Peter Heylyn (1600-62), a great supporter of Archbishop William Laud.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Filmer was too old to fight, but was a staunch Royalist, briefly imprisoned by Parliament.


bulletIn the late 1640's, Filmer published a number of books. One was The Freeholder's Grand Inquest, arguing that Parliament sat at the king's will. Another was The anarchy of a limited or mixed monarchy, a tract directed against the ideas of Philip Hunton. The necessity of the absolute power of all kings preached Bodin's ideas to an English audience.
bulletSir Robert Filmer's most important work was Patriarcha. This was written not long aftert 1628 and left in manuscript; it was finally published in 1680 as Tory propaganda.


"…one heinous article,
Containing the deposing of a king
And cracking the strong warrant of an oath,
Mark'd with a blot, damn'd in the book of heaven"

(Richard II, 4.1)


Filmer's political and theoretical context

bulletMuch of Filmer's Patriarcha was directed against Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez. Suárez and Bellarmine had launched attacks on the Oath of Allegiance - a loyalty oath demanded of English Catholics in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.
bulletMany of Filmer's arguments from the power of fathers had been anticipated by other opponents of the monarchomachs, such as Hadrian Saravia.
bulletPatriarcha was forged also in the disputes between king and parliament about taxation, foreign and ecclesiastical policy, and the Petition of Right.
bulletFilmer was a private citizen - not an official spokesman for royal policy - and so he was less cautious in expressing his views than official propagandists.

Adrian Van de Velde, Family Portrait in a Landscape (1655)


bulletFilmer's theories in Patriarcha were rooted in Natural Law thinking. He believed that the institutions of the family and the state were established to fulfill the purposes of human nature. Unlike contract theorists, Filmer equated familial and political power. The king held the ultimate power of the father over all the families of his realm.
bulletFilmer saw political power as no more consensual than paternal power, and he claimed that subjects had no more right to disobey, resist, or bully their king than children did their father.


Filmer's doctrines

  1. Criticisms of contract theory.
    Filmer complained that contract theory suggested that democracy was the natural, default form of government, instituted by God. But almost everyone agreed that democracy was the worst form of government - little better than mob rule.
    Filmer also pointed out that the "people" was a highly ambiguous term. Was it meant to include women and children? If so, why were they in fact excluded from political affairs? And if not, why not? To say that women and children are subordinate to husbands and fathers is to deny the freedom and equality on which the theory of original popular sovereignty, and the contractual origins of monarchy, was based. The people changes every time someone is born or dies. Should we re-assemble the people on each occasion to learn its sovereign wishes?


    "Memorable is the example of Cassius, who threw his son headlong out of the Consistory [for] publishing the law Agraria for the division of lands in the behoof [on behalf] of the people, and afterwards, by his own private judgment, put him to death by throwing him down from the Tarpeian Rock, the magistrates and people standing thereat amazed and not daring to resist his fatherly authority, although they would with all their hearts have had that law for the division of land — by which it appears it was lawful for the father to dispose of the life of his child contrary to the will of the magistrates or people".

    (Filmer, Patriarcha.)

    The Tarpeian Rock in Rome.


  2. Equation of the family and the kingdom.
    Everyone in medieval and early-modern Europe accepted that fathers possess power over their children, and some argued that the Law of Nature gave fathers the power of life and death (ius/ potestas vitae & necis). The earliest laws of Rome also gave fathers this right.
    Filmer, and before him Saravia, were original in arguing that the state and the family were essentially the same entity. Adam, they said, had fatherly authority over his children because he procreated them. When his children themselves had children, Adam gained authority over them too, since he had authority over their fathers. Adam (the bible records) lived for many centuries, and over the generations the number of people in his family must have become very large - quite large enough for it to count as a state and not merely as a family. When Adam died, the argument proceeded, his senior descendant by primogeniture inherited his power. Now this person had not procreated the population, so unlike Adam he was not literally their father (or forefather). But he inherited Adam's powers, which were fatherly and political. Subordinate fathers did not hold full fatherly power, for that was in the hands of the head of state. The first state, then, sprang from the first family, and not from any mythical originally sovereign people. Later on, divine providence split up states and created new ones, and sometimes altered the ruling dynasty or the form of government. But whatever the form and whoever the ruler, sovereign power was still derived from God alone and not from the people, for all rulers possessed the same powers that the first ruler - Adam - had held. The idea of the contractual origins of government, and of original freedom and equality, were pure fictions. Since Adam's time, people have been born not  free but subordinate to a father, and to the head of state who holds power over that father, and who wields the sovereign power that Adam himself once possessed.
    The Fifth Commandment - Honor thy father and thy mother - was generally held to command obedience to magistrates also. Filmer harnessed such attitudes in his support. [A typical example of summary of such views was Gervase Babington on the Fifth Commandment].
    The belief that Scripture provides a true history of the world was also key to Filmer's enterprise, for the Book of Genesis portrayed the earliest human societies not as democracies, but as patriarchies.

    "And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread".
  3. (Genesis, 9.18-19)


  4. Forms of government
    Filmer accepted that the three pure forms of government  - monarchy, aristocracy and democracy - were legitimate, but denied the possibility of "mixed" forms (where power was held partly by a king and partly by a representative body).
    Filmer followed Bodin on sovereignty: Power was not divisible; England was pure, unlimited monarchy.

Criticisms of Filmer

bulletFilmer accepted that divine providence could alter the succession of kingdoms, but later developments - in particular the defeat of the king in the English Civil War - made this notion unpopular with patriarchalist royalists.
In response to the ousting and execution of Charles I and to Cromwell's seizure of power, Filmer argued in 1652 that usurpation could never be legitimate. Divine providence, he now claimed, could never fully extinguish the rights of the old ruling dynasty.

Unfortunately, this argument could be used against the Stuarts themselves (who could scarcely be shown to be Adam's direct descendants by primogeniture). Moreover, the theory implied that all states really ought to try to track down Adam's one and only senior descendant, and put him (or her) in power in place of their existing governments. This was hardly a practical proposal.

In this tract too, Filmer argued that monarchy was the only genuine form of government.


bullet These ill-considered shifts in response to political circumstance did weaken Filmer's theory.The Adamite implications were relentlessly mocked by John Locke.


Contract theory and the family

bulletFilmer argued that if the power of husbands and fathers was political, as he contended, then the assertion of contract theorists that all people were born free and equal was false. If, on the other hand, this power was not political, then women and children were entitled to a say in government.
bulletSome modern commentators (especially feminists) have echoed Filmer's assertion that contract theorists were simply inconsistent, (and quite possibly hypocritical).
bulletLocke and his contemporaries certainly did not see their theories as internally contradictory. They believed that reasonable beings (though born free and equal) would allow the most intelligent and competent to direct affairs. Women, children, and inferior males would all willingly accept the guidance of the strong, able, intelligent property owners who sat in Parliament; or, if they would not in fact accept it, they ought rationally to do so - and that was what counted.

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