Patriarchy and Paternalism

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PATRIARCHY AND PATERNALISM. The patriarchal political theory is associated primarily with Sir Robert Filmer (c. 15881653), the English royalist who derived political authority from and founded political obligation on the fatherly power of Adam. While hardly unique, he was the most forthright and unyielding of the writers who expounded on the premises of patriarchalism, and it is appropriate that the doctrine be tied to his name. But the coupling of politics and the family was already well established when Filmer wrote; it had been a leitmotif in European thought at least since the time of the ancient Greeks.


Aristotle (384322 B.C.E.) asserts in the Politics that the state is a teleological outgrowth of the household, which is itself a natural society, and that the experiences of being ruled as a child and ruling as a parent are the best preparations for citizenship. In De officiis, one of the most widely read books in early modern Europe, Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 B.C.E.) calls the family the "seedbed of the state" (seminarium re publicae), a phrase that was often repeated without attribution. Translated into something of an anthropological theorywith or without its implicit determinismand into an understanding of the biological household as the rudimentary and foundational social institution, Aristotle's twin dicta became commonplace notions. They were especially popular in the teachings of Roman Catholicism, finding expression in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (12251274), Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280c. 1343), and Scholastic theologians and theorists including, among others, the important English divine Richard Hooker (1553 or 15541600). But it was primarily as a secular doctrine that the appeal to the family acquired a political significance, and invariably, it was the male-dominated patriarchal family that served as a political model.

Aristotle had drawn a sharp distinction between the "economic" relationships of the household and the political relationships that existed in the state, and his teleology was based on a fundamental transformation that occurred as the household grew into the state. The Aristotelian formula was accepted by the French jurist Jean Bodin (15301596)subsequently famed for his conception of sovereign power as absolute, indivisible, and inalienablewho further argued in his Six livres de la république (1576) that the political community was a union of at least three families and that the powers of fatherhood were natural and God-given and carried with them the duties to nourish and educate one's children. Johannes Althusius (15571638), Dutch theorist of federalism, agreed with Aristotle and in his Politica Methodice Digesta (Politics methodically ordered; 1603) used the distinction between familial and civil associations to fortify his conception of the state as a voluntary society. John Selden (15841654), Hugo Grotius (15831645), and Edward Coke (15521634), among others, all accepted this version of the origins of society, but none of them attempted to derive political obligation from the patriarchal origins of political authority. That move was first made by Filmer, but there was much that preceded him and that he incorporated into his theory.

From the time of Martin Luther, Protestant Christianity had utilized the Decalogue's injunction of obedience to parents to undergird political duty. "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Exod. 20:12)the Fifth Commandment of Anglicanism and most other Protestant confessions (the Fourth for Roman Catholics and Lutherans)was regularly expanded to justify the duties to obey all superiors, including masters, teachers, ministers, and magistrates. With the convenient omission of "mother," this commandment became a common English shorthand for the duty to obey the king. The uniting of the biblical endorsement of paternal right with political duty was the doctrine of the catechism and frequently turned up in political tracts, legal documents, and theological writings. The political ideology was matched by the apparent social structure. In the increasingly popular literature on the household, the absolute power of the monarch was often asserted to be parallel to the overarching authority of fathers in what was presented as the traditional, patriarchal family. The image conveyed was of a world in which household, economy, and polity were all in harmony. Coupled with the anthropological account of political origins borrowed from Aristotle, the patriarchal doctrine was nearly irresistible and was the backbone of the implicit belief system of Europe.


Filmer brought all this to the level of consciousness in response to the social-contract, state-of-nature, and natural-law theories that were being used to attack royal authority in the mid-seventeenth century. His best known work, Patriarcha, was not published until 1680 although it was written forty to fifty years earlier. It was one of a number of tracts commenting on the leading political writers and theories of early Stuart England. In his Two Treatises of Government (1690) John Locke attacks Filmer's works as "the Currant Divinity of the Times." Filmer argues that fatherly power was conferred on Adam by God in Paradise and that all subsequent authority is patriarchal in nature and directly derived from that grant. A mixture of biblical history, social structural inferences from the nature of household governance, reasoned arguments and assertions, and interpretations of English constitutional practice, Filmer's theories ultimately rested on a Bodinian conception of sovereignty. All authority, he insisted, was absolute and indivisible, owed its existence and nature to God, was passed on through the heirs to Adam's original grant, and would still exist intact were those heirs known. After the division of the world among the sons of Noah, the subsequent establishment of separate nations at the Tower of Babel, and the eventual loss of the identities of the true heirs to these titles, all powerincluding that of successful usurpersremains patriarchal in nature. This is continually reconfirmed by the biblical history of the Hebrews, by the secular practices and philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, and by the political history of England.

Filmer's argument is based on the presumed identity of patriarchal and political power rather than on a metaphorical or analogical use of fatherhood. That strict identity enables him to attack the state-of-nature and social-contract theories. Those doctrines presumed that the "original" condition of humanity was one of natural freedom; government and politics were contrivances instituted either to remedy the defects of nature or to complete God's plan. Filmer argues, on the contrary, that subjection to governance was the original human condition. Because people have always been and are naturally subject to the authority of fathers and because there is no distinction between paternal and political power, he claims, there never was the natural liberty that would have been necessary if people were to have instituted government by themselves. Accordingly, since government is a divine and not a human creation, it cannot be controlled by the "people." Rulers are answerable solely to God, not to their subjects.

The widespread use of the familial or patriarchal conception of the origins of civil society to counter state-of-nature and social-contract theories and to defend divine-right absolutism in Stuart England marks the emergence of patriarchalism as a comprehensive theory of political obligation; it was that theory that was finally undone by the attacks of Locke and others, although the anthropological doctrine and the traditional structure of the household were immune to those criticisms. But political patriarchalism did not disappear after Locke's onslaught. Charles Leslie, an English Nonjuror in the early eighteenth century, and Jonathan Boucher (17381804), an American Tory minister at the time of the Revolution, both defended Filmer, and a version of the patriarchal doctrine that could have rivaled Filmer's was asserted by the French bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (16271704) in his Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Écriture Sainte


Locke's principal conceptual task was to reassert the Aristotelian separation of familial from political authority, and he accepted a nonteleological version of that position. This modified "Lockean" account, which describes the anthropological emergence of politics from the primitive or "prepolitical" household, remained the standard account of governmental origins throughout the eighteenth century. It can be found in the writings of Francis Hutcheson (16941746), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), David Hume (17111776), and most other political theorists who wrote about the origins of the state. The full realization of Locke's accomplishment was at least a hundred years away, but in his response to Filmer, Locke provided a foundation for an understanding of government as an artificial human creation that could be subjected to constitutional limitations.

See also Aristotelianism ; Authority, Concept of ; Bodin, Jean ; Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne ; Divine Right Kingship ; Hume, David ; Locke, John ; Monarchy ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Sovereignty, Theory of ; State and Bureaucracy .


Schochet, Gordon J. Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes, Especially in Seventeenth-Century England. New York, 1975.

Gordon Schochet