Filmer, Robert (c. 1588–1653)

views updated

(c. 15881653)

Robert Filmer, the English political writer and theorist of the divine right of kings, was an early expositor of the patriarchal account of the state and of society. He was a country gentleman of the county of Kent but also belonged to the intellectual society of London and had some connection with the Court. He was an associate of prominent lawyers and historians, such as John Selden and Sir Henry Spelman, of the orthodox clergy, and of the Jacobean poets and literati too, including George Herbert and possibly John Donne. His absolutist views on political matters may have been acquired while he was at Trinity College, Cambridge, or at the Inns of Court and were developed well before the outbreak of the Civil War between the king and Parliament in 1642. In this he resembles Thomas Hobbes, his contemporary, but Filmer wrote his works for circulation in manuscript among his London acquaintances and the manor houses of Kent rather than for publication in print. Although his family was engaged on the side of the king in the struggle with Parliament in the 1640s and although he himself suffered considerable losses, Sir Robert never actually fought with the royalist forces and even pleaded neutrality, which has since been looked upon as inconsistency in the conduct of an extreme defender of royalist claims. His neutrality did not prevent his being sent to prison for a time.

Filmer's importance in the history of thought rests almost entirely on the fact that John Locke's work on political theory, the famous Two Treatises of Government, was directed against him, though it was not published until 1689, nearly forty years after Filmer's death. It has only recently been shown how extensive was Locke's preoccupation with Filmer, in the second of his treatises as well as in the first. But the social theorists of the present day are also interested in Filmer's thinking as an expression of traditional patriarchal attitudes toward authority and social structure. The relationship between Locke and Filmer has become the classic example of a rationalist-critical political system (the Lockean) confronting an ideological-determinist outlook (the Filmer view).

It has not been possible, however, to see in Filmer simply a "codifier of unconscious prejudice," as he has been called. He was remarkably enlightened in some of his views, especially as to witchcraft, and wrote with surprising urbanity rather as a critical reviewer of the political works current in his time than as the solemn expositor of outraged orthodoxy. Those of his works he himself had printed, mainly reviews of Aristotle, John Milton, Hugo Grotius, and Hobbes, are brief and pointed, and it is, perhaps, significant that he refused to publish the only concerted exposition of his political theory, the famous Patriarcha; or the Natural Power of Kings (London, 1680), from which all the others derive. He may have thought his political theory too extreme in its earlier, positive form.

Patriarcha, which was composed for the gentry of Kent in the 1630s, asserts that every individual is absolutely bound to obey the political authority established in his country because that authority enjoys by divine decree the powers originally conferred on Adam at the creation over his wife, his children, and their descendants eternally. From this view of the Old Testament it follows that males are always superior to females, the elder to the younger, and that all humans are naturallyphysiologicallyrelated to each other. Society is a family, descended from one single male individual. All men are born, and always remain, unfree and unequal, and consent is irrelevant to political association. Political society is also universal, for there are no humans who are not descended from Adam. A prepolitical state of nature makes no sense at all, nor does any idea of a contract to replace such a condition by political society. Property as well as political power is distributed according to God's patriarchal decrees and belongs absolutely to the person who inherits it or to whom it has been given.

These social and political doctrines are original only in the sense that Filmer combined together many positions held by his predecessors, notably those of the French legal theorist Jean Bodin, those of the bishops of the Anglican Church, and especially those of its royal head, King James I. These views are acceptable only to a naively fundamentalist believer in the Christian scriptures, and Locke had no difficulty in demolishing all the "glib nonsense," as he called it, about the kingship of Adam and its descent to the Stuart kings, to the usurper Oliver Cromwell, to any man or group lucky enough to seize power. Nevertheless, there was rather more to Filmer's "rope of sand" than Locke wished to admit, and in Filmer's shrewd remarks about the historical absurdities of a state of nature and in his very acute analysis of majority rule he raised difficulties that Locke never satisfactorily overcame.

Filmer demanded to know how an assembly convened for the purpose of making a universal contract could ever proceed to a valid vote of everyone with the right to vote. There would be bound to be absentees, and when it came to original multitudes voting to set up a government, the rights of some individuals would inevitably be overrun. What about servants, women, children, and the sick? Locke blandly responded by dogmatically asserting that in "one Body Politick the Majority have the Right to act and conclude the rest" (Second Treatise, 95). Filmer's doctrine of property seems to have impelled Locke into the formulation of the labor theory of value, with all its enormous consequences in social thinking.

Filmer's doctrines by no means disappeared with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the victory of Lockean rationalism. His arguments were persuasively restated by Jonathan Boucher in championship of the Tories at the American Revolution, and again by George Fitzhugh in defense of the South in the 1850s. Filmer remains the most valuable literary source for traditional European preindustrial patriarchal political attitudes.

See also Aristotle; Bodin, Jean; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Grotius, Hugo; Hobbes, Thomas; Ideology; Locke, John; Milton, John; Political Philosophy, History of; Political Philosophy, Nature of; Social Contract.


primary work

Patriarcha and Other Writings. Edited by Johann P. Somerville. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

secondary works

Daly, James. Sir Robert Filmer and English Political Thought. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All, or, Slaves without Masters. Edited by C. Vann Woodward. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960.

Laslett, Peter, ed. Patriarcha and the Other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1949.

Schochet, Gordon J. Patriarchalism in Political Thought. New York: Basic, 1975.

Peter Laslett (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)