Book review: Patriarcha, a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People

Patriarcha: a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People
by Sir Robert Filmer (1680)

Filmer’s great defense of absolute monarchy deserves to be known aside from its role as John Locke’s punching bag.  Filmer deals with a foundational problem in political philosophy and proposes a compelling solution.

What are the types of authority, and where do they come from?  Everyone before the French Revolution recognized parental authority–the authority of fathers over their children, as one type of authority.  Uncontroversial, rooted directly in nature, it is in some ways the gold standard of legitimate authority.  Then there is the political authority of government, which–while kings were often thought of as relating analogously to parents–was often considered distinct.  In the pluralist and traditionalist social order of the Middle Ages, these were only two of a bewildering array of authorities, each with its own historically contingent jurisdiction, all held to be legitimate by the fact of their establishment.  The Middle Ages lacked the concept of sovereignty as Bodin and his successors understood it.  Thus early modern political philosophers were left with the problem (which medievals would have regarded as misguided) of explaining who is really in charge.  Filmer’s rhetorical opponents are mostly the Jesuits Bellarmine and Suarez who foolishly claimed that sovereignty resides in “the people” who then delegate it to their ostensible rulers but may take it back should those rulers prove obnoxious.  Perhaps the Jesuits’ goal was to vindicate the medieval practice of recognizing all settled forms.  Perhaps, as Filmer says, the goal was to reduce the authority of kings to be benefit of the pope.  Regardless, such a doctrine could only encourage democratic rebellion.

Filmer ably demolishes the claim that government can rest on the consent of the people.  There is simply no way to get from free individuals to legitimately ruled subjects.  What right would the majority have to compel the minority?  Even if unanimity could be achieved, why would people continue to be bound with it?  And would one not need unanimous consent of the entire human race to establish a government?  If any group may at any time decide to be a people for political purposes, we must accept endless fragmentation.  If not, how can separate kingdoms be justified?  And how could consent at some time in the past bind anyone in the present?  If one says that sons are bound by the decisions of their fathers, than one has already accepted Filmer’s patriarchal principle; the social contract is an extraneous extra hypothesis, and Occam’s razor cuts it away.  Authority that requires consent is no authority at all.

Filmer claims, on the contrary, that there is no second type of authority.  There is the natural, paternal authority that everyone recognizes, and there is nothing else.  Filmer draws his historical data from Scripture and Greek and Roman history, but modern knowledge of tribal peoples also lends some credibility to Filmer’s hypothesis.  Start with a rule that fathers have authority over their children and older brothers over younger brothers, stipulate that these relations carry over to adulthood and that authority is transitive, allow families to grow and multiply, and soon one has a tribal structure.  And the chieftain of a large tribe has all the properties of a king.

Filmer also attacks the confusion, still popular today, that laws can be higher than the ruling authority and bind it.  There is no such thing as rule of law, although there can be rule by law, law being a means that subjects may know their ruler’s pleasure.  Laws cannot (and Filmer says should not) cover all unusual cases and in any case always require interpretation.  And while binding the king with laws sounds good in the abstract, in practice the people are pleased with the king’s ability to sidestep procedural justice and issue pardons.

Note that Filmer makes no claim that Charles I was personally the senior descendent of Adam.  He freely admits that monarchical power has been achieved historically by a variety of messy means, and that no one today really knows the proper natural hierarchy.  It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that Charles’s authority is that of a father, and since the paternal relationship is natural, its authority is not ours to decide.  To give an analogy, we recognize that sometimes a man can become a father artificially, by adoption.  However, no man can decide to become a father as far as provision goes but not discipline, or vice versa, because the role of father is fixed.  One either takes it one whole and entire or not at all.

Filmer was perhaps more a man of the 17th century than he knew.  The great century of Descartes was a time of bold and brilliant (but often incorrect) simplifications.  Filmer finds that one can save the appearances of political theory using only the basic atom of authority, the father-son bond.  A remarkable achievement if the appearances are truly saved.  However, if medieval monarchs did not claim the sort of power that Filmer grants them, we may wonder if he has explained the monarchy or constructed something new.  And there is no mention of the authority of the Church, which is divinely sanctioned but clearly independent of paternity.

6 Responses

  1. >deserves to be known aside from its role as John Locke’s punching bag

    Yes, it is also known as one of the favorite books of the Molbuggians 🙂

    But Filmer’s other book is even better:

    “the claim of law being able to govern is nonsensical as laws are dumb, they need human interpretation, human application, and they are also necessarily incomplete. Filmer’s complaint is laid out wonderfully by his analogy of a carpenter’s rule: “[we] might as well say that the carpenter’s rule builds the house and not the carpenter, for the law is but the rule or instrument of the ruler.”

    You can find it on Google Books or with some luck

    Hey… do you want to do a series of reviews of the favorite books of the Moldbuggians? It would roughly look like this:

    Bertrand de Jouvenel: On Power
    Thomas Carlyle: Latter-Day Pamphlets
    JA Froude: The Bow of Ulysses
    Henry Maine: Popular government
    Gaetano Mosca: The Ruling Class, or alternatively the summary in Burnham’s The Machiavellians
    Konstantin Pobedostenev: Reflections of a Russian Statesman

    If you would only pick one, I would recommend Pobedostenev as he is short, to the point and criticizes everything modern. I especially like his argument that the separation of state and church is bad because the state’s institutions, like marriage, need sanctification from the church, because people are simply so that they have an emotional need for this, and when they are separated, the church will undermine the state by sanctifying something else. This really happened, only difference is that not the old, Christian Church, but the new, liberal-communist churches did so.

    Carlyle is IMHO very hard to read. De Jouvenel is kinda rambling. Froude is loooong winded. But Pobedoestenev is very succint, ideal for impatient people like me.

  2. I doubt that Bellarmine and Suarez held their positions for any reason beyond they thought it was correct, which was distinctly the mainstream Catholic view. There was some study of theologians from the 13th-19th C which indicated that of about one hundred theologians who expressed an opinion on the subject, only seven expressly disagreed that political power in some sense comes from the people, and they were Gallicans of dubious orthodoxy, whereas about two thirds expressly agreed with the concept. (Admittedly it was a rather polemical study so I’d welcome contrary evidence).

    The Catholic debate was traditionally between the “designation” and “transfer” theory, the former of whom believed that the people merely designated the recipient of authority from God, the latter of whom believed that the people exercised sovereignty and handed this power over to the ruler. In both cases authority comes from God down after the polity is instituted. In both traditions there was a strong belief that even if the ruler was chosen by the popular will this agreement was not revocable by popular will, so rebellion was sinful.

    The most authoritative statement on the subject, I think, is Leo XIIIs encyclical Diuturnum, which very strongly rejects the enlightenment view that authority flows solely from the people, moderately strongly rejects the view that paternal authority is the only true form of authority, and favors the designation over the transfer theory. However Leo later stated that it does not reject the transfer theory.

  3. The most authoritative statement on the subject, I think, is Leo XIIIs encyclical Diuturnum, which . . . favors the designation over the transfer theory.

    “6. It is of importance, however, to remark in this place that those who may be placed over the State may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude, without opposition to or impugning of the Catholic doctrine. And by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of ruling are not thereby conferred. Nor is the authority delegated to him, but the person by whom it is to be exercised is determined upon.”

    As I’m reading it, this is an if-then statement, i.e. “if the state is a democracy, the people designate their rulers”, which is obviously true. I don’t see anything to the effect that the people in general designate or otherwise play a volitional role in conferring authority on particular men.

  4. Your interpretation of 6 is, I think, clearly correct, to my reading the key paragraph is 7. “Wherefore, so long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors.” Which implies that the form of government springs from the choice of the people (although justice requires that the people not deprive their ruler of his rights after such a choice is made). As opposed to Filmer’s theory, where political power is fundamentally patriarchal and monarchy is the only good form of government.

  5. […] and Altar with a book review of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia: a Defense of the Natural Power of the Kings Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People. Among […]

  6. You might be interested that there is a Kindle version at Amazon by Patrimonium Publishing.

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