Filmer’s Patriarcha

fa5724John Wickey

Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings. By Sir Robert Filmer. London. Printed for Walter Davis, 1680.

The central question addressed in Patriarcha is this: From where does the authority to govern come? It is truly amazing how beliefs shape our lives. Most men do not reason through their beliefs, largely remaining blind to the full consequence of the ideas they hold. Most aren’t even fully aware of all the beliefs that inhabit their consciences. But when a belief takes up broad residence in a society’s mind it inexorably marches that society, over time, towards every last implication of that belief. What people believe is important.

Such a slow but inexorable march has been taking place in our own society for upwards of three centuries. This journey’s beginning can be traced to a great clash of ideas which occurred in the seventeenth century when the traditional patriarchal ideal of government gave way to the currently accepted social contract theory. The outcome of this battle of beliefs has reverberated through every facet of modern life, eroding and eventually discarding the traditionally accepted patriarchal patterns of government over nation, property, church, family and marriage in favor of new traditions of partnership.

Most have heard of John Locke, the most famous proponent of social contract, but few have any real understanding of the ideal he was arguing against. His opponent was Sir Robert Filmer, author of Patriarcha. Though Filmer was long passed away by the date of Locke’s attack, Filmer’s work gives voice to the foundational beliefs that had created and directed European Christian culture for millennia. These beliefs stand in opposition to the social contract, thus Patriarcha was the explicitly stated target of Locke’s Treatise on Government.

John Locke’s attack was successful and thus it was not only the person of Sir Robert Filmer that passed away, but the ideal he defended passed away from our knowledge as well. Yet close study finds Locke’s Treatise focused largely on personal ridicule and somewhat lacking in actual reasoned argument to Filmer’s Patriarcha. Locke scored a definitive popular victory over Filmer, but not necessarily a logical one. With the importance of the basis of government being so fundamental in so many areas of life, the Christian is well advised to acquaint himself with the other side of this great debate. A reading of Patriarcha is probably one of the best avenues to understanding this less well known position.

From where does the authority to govern come? In Patriarcha, Filmer proposes God began the world by giving authority to man’s first father, Adam, and it is from this fatherly authority that governing authority derives through inheritance. This of course stands in stark contrast to social contract theory which posits that all men are equal thus no natural governing authority exists among men, that instead authority exists only by the consent of the governed.

Patriarcha lays out a number of significant inconsistencies implicit in social contract theory. If all men are equal and must grant consent to be governed, how can any government be legitimate as no government can achieve unanimous consent?

If it is legitimate for a majority to join together and form a government such as the United States, then by the same standard the people of New York could also form their own nation seceding from the greater majority. Similarly, by the same right, a single town could do the same and even a single individual could also do the same. This of course renders any government impossible as it could not compel obedience to any law were everyone to possess the right to secede from its authority.

If, on the other hand, the social contract does allow the majority to compel the obedience of those who do not consent, i.e. the United States enforcing national laws on states or states on individuals who object, then by the same standard the greater majority of the world also must have the legitimate right to force its will on all nations. Again this renders all national governments impossible.

Another inherent flaw Filmer notes regards the foundation of private property. If the authority to rule is granted to all men equally, then on what does the authority to rule property rest? Private property is a restriction on all men who do not own the property. One man’s ownership of property limits, or governs, others. From where does this right to govern property come? Filmer holds that dominion was granted first to Adam and descends to us through inheritance. So Adam owned the Garden and his sons gained their property by inheritance from him. If, however, dominion of the Garden was granted not to Adam first, but to all men equally, then dominion of the Garden was communal; no one could legitimately govern or hold any property privately without the general consent of all other men, for all men held an interest and authority over all property.

Significantly, John Locke failed to address Patriarcha’s first two points and actually consented to Filmer’s assertion on property. In Locke’s second Treatise he indeed postulated that social contract theory held God’s grant of dominion was originally communal allowing an individual the right only to what he could consume, and his neighbor the right to take from him any surplus. For Locke, private property could only be arrived at through the consent of the “common”. People could consent together to allow private property, but everyone held a natural equal interest in all property; thus property under social contract theory is never truly private, but rather subject always to the greater public interest.

That point alone gives a glimpse of the degree of alteration the fabric of society endures in a change from patriarchal government to social contract. The range of argument contained in Patriarcha does not stray far from the issue of the foundation of national government, but that foundation affects all aspects of life. For example, a consensual basis for government also implies marriage should no longer hold obligation and thus social contract gives birth to a pressure for “no fault” divorce. Again John Locke agreed, proposing it justice that husbands and wives hold the freedom to dissolve any marriage when children are not present.

The implications are widespread. When government is consensual, pastors cease being shepherds with the authority to correct their congregations and change instead into hirelings bound to serve the whims of their congregations. Socially, authority in general is seen not as deriving from God but rather only as a gift from those who are subject to it, so any requirement becomes an unfair imposition, and thus authority itself is generally viewed as evil. In this culture, rebels become heroes and the obedient become imbecilic villains. Parents become servants to their children rather than masters. Socialism becomes the goal, while passing on accumulated wealth becomes despised. And national government takes on an entirely different character, which Patriarcha, through logical argument and an examination of history, contends offers less freedom than the form of monarchy, not more.

For the Christian concerned with the direction our current society has traveled and is taking, “from where does authority come?” becomes a most pressing question. Does the government of a nation come from God? Or does it derive from man? Since God promised David his throne would continue in perpetuity, does Queen Elizabeth sit on David’s throne with authority from God? Or does that throne exist only as a creation of man and will continue only until man chooses to extinguish it? Ultimately, is God in charge? Or is man?

Patriarcha is sure to provoke much needed thought on some of the most fundamental questions of our Christian walk. It stands as highly recommended reading for any and all.


John Wickey is a leading intellectual proponent of the doctrine of passive obedience and the author of the book The Myth of American Freedom

Published in Renewal, the journal of The Secker Society, Summer-Fall 2013.