Thursday, January 27, 2011

Monarchist Profile: Sir Robert Filmer

One of the most well known literary defenders of the British monarchy during the time of the English Civil Wars was Sir Robert Filmer, although some have since argued that he is more known by those who endeavored to refute him than he was on his own merits. Nonetheless, he put forward what is now one of the better known arguments in favor of paternalistic absolute monarchy, based on the Divine Right of Kings and in opposition to the liberal supporters of Parliament. I will admit that he is probably my favorite political theorist of his time and place and one I would certainly be more in agreement with than someone like Thomas Hobbes (whom Filmer actually criticized). Little Bobby Filmer was the son of Sir Edward Filmer, a native of Kent, and was born sometime in 1588. He studied at Cambridge and was knighted by King Charles I. An ardent royalist, he supported the King in his disputes with Parliament and Filmer suffered dearly for it. He was captured and thrown in the dungeon at Leeds Castle in 1643 and had his home vandalized by the Parliamentarians no less than ten times. Obviously, not the sort of experiences that would be inclined to endear him to the cause of liberalism.

Filmer wrote extensively in support of the monarchy on the battleground of political theory and also occasionally wrote criticisms of other theorists, philosophers and religions (he did not like Calvinists -not monarchist enough, and he did not like Catholics who were sufficiently monarchist but their loyalty to the Pope made them suspect). Although not the sort of total authoritarian that Hobbes was, Filmer was definitely an advocate of absolute monarchy, no doubt about it. In fact, were he alive today, Filmer would hardly recognize any western monarchy as being a monarchy at all as he was totally opposed to limited, mixed or what would later be known as constitutional monarchy. Royal authority had to be absolute and unfettered according to Filmer for several basic reasons; because justice can only be imposed, it cannot be self-administered; because all power is absolute according to natural law and because monarchs have inherited a divine right that no one on earth has authority to take from them. According to Filmer, democracy was chaos; at best only one step away from anarchy and even mixed government was trending in the wrong direction because it implied that Parliament had at least some power over the King or that there were powers they had which the King could not revoke.

One of the things I like about Filmer is that he challenged problems and hypocrisies in the liberal democratic/republican model that are seemingly obvious but rarely addressed. For example; why does everyone assume democracy to be an absolute good when virtually everyone also agrees that democracy is dangerous, inefficient and inevitably fails? Why is it wrong for the King to have power instead of ‘the people’ but it is okay for some people to have power and not others. After all, at least at that time, even the most radical liberals who championed the cause of “the people” never for a minute considered “the people” to include women, children, criminals, slaves or the retarded for that matter. In short, if it was “unfair” for the King to have power but not “the people”, why was it “fair” for men to have power and not women? Was it “unfair” that adults should have more power than children? One cannot help but be reminded of how, during the period of the American Revolutionary War, Samuel Johnson wondered why the loudest yelps for liberty came from slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

As a basis for his support of absolute monarchy, Filmer went back to the origins of humanity and the Old Testament of the Bible. He noted, in his most famous work, that the very first governments in the Bible were patriarchies. This was the rule of a father over his family and, given how long Biblical figures lived, they could come to rule quite a large group of families. Filmer reasoned that there was no real difference between a family patriarch and a royal monarch. A family, expanded to a clan, expanded to a tribe, expanded to a nation and patriarchs inevitably became lords, chieftains and kings. So, the rule of a king over his subjects was no different than the rule of a father over his family. He noted that, in the Bible, fathers had absolute power, even of life and death, over their families and yet, because of the paternalistic nature of the relationship, this was not oppressive or negative.

Filmer writes that the original patriarch was Adam, the first man and the one given dominion over the whole world by God. This authority passed eventually from Adam to Noah. Filmer, taking the Biblical story of the flood literally (I add only because believing that the Bible actually means what it says is so novel a concept today) he also held to the theory that Noah sailed with the ark through the Mediterranean and passed his authority over the world to his three sons by granting each dominion over one of the three continents of the ancient world. It was from these three patriarchs, Filmer argued, that all others descend and their descendants eventually becoming the lords, chieftains, princes and finally kings of the nations. Thus, Filmer believed in absolute monarchy as the system established by God, starting with Adam and the commandment for children to obey their parents. It should be noted however that not all royalists were in agreement with Filmer on this point, he was certainly on the side favoring an absolute monarch and rejecting limited monarchy as well as democracy.

Filmer died on May 26, 1653 and many of his most famous works were not widely published until after his death, in part so that they could be refuted by liberal writers of the time. What is interesting is that this coincided with the 1688 revolution and the downfall of the House of Stuart. The works of Filmer were dug up and passed around as examples of royalist villainy; the frightening absolutism of those who believed in the Divine Right of Kings. That is, of course, what King James II believed and those supporting the preeminence of Parliament seized on the writings of Filmer to justify their own position; that the King answers to Parliament rather than Parliament answering to the King. One can only guess what Filmer himself would have thought about his work being used in this way, especially since the monarch who held to the Divine Right of Kings that Filmer so defended also belonged to a Church that Filmer most adamantly opposed.


  1. While I don't agree with all of FIlmers arguments, I find his words far superior to the supposedly more brilliant John Locke...

  2. See, Filmer doesn't seem like you, MM. You seem to have a high respect for the Catholic Church, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if you are Catholic. Filmer, tho, was apologetically anti-Catholic, and he though Monarchs ought to have complete control over everything, but in you article about Cromwell, you sited the fact that the King had less authority than Cromwell, and you seemed to think that was a good thing. So why would you support Filmer given that you don't hate Catholics, and given that you're against Cromwell-style tyranny?

    1. My problem with Cromwell was less how much power he had but the fact that he gained it by betrayal and had no right to such power at all. Filmer supported the absolute power of the legitimate monarch, for religious reasons, which is a far cry from someone like Hobbes who supported absolutism in any form for its own sake. As far as being anti-Catholic, Filmer lived in an officially anti-Catholic country so his views are not surprising. I would prefer there had been no religious divisions at all but given that they had happened I would naturally prefer a monarchist anti-Catholic over a republican anti-Catholic. And if you're Catholic, no regime in Britain was ever worse than the republic.

  3. This is why I do not understand your support for Filmer. Filmer believed in Monarchy due to religious reasons, but you have voiced a belief in religious tolerance towards Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. How can you support Theocracy while simultaneously supporting tolerance? Do you believe that they are compatible, or do you simply hold you monarchist views for religious reasons, but not being a theocratic? For example, I am a monarchist because of my belief in monotheism, but I'm against theocracy. Would you be the Christian equivalent of that, or do you support theocracy? By Filmer's standards, monarchs should control everything, but I doubt he'd be happy with a catholic or atheistic monarch, which is why I don't like him. Would you say that any monarch is acceptably, or only a theocratic Anglican one like Filmer would? You correct in the anti-catholic fact: The BE was no friend to Rome.

    1. I may be missing or misunderstanding what your 'hang-up' is about this. No part of Britain was ever an outright theocracy so I see no reason in choosing between monarchy or theocracy in Britain. Theocracy was never an option. As far as religious tolerance goes, especially at that time, it was never the accepted practice. King Edward I expelled the Jews, Kings executed heretics and when they became Protestant they executed Catholics. Tolerance is necessary in many places today only because governments have allowed people of various beliefs to mix together so if there was no tolerance there would be a bloodbath -and I really don't see how that relates to this issue or Filmer at all.

      As I said in the article, I'm sure Filmer would have been shocked at how his arguments were used and who used them but the whole situation with King James II revealed what I consider (and it seems obvious to me) a fundamental flaw in the thinking of the Anglicans in particular who opposed him. From the time of Henry VIII onward the basis of the Church of England was submission to the royal power, so the Church of England was as Protestant as the monarch on the throne and even briefly Catholic again when Queen Mary I was on the throne so the fact that James II was a Catholic should have made no difference to the Anglicans as I see it. But again, that was long after Filmer's time and not an issue he had to deal with so I don't see the relevance.

      Perhaps it is just that I do not feel bound to condemn the political arguments of someone just because I might not agree with their religious opinions. Similarly, there were Roman emperors or monarchs in East Asia who had Christians put to death which I consider unfortunate and regrettable but aside from which I might consider them quite good monarchs. In Filmer's case it is not that I agree with his every written word or opinion but that I find his arguments extremely interesting and I appreciate his arguing for monarchy on a Biblical basis even though there are other monarchists I would be more in agreement with than him. I said above Filmer was my favorite political theorist of his time and place -and in his time and place there were probably none that would be exactly in line with my views on everything.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...