Robert Filmer

English writer

Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588 – 26 May 1653) was an English political theorist who defended the divine right of kings. His best known work, Patriarcha, published posthumously in 1680, was the target of numerous Whig attempts at rebuttal, including Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government, James Tyrrell's Patriarcha Non Monarcha and John Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Filmer also wrote critiques of Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, Hugo Grotius and Aristotle.

Robert Filmer in 1650




Peter Laslett (ed.), Patriarcha and Other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949).
  • Within the last hundred years many of the Schoolmen and other Divines have published and maintained an opinion that: "Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude". This tenet was first hatched in the Schools for good Divinity, and hath been fostered by succeeding Papists. The Divines of the Reformed Churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it as being most plausible to flesh and blood, for that it prodigally distributes a portion of liberty to the meanest of the multitude, who magnify liberty as if the height of human felicity were only to be found in it, never remembering that the desire of liberty was the cause of the fall of Adam.
    • p. 53
  • I come now to examine that argument which is used by Bellarmine, and is the one and only argument I can find produced by my author for the proof of the natural liberty of the people. It is thus framed: That God hath given or ordained power, is evident by Scripture; but God hath given it to no particular person, because by nature all men are equal; therefore he hath given power to the people or multitude. To answer this reason, drawn from the equality of mankind by nature, I will first use the help of Bellarmine himself, whose words are these: "If many men had been together created out of the earth, all they ought to have been Princes over their posterity". In these words we have an evident confession, that creation made man Prince of his posterity. And indeed not only Adam, but the succeeding Patriarchs had, by right of fatherhood, royal authority over their children. Nor dares Bellarmine deny this also. "That the patriarchs" (saith he) "were endowed with Kingly power, their deeds do testify". For as Adam was lord of his children, so his children under him had a command over their own children, but still with subordination to the first parent, who is lord paramount over his children's children to all generations, as being the grandfather of his people.
    • p. 57
I see not then how the children of Adam, or of any man else, can be free from subjection to their parents. And this subjection of children being the fountain of all regal authority, by the ordination of God himself.
  • I see not then how the children of Adam, or of any man else, can be free from subjection to their parents. And this subjection of children being the fountain of all regal authority, by the ordination of God himself. From whence it follows, that civil power, not only in general is by Divine institution, but even the assigning of it specifically to the eldest parent. Which quite takes away that new and common distinction which refers only power universal and absolute to God, but power respective in regard of the special form of government to the choice of the people. Nor leaves it any place for such imaginary pactions between Kings and their people as many dream of. This lordship which Adam by creation had over the whole world, and by right descending from him the Patriarchs did enjoy, was as large and ample as the absolutest dominion of any monarch which hath been since the creation.
    • pp. 57–58
  • The three sons of Noah had the whole world divided amongst them by their Father; for of them was the whole world overspread, according to the benediction given to him and his sons: "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth". Most of the civilest nations of the earth labour to fetch their original from some one of the sons or nephews of Noah, which were scattered abroad after the confusion of Babel. In this dispersion we must certainly find the establishment of regal power throughout the kingdoms of the world.
    • p. 58

The Power of Kings

Peter Laslett (ed.), Patriarcha and Other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949).
  • To majesty or sovereignty belongeth an absolute power not subject to any law.
    • p. 317
  • [T]he prince is not subject to his law, nor to the laws of his predecessors, but well to his own just and reasonable conventions.
    • p. 318
  • In a well-ordered state, the sovereign power must remain in one only, without communicating any part thereof unto the state (for in that case it should be a popular government and no monarchy). Wise politicians, philosophers, divines and historiographers, have highly commended a monarchy above all other commonweals. It is not to please the prince, that they hold this opinion; but for the safety and hap­piness of the subjects. And contrariwise, when as they shall limit and restrain the sovereign power of a monarch, to subject him to the general estates, or to the council; the sovereignty hath no firm foun­dation, but they frame a popular confusion, or a mi­serable anarchy, which is the plague of all estates and commonweals.
    • p. 325

Quotes about Robert Filmer

  • Filmer was a thinker of uncommon power, and even of uncommon originality. It is true that almost everything he said had been said many times before. But he was, at least, original enough to differ from almost every one of his own time in England; and he was original also in that he really tried to answer fundamental questions. As a political thinker he was, in my opinion, far more profound and far more original than was Locke.
    • J. W. Allen, 'Sir Robert Filmer', in F. J. C. Hearnshaw (ed.), The Social and Political Ideas of Some English Thinkers of the Augustan Age (1928), p. 45
  • Filmer's origin of government is exemplified everywhere: Locke's scheme of government has not ever, to the knowledge of any body, been exemplified any where. In every family there is government, in every family there is subjection, and subjection of the most absolute kind: the father, sovereign, the mother and the young, subjects. According to Locke's scheme, men knew nothing at all of governments till they met together to make one. Locke has speculated so deeply, and reasoned so ingeniously, as to have forgot that he was not of age when he came into the world. ... Under the authority of the father, and his assistant and prime-minister the mother, every human creature is enured to subjection, is trained up into a habit of subjection. But, the habit once formed, nothing is easier than to transfer it from one object to another. Without the previous establishment of domestic government, blood only, and probably a long course of it, could have formed political government.
    • Jeremy Bentham, 'Locke, Rousseau and Filmer's Systems', quoted in J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1688–1832. Ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien regime (1985), pp. 75–76
  • Under Queen Anne, as under Charles II, there is no doubt that the most influential political theorist was still Sir Robert Filmer. ... His influence can be measured by the fact that Sydney's Discourses and Locke's Treatises were not so much independent and positive contributions to political thought as elaborate refutations of Filmer's Patriarcha; indeed, but for Filmer it is to be doubted if either book would have been written.
    • J. P. Kenyon, 'The Revolution of 1688: Resistance and Contract', in Neil McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J. H. Plumb (1974), p. 60
  • Filmer, for all his brash naivety and his obviously amateur outlook, was that extremely rare phenomenon – the codifier of conscious and unconscious prejudice.
    • Peter Laslett, 'Introduction', in Peter Laslett (ed.), Patriarcha and Other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer (1949), p. 41
  • Whether the theory of an actual paternal origin of government is a correct phylogenetic or logical inference, or merely a psychological delusion, we shall probably never know; but this much is certain, that it is an assumption natural to us all. Correct perception of a psychological fact underlay Sir Robert Filmer's theory: all authority is to human beings paternal in character, for they are born, not free and independent as some of Filmer's opponents would have it, but subject to parental authority; in the first place, to that of their fathers.
    • Lewis Namier, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930), p. 31
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