Locke’s Adversary: The Patriarchal Kingdom of Sir Robert Filmer

Fallitur egregio quisquis sub principe credit Servitium;
nunquam libertas gratior extat Quam sub Rege pio ~ Claudian

“Whoso thinks it slavery to serve under an eminent prince is mistaken;
liberty is never sweeter than under a pious king.”


Anyone who has studied political theory at school or university will be familiar with the work of John Locke. Study of (parts of) his Two Treatises of Government often form the first engagement with political philosophy for the young student of politics. What however is rarely imparted to students is that this work was written as a reply to the treatise by Sir Robert Filmer entitled Patriarcha: or the Natural Power of Kings. Even rarer is actual study of this work, which as the title suggests is an exposition on the essential rightness of monarchy. The impression which is given by study of Locke is that a monarch is beholden to no one, no law, and no thing; that monarchical systems allow an absolute monarch the ability to treat his subjects as however many slaves, commanding them as he wishes according to the caprices of his will; and that such systems generally lead to the complete subjugation of all liberties and to a life of drudgery, sycophancy and servitude for all but the monarch.

My intent in this article is to show that the characterisation of Filmer’s Patriarcha as a promotion of unbridled absolute monarchy is incorrect. The following quotations from that work show that his system is not a pure monarchy, but is one which combines monarchy with patriarchy, theocracy and necrocracy.1 Most importantly, however, I wish to show that the rule of Filmer’s monarch is not arbitrary and capricious.

A full analysis of Locke’s response to Filmer is another undertaking entirely, and one which requires much further study on my part.

The edition of Filmer I have referenced is linked at the bottom of this article. References take the form of [chapter.paragraph]. In the course of this article I will use the terms “king,” “ruler,” “sovereign,” “patriarch” and “prince” when referring to the head of the state which Filmer is describing. These terms each carry their own set of resonances and implications, which I have made use of accordingly.

Filmer’s Patriarchal System

The term “patriarch” derives from the roots “patria-” (from the Latin term “pater,” for “father,” but denoting lineage, tribe or descent) and “-arch” (meaning “rule”; “chief,” or “principle”). Broadly speaking, the term may be understood by anglicisation to “father ruler.” A point that must be understood with regards to Filmer is that he based his system on the assumption that fathers rightfully rule over their children;

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…[1.4]

Filmer goes on to explain how it is that the rule of children by fathers becomes the rule of kingdoms by a patriarch;

Nimrod … was by good right lord or king over his family; yet against right did he enlarge his empire by seizing violently on the rights of other lords of families; and in this sense he may be said to be the author and first founder of monarchy.[1.6]

In short, he imagines that at first a father ruled just his family, and as his children married and had their own children this family grew into a tribe. After so many generations this tribe grew into a “petty kingdom,” and eventually, “by the uniting of great families or petty kingdoms, we find the greater monarchies were at the first erected…”[1.9]

After which these “greater monarchies,” through growth, colonisation, marriage and conquest, grew into the stately kingdoms which reigned over most of Filmer’s world. Regardless of whether you agree with this point or not, the principle of charity must be borne in mind. So, allowing Filmer’s axiom, namely that the rule of fathers over children is legitimate, and that from a single family can come an extended family, and from an extended family can come a tribe, and from a tribe a kingdom, we may proceed.

Now we may examine Filmer’s view on the particulars and limits of this assumed patriarchy. Filmer describes how his patriarchal system extends across generations;

…as Adam was lord of his children, so his children under him had a command and power 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.[1.3]

Filmer imagined patriarchal power as remaining with the most senior father. While Adam’s sons had command over their sons, he still retained command over them. Thus a tiered system emerges. As the family matures more and more sons are added, some bloodlines flourish while others die out, women are widowed and remarried, half-brothers and sons-in-law come into being and they father their own sons. Before long, the simple family unit ruled by the most senior male member is a sprawling network of relations. How, then, to decide which of the many venerable old men is to be crowned? Filmer answers as follows;

…after a few descents, when the true fatherhood itself was extinct, and only the right of the father descends to the true heir, then the title of prince or king was more significant to express the power of him who succeeds only to the right of that fatherhood which his ancestors did naturally enjoy. By this means it comes to pass that many a child, by succeeding a king, hath the right of a father over many a greyheaded multitude, and hath the title of Pater Patriæ.[1.8]

Occasionally, even this method will not be sufficient, and the elders of the clan must assemble;

…because the dependency of ancient families is oft obscure or worn out of knowledge, therefore the wisdom of all or most princes have thought fit to adopt many times those for heads of families and princes of provinces whose merits, abilities, or fortunes have ennobled them, or made them fit and capable of such regal favours. All such prime heads and fathers have power to consent in the uniting or conferring of their fatherly right of sovereign authority on whom they please; and he that is so elected claims not his power as a donative from the people, but as being substituted properly by God, from whom he receives his royal charter of an universal father, though testified by the ministry of the heads of the people.[1.9]

Note that this selection of a king is emphatically not an election, but instead a substitution, whereby the patriarchs of a clan, tribe or kingdom choose who shall be granted the patriarchal power. This is then conferred on them, not by virtue of the decision of their peers, but by God. The intervention of God in this matter is facilitated by the fact that the selection is made by those who received the patriarchal kingly power from their descent from the original patriarch.

The king, as supreme father, has a duty to his subjects;

His war, his peace, his courts of justice, and all his acts of sovereignty, tend only to preserve and distribute to every subordinate and inferior father, and to their children, their rights and privileges, so that all the duties of a king are summed up in an universal fatherly care of his people.[1.10]

The prince’s dominion is his household, and his subjects are his children. Just as a good father keeps his household in order and makes every possible effort to ensure the well-being of his children and the posterity of his name, so does a good king always seek to aid his subjects and glorify his state. Furthermore, as a father later in his life is dependent on his family for his support, so is the king;

It is the multitude of people and the abundance of their riches which are the only strength and glory of every prince. The bodies of his subjects do him service in war, and their goods supply his present wants; therefore, if not out of affection to his people, yet out of natural love to himself, every tyrant desires to preserve the lives and protect the goods of his subjects, which cannot be done but by justice…[2.15]

A father destroys himself through the ruining of his house, as does a prince by the ruining of his dominions. However, this patriarchal rule is more than just pragmatic self-interest tied to fatherly duty. It is divine law;

…every father is bound by the law of nature to do his best for the preservation of his family. But much more is a king always tied by the same law of nature to keep this general ground, that the safety of the kingdom be his chief law…[3.1]

In short, just as a father who shirks his responsibilities to his children is no father; a king who does not have always in mind the good of his kingdom is no king.

Despite these duties guiding the way in which a king acts, Filmer sees only one power set above that of the king; “All are under [the king], and he under none but God.”[3.3] However, in the earthly sphere, the king is absolutely powerful. His word is law; indeed, “there were kings long before there were any laws. For a long time the word of a king was the only law.”[3.1] He is fully able to decide as he sees fit in any situation, and cannot be overruled by his subjects, just as a child cannot overrule the decisions of his father. As two siblings will accept the adjudication of their father in a dispute, so the two women went before Solomon to seek his judgement. However, for reason of practicality, laws must be enacted;

The reason why laws have been also made by kings was this: when kings were either busied with wars, or distracted with public cares, so that every private man could not have access to their persons to learn their wills and pleasure, then of necessity were laws invented, that so every particular subject might find his prince’s pleasure deciphered to him in the tables of his laws, that so there might be no need to resort unto the king…[3.5]

From this follows the crucial point in understanding Filmer’s view of kingship. Namely, that the king is bound to obey his predecessors, due to the same dynamic by which his subjects are bound to obey him, as a child is bound to obey his father. As explained above, the king is bound to act in the interest of his kingdom, and therefore he will voluntarily submit to laws, “at his good will and for good example, or so far forth as the general law of the safety of the commonwealth doth naturally bind him.”[3.6] This reasoning can be understood as a general, positive law. That is, the king must defend his kingdom, the king must protect his subjects, or, as in his coronation oath, the king must “confirm and observe the laws and customs of ancient times, granted from God by just and devout kings unto the English nation.”[3.7] These are duties imposed on the king by the law of his fathers, formalisations of his overall duty to act in the interests of his kingdom at all times. Indeed, at the centre of the common law is the will of ancient kings. Since all law is derived from proclamations by the king, “we must necessarily infer that the common law itself, or common customs of this land, were originally the laws and commands of kings at first unwritten.”[3.9]

At the moment at which the king swears this oath he is still bound by the patriarchal law to uphold its precepts, as he does not receive the crown and the absolute monarchical power until after the oath is sworn. Although it is ultimately the king’s decision as to which laws are “evil and unjust”[3.7] and thus must be abrogated, he is bound by the laws of God and patriarchy to defend that which his forefathers built, and to ensure that he passes a strong and healthy dominion onto his descendants. This is the necrocratic element of Filmer’s system; by which the decisions of ancient fathers are held as part of the spirit of the law of the kingdom; though, of course, open to reinterpretation with regards to particulars, as required by the situation of the time.2

A comparative study of coronation oaths would be useful to the further understanding of this aspect of kingship.

Of course, occasionally a prince acts in a way contrary to the example set by his forefathers and the divine law. Filmer observes that God judges harshly those who act in opposition to him;

If it please God, for the correction of the prince or punishment of the people, to suffer princes to be removed and others to be placed in their rooms, either by the factions of the nobility or rebellion of the people, in all such cases the judgment of God, who hath power to give and to take away kingdoms, is most just; yet the ministry of men who execute God’s judgments without commission is sinful and damnable. God doth but use and turn men’s unrighteous acts to the performance of His righteous decrees.[1.9]

So, we can see that Filmer does not allow for his rulers to act however they please, as they are always subject to the judgement of the Most High, who will depose sinful princes by one means or another.3

Faced with the responsibilities which he has inherited, Filmer’s father-king must be prepared to make hard decisions; as, “the profit of every man in particular, and of all together in general, is not always one and the same; and that the public is to be preferred before the private…”[3.1] Equally, he must learn not to micromanage, and to put trust in his advisors and functionaries;

…is to be left to the religious achievement of those who know how to manage the affairs of state, and wisely to balance the particular profit with the counterpoise of the public, according to the infinite variety of times, places, persons…[3.1]

Undoubtedly the best way by which this may be done is, according to Filmer, through use of a parliament;

Great are the advantages which both the king and people may receive by a well-ordered parliament. There is nothing more expresseth the majesty and supreme power of a king than such an assembly, wherein all his people acknowledge him for sovereign lord, and make all their addresses to him by humble petition and supplication; and by their consent and approbation do strengthen all the laws which the king at their request and by their advice and ministry shall ordain.[3.12]4

And occasionally, he may see fit to act according to the will of his subjects, as assembled in a parliament;

…it is oft ordained [by the king] that the voices of the most shall overrule the rest; and such ordinances bind, because where men are assembled by a human power, that power that doth assemble them can also limit and direct the manner of the execution of that power, and by such derivative power, made known by law or custom, either the greater part, or two thirds, or three parts of five, or the like, have power to oversway the liberty of their opposites.[2.6]

The king alone has the power to gather a body together to vote, and to overrule the defeated minority through exercise of his absolute monarchical power.5 This outcome is compared to the impossibility of such an outcome in wholly democratic systems;

…in assemblies that take their authority from the law of nature, it cannot be so; for what freedom or liberty is due to any man by the law of nature no inferior power can alter, limit or diminish; no one man nor a multitude can give away the natural right of another… Therefore, unless it can be proved by the law of nature that the major or some other part have power to overrule the rest of the multitude, it must follow that the acts of multitudes not entire are not binding to all but only to such as consent unto them.[2.6]

It has been observed by Ivan Ilyin that in certain radical demotic ideologies, “the minority is not required to submit to the majority.” By taking natural law to its logical conclusion, Filmer realised this two centuries beforehand.

To conclude, it is clearly shown that the rule of a prince in Filmer’s system is not arbitrary or unlimited. The king is beholden to God, to the example set by his forefathers and to his duties to his subjects and his realm. Filmer’s system can be seen to be a mixture of monarchy, theocracy, patriarchy and necrocracy. Additionally, the common view that Filmer’s king derives his power wholly through his descent from Adam is misleading. The power of the king is bestowed by God on all fathers, and by virtue of his position as father of the state, whether by descent or through selection by the leading men of the royal tribe, the king receives the sceptre.


Citadel, M., 2016. Citadel Foundations. [Online]
Available at: http://citadelfoundations.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/the-voice-of-dead.html

Filmer, R., 1680. Patriarcha: or the Natural Power of Kings.
Available at: http://www.constitution.org/eng/patriarcha.htm

Ilyin, I., 2013. On Democracy.
Available at: https://souloftheeast.org/2013/12/26/ivan-ilyin-on-formal-democracy/

1. I would like to acknowledge the role of Mark Citadel’s article on necrocracy in informing my understanding of hereditary legal systems. I must admit that my interpretation of what constitutes a necrocratic system may go beyond what he originally intended.

2. The general day to day job of reinterpretation and implementation is, again for sake of practicality, devolved to certain judges and magistrates, for, “anciently the kings of this land have sitten personally in courts of judicature, and are still representatively present in all courts; the judges are but substituted, and called the king’s justices, and their power ceaseth when the king is in place…”[3.10]

3. Filmer goes into more detail regarding this point in 3.3, in which he explains how the king is always subject to the law of God, and that if he issues commands contrary to God’s law, “it will be punishment sufficient for him to expect God as a revenger.”[3.3]

4. Filmer provides a detailed description of the exact relationship between king and parliament from this point on in the text.

5. It should not be understood that Filmer believes that through the sanctioning and enacting of occasional voting assemblies a government of constitutional monarchy, or mixed monarchy and democracy, can be created. For, “it must be remembered that such meetings do not share or divide the sovereignty with the prince, but do only deliberate and advise their supreme head, who still reserves the absolute power in himself.”[2.16]


4 thoughts on “Locke’s Adversary: The Patriarchal Kingdom of Sir Robert Filmer

  1. It is very telling that most people (including myself) would have heard of Locke but not of Filmer before reading this article.

  2. Great essay. Although I am probably more Hobbesian in my view of monarchy, I do appreciate the works of Sir Filmer.

    I think the way English common law interacts with the monarchical institution is a fascinating one. One which many Whigs are liable to ignore.

  3. Thank you for recovering this treatise from the memory hole. The repetitive use of block quotes broke up the flow of the article, and it is especially unnecessary to use the block quote and then paraphrase it below. Paraphrase or use short quotations because it’s a shame to dampen good content with bad structure. An enjoyable article though, and I look forward to reading more in the coming weeks.

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