Sir Robert Filmer (1588 – 26 May 1653) was an English political theorist. His most known work, Patriarcha, published in 1680, was a defense of the divine right of kings to rule. Its publication was an impetus for John Locke to write the first of his famous Two Treatises of Government.
The son of Sir Edward Filmer
of East Sutton
, he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge
, where he matriculated in 1604. Knighted by Charles I
at the beginning of his reign, he was an ardent supporter of the king's cause, and his house is said to have been plundered by the parliamentarians
ten times. He and his father died in the same city, and he is buried in the church there, surrounded by his descendants to the tenth generation, who were made baronets in his honour.
Filmer was already a middle-aged man when the great controversy between the king and the Commons roused him into literary activity. His writings afford an exceedingly curious example of the doctrines held by the most extreme section of the Divine Right
party. Filmer's theory is founded upon the statement that the government of a family by the father is the true origin and model of all government. In the beginning God gave authority to Adam
, who had complete control over his descendants, even over life and death itself. From Adam this authority was inherited by Noah
; here, Filmer most likely quotes the legend of Noah, who sailed up the Mediterranean
and allocated the three continents of the Old World
to the rule of his three sons. From Shem
the patriarchs inherited the absolute power which they exercised over their families and servants; and it is from these patriarchs that all kings and governors (whether a single monarch or a governing assembly) derive their authority, which is therefore absolute, and founded upon divine right. The difficulty inherent in judging the validity of claims to power by men who proclaim to be acting upon the 'secret' will of God was in no way regarded as any sort of inconsistency by Filmer, and in no way altered the nature of such divinely bestowed power; for there is, and always shall be, the natural right
of a supreme father to hold sway over each and every multitude. The king is perfectly free from all human control. He cannot be bound by the acts of his predecessors, for which he is not responsible; nor by his own, for which it is impossible that a man should give a law unto himself - a law must be imposed by another upon the person bound by it. With regard to the English constitution
, he asserted, in his Freeholders Grand Inquest touching our Sovereign Lord the King and his Parliament
(1648), that the Lords give counsel only to the king, that the Commons are to perform and consent only to the ordinances of parliament, and that the king alone is the maker of laws which derive their power purely from his will. Filmer considered it monstrous that the people should judge or depose their king, for they would then become judges in their own cause.
The most complete expression of Filmer's thought is given in Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings, which was published in 1680, many years after his death. His position, however, was sufficiently enunciated by the works which he published during his lifetime: the Anarchy of a Limited and Mixed Monarchy (1648), an attack upon a treatise on monarchy by Philip Hunton (1604-1682). Hunton maintained that the king's prerogative is not superior to the authority of the houses of parliament; the pamphiet entitled The Power of Kings, and in particular, of the King of England (1648), first published in 1680; and his Observations concerning the Original of Government upon Mr Hobbes's Leviathan, Mr Milton against Salmasius, and H. Grotius' De jure belli ac pacis, (1652). Filmer's theory, owing to the circumstances of the time, obtained a recognition which is now perhaps difficult to comprehend. Nine years after the publication of Patriarcha, at the time of the Revolution which banished the Stuarts from the throne, John Locke singled out Filmer as the most remarkable of the advocates of Divine Right, and thought it worthwhile to attack him expressly in the first part of the Two Treatises of Government, going into all his arguments seriatim, and especially pointing out that even if the first principles of his argument are to be taken for granted, the rights of the eldest born have been so often cast aside that all modern kings can claim no such inheritance of authority, as Filmer asserts.
Filmer was a severe critic of democracy. In his opinion, democracy of ancient Athens was in fact a "justice-trading system". Athenians never knew real justice, only the will of the mob. Ancient Rome was, according to Filmer, ruled fairly only after the Empire was established.