Wrath of the Awakened Filmer

Should he awaken from eternal rest, the great defender of monarchy, Robert Filmer, would be appalled at how far society has fallen since his death in 1653. We know he’d be appalled because those he influenced (in one manner or another) expressed their dissatisfaction with the new “Enlightened” world order and all its emphasis on a cold-hearted egalitarianism, and its rejection of patriarchal familiarity (all made popular by John Locke’s philosophy). M. E. Bradford, paraphrasing Laslett, states the view of Filmer’s contemporary admirers this way:

“Most of us will, as human beings, see that Locke’s description of social arrangements, even after contract has replaced a state of nature, is a cold one and that Filmer’s affectionate patriarchy is sometimes, when we have put our foot wrong, a better help to us than a fierce advocacy of all our own rights” (Bradford, 277).

But the larger question we must ask, isn’t how Filmer would feel, or how cold Enlightenment inspired government systems may be. No. The only way to appease the wrath of an awakened Filmer, is to answer the real question: which form of government is legitimate? His preferred monarchy, or Locke’s “rational” republic? Thus, Filmer has launched us immediately into philosophical speculation. Just what does it mean, exactly, for a government to be “legitimate”?

This question isn’t new on the historical stage; leaders, historians, and philosophers, have been thinking on it for hundreds if not thousands of years. Historian John Abbott, in his book on the history of Russia, when speaking about King Oleg (who ruled parts of Russia in the 900s), says this about legitimacy:

“His usurpation, history cannot condemn. In those days, any man had the right to govern who had the genius of command. Genius was the only legitimacy” (Abbott, chapter II).

Fast-forwarding to the England of Charles the First, we see Oliver Cromwell thinking over issues of legitimacy as well – although, from Filmer’s perspective, he would no doubt be said to have reached dramatically incorrect conclusions. While musing about a political “seal” for their new commonwealth, Cromwell remarked:

“If any man whatsoever have carried on this design of deposing the King and disinheriting his posterity he must be the greatest traitor and rebel in the world.”

But then he goes on to add…

“…but since the Providence of God has cast this upon us, we cannot but submit to Providence.”(Belloc, 276).

So, in other words, “deposing monarchs is bad and all, buuuuuut, we’re gunna do it anyway.” This sort of reasoning, from both Abbott and Cromwell, is indicative of an inherent bias underlying their assessment of questions about legitimacy. Abbott was willing to overlook King Olaf’s egregious breaches of human rights by appealing to a sort of “might-makes-right” legitimacy, whereas Cromwell was willing to overlook the perceived legitimacy of the monarch, by appealing to a puritan notion of Providence.

Around the same time period, John Locke was writing about his views of legitimacy, and like the others mentioned, was just as influenced by underlying bias. Theologian and scholar R.J. Rushdoony, highlights the differences between Locke’s perspective and that of the Westminster Divines, who had earlier penned the great Presbyterian confession:

“…to Locke, the mind of man rather than the mind of God was now the key to the universe. A few years earlier in England, the Westminster Confession had begun with Scriptures (God’s word) and the eternal decree (God’s Plan), as the key to all things. The Confession had been approved in the 1647 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and ratified by Act of Parliament in 1649. By 1690, a new document, Locke’s Essay, had come into existence as a kind of new confession and standard for Enlightenment man.” (Rushdoony, 286).

Robert Filmer, himself, was biased towards his monarchial views, and was intent on demonstrating how political legitimacy grounded itself in a hierarchical order established by God as part of the creation ordinances. (See chapter II of Filmer’s Patriarcha).

So, when surveying a few opinions on legitimacy, we’re faced with having to choose from a group of positions, all with unique underlying biases and concerns. What counts as legitimate for one person, operating within his framework, may not be legitimate at all when examined from some opposing framework. The awakened Filmer is crying out for a decision though, so I’d like to briefly examine both Locke and Filmer, to see if either can live up to their own standard of “legitimacy”. If one can and the other can’t, then we’ll go with the one who can.

Space does not allow for a thorough examination of either man’s position. So, I’ll be relying mainly on the caricatures of their thought as presented by M.E. Bradford, and William Archibald Dunning. Both scholars (as we’ll see) approach a comparison (and contrast) of Locke and Filmer, by looking at their notion of natural equality. Bradford cites Locke:

“If man in the state of nature be so free as has been said; if he be absolute Lord of his own person and possession, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which tis obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain … full of fears and continued dangers [even though every man is king].”(Bradford, 277). The bracketed section was added by Bradford for emphasis.

Dunning emphasizes the importance of this “state of nature” for Locke:

“The state of nature, then, is conceived by Locke as characterized by the consciousness of and respect for those natural rights which are the substantial elements of the law of nature.”

Dunning goes on to say:

“Locke’s state of nature, then, like Milton’s, means nothing more than the relation which exists among men who have no common political superior.” (Dunning, 348).

Filmer, on the other hand, unlike Locke, did not believe in this egalitarian state of nature, where all men were equal in terms of some mysterious natural law. Instead, Filmer, building off of Biblical narratives, conceived of a patriarchal order with a natural hierarchy developed by God, and centering on the rule of the father (or grandfather). From Dunning:

“Filmer thus makes a good case for his conviction that the ultimate principle of political authority is not that of original equality and a contract for the establishment of government. His doctrine as to what the principle is, appeals less strongly to the modern mind. Concisely stated, the doctrine is this: In God’s scheme of creation all earthly dominion or supreme power of controlling persons and things, is of a single kind; there is no distinction between political and economic authority.” (Dunning, 258).

Thus, we have two conflicting foundations for “legitimacy” – one, a legitimacy based on human equality and social contracts, the other, a legitimacy based on divine rights and patriarchal authority.

Once again, space doesn’t allow for a thorough critique of either position, so a critique of Locke’s position must be performed via citation. In this case, it’s generally conceded (by most in the philosophical community) that the Enlightenment optimism, inspired by Locke’s work, ultimately came to naught, and died along with the millions of innocent civilians in the World Wars. Philosopher and historian, W.T. Jones represents this view:

“But [Enlightenment] optimism could not last. Hardly had these beliefs been accepted when they began to be challenged. The application of science to technology, a process that was supposed to result in unlimited improvements of material conditions, actually led to urban slums, in which the lot of the workers was far worse than that of the peasants of the “unenlightened” feudal times…Far from being rational creatures able to control their destinies, men seemed driven by their hates and fears – moved less by enlightened self-interest or by cool benevolence than by irrational and destructive aggressions against one another and even against themselves.” (Jones, 9).

W.T. Jones goes on to point out how the philosophical work of David Hume, and his skepticism about causal inferences, lead to a further loss of confidence in the very sort of empiricism championed by Locke (Jones, 10). It seems that if we take Locke for granted, then we end up mired in a sort of radical skepticism that renders argumentation impossible – let alone ideals of social contracts or concepts of legitimacy.[1]

But if Locke can’t support his ideal of legitimacy, we’re left with Filmer; does he do any better? Well, it seems prima-facie obvious that if Christianity were a true accounting of the world, then the ideals Filmer presented would, in some form or another, be the basis on which we would have to derive our ideals of legitimacy. Further, as many notable thinkers have recognized, the ideal of a natural inequality is an inescapable empirical fact. The great southern political thinker, John Calhoun’s “Disquisition on Government” is a good example of this line of thinking:

“As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows, that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born and under whose protection they draw their first breath.”

I wish Filmer could return to rest, assured the failing ideals of the Enlightenment will give way to a renewed interest in not just his political views, but his religious as well. The forecast for such a turn, however, seems gloomy. Postmodern hipsters are obsessed with their own underlying bias towards egalitarianism (with all its reliance on the irrationalism of Lockean empiricism) and it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to give it up any time soon.


[1] Speculation about how to resolve the philosophical problems raised by Hume, have ranged the spectrum, from continental philosophers like Kant, who said that Hume “awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers”, to contemporary analytical philosophers like Keith DeRose and Ted Warfield, who edited the book “Skepiticsm: A Contemporary Reader” which attempts to deal with, among other things, Hume’s infamous “problem of induction”.


Works Cited

Abbott, John. The Empire of Russia. New York: Boston Graves and Young, 1859. Print. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15269/15269-h/15269-h.htm

Belloc, Hilaire. Charles I. 3rd ed. Norfolk, Virginia: Gates of Vienna Books, 2003. Print.

Bradford, M.E. Saints, Sovereigns, and Scholars: Studies in Honor of Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. New York: Peter Land Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.

Dunning, William A. A History of Political Theories. 1st ed. Norwood, Mass.: Norwood Press, 1905. Print.

Jones, W.T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson and Wadsworth, 1975. Print.

Rushdoony, Rousas. The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy. 1st ed. Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978. Print.



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