Sir Robert Filmer - Encyclopedia

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SIR ROBERT FILMER (d. 1653), English political writer, was the son of Sir Edward Filmer of East Sutton in Kent. 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 died on the 26th of May 1653.

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 original and model of all government. In the beginning of the world God gave authority to Adam, who had complete control over his descendants, even as to life and death. From Adam this authority was inherited by Noah; and Filmer quotes as not unlikely the tradition that Noah sailed up the Mediterranean and allotted the three continents of the Old World to the rule of his three sons. From Shem, Ham and Japheth the patriarchs inherited the absolute power which they exercised over their families and servants; and from the patriarchs 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 that a man "by the secret will of God may unjustly" attain to power which he has not inherited appeared to Filmer in no way to alter the nature of the power so obtained, for "there is, and always shall be continued to the end of the world, a natural right of a supreme father over 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 "impossible it is in nature that a man should give a law unto himself" - a law must be imposed by another than the person bound by it. With regard to the English constitution, he asserted, in his Freeholder's Grand Inquest touching our Sovereign Lord the King and his Parliament (1648), that the Lords only give counsel to the king, the Commons only "perform and consent to the ordinances of parliament," and the king alone is the maker of laws, which proceed purely from his will. It is monstrous that the people should judge or depose their king, for they would then be judges in their own cause.

The most complete expression of Filmer's opinions is given in the Patriarcha, which was published in 1680, many years after his death. His position, however, was sufficiently indicated 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), who maintained that the king's prerogative is not superior to the authority of the houses of parliament; the pamphlet entitled The Power of Kings, and in particular of the King of England (1648), first published in 1680; and his Observations upon Mr Hobbes's Leviathan, Mr Milton against Salmasius, and H. Grotius De jure belli et pacis, concerning the Originall of Government (1652). Filmer's theory, owing to the circumstances of the time, obtained a recognition which it is now difficult to understand. Nine years after the publication of the Patriarcha, at the time of the Revolution which banished the Stuarts from the throne, Locke singled out Filmer as the most remarkable of the advocates of Divine Right, and thought it worth while to attack him expressly in the first part of the Treatise on Government, going into all his arguments seriatim, and especially pointing out that even if the first steps of his argument be granted, the rights of the eldest born have been so often set aside that modern kings can claim no such inheritance of authority as he asserted.

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