Book Review: “Patriarcha”

Patriarcha: The Complete Political Works. By Robert Filmer. Perth, AU: Imperium Press, 2021. 316 pp. $21.00 (paper).

Liberal democracy is under fire these days, if the growing number of books critiquing it is any indication.[1] As part of this re-evaluation of liberalism, some on the reactionary right have written at length concerning what sort of polity might better lend itself to the promotion of flourishing and human virtue.[2] (I use the word “reactionary” not as a pejorative, but in its literal sense, designating those who seek to restore older ways and structures.) Others have labored to renew works long since written, that they might be rediscovered and thus contribute to the task of recovery.

One such work that should be of interest to Anglicans in particular is the Englishman Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha: The Complete Political Works. Born in 1588, Filmer lived through the English Civil War and died in 1653, just four years after Charles I was executed. Published posthumously in 1680, Patriarcha “is devoted [in the first half] to a rebuttal of the natural rights theories being developed from the Christian tradition at the time, while the second half is directed against the constitutionalist theories being developed from the legal tradition” (xv). The other writings included in this edition of Filmer’s political works consist of “The Anarchy of a Limited or Mixed Monarchy,” “Observations on Hobbes’ Leviathan,” “Observations on Milton Against Salmasius,” “Observations on Grotius’ De Jure Belli et Pacis,” “Observations on Aristotle’s Politics,” “Directions for Obedience,” and “The Freeholder’s Grand Inquest.”

Rather than attempting a comprehensive summary of all these writings, I will instead distill some key points from Patriarcha, given that the arguments of the other included works are in much the same vein. Filmer begins by observing,

Since the time that school divinity began to flourish, there hath been a common opinion maintained as well by divines as by divers other learned men, which affirms: “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 the first by human right bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.” (2)

(Although Filmer speaks of “school divinity” here, he does not limit this opinion to Romanists, noting that “divines also of the reformed churches have entertained it” [2].) Moreover, Filmer continues, on this basis these same divines have claimed that “‘the people or multitude have power to punish or deprive the prince if he transgress the laws of the kingdom.’” He attributes this belief to Jesuits and “some over zealous favourers of the Geneva discipline,” with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and John Calvin “both [looking] asquint this way” (2).

According to Filmer, this conclusion is entirely wrongheaded because it is based on a false premise, namely that mankind was born in some primitive state of freedom. In reality, he says, “Not only Adam, but the succeeding patriarchs had, by right of fatherhood, royal authority over their children,” as evidenced by their exercise of monarchical power in such acts as “judging in capital crimes…making war, and concluding peace” (5‒6). Kingly authority derives from paternal authority, and this is “by the ordination of God himself” (6).

After the Flood, Filmer continues, “The three sons of Noah had the whole world divided amongst them by their father.” Consequently, “Most of the civillest nations in the world 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” (6).

A few conclusions follow from this account of monarchy. First, if it was God who invested Adam and all his heirs with paternal (and hence regal) authority, then it cannot rightly be said that the people of any kingdom ever granted the king authority to rule over them. On this score, Filmer subjects common accounts of monarchy—e.g., that kings are granted their authority by a majority of the people—to careful scrutiny and finds them wanting.

Second, since God himself instituted monarchy, then monarchy is not just the best form of government, but the only legitimate form of government. As Filmer puts it, “God did always govern His own people by monarchy only. The patriarchs, dukes, Judges, and kings were all monarchs. There is not in all Scripture mention and approbation of any other form of government” (22‒23). Democracy, in contrast, is a “beast of many heads” (27), and even the best example of it in history (Rome) has much against it, the details of which Filmer recounts at some length.

Third, if God, and not the people, grants kings their authority, a corollary is that only God can punish kings for ruling wickedly, meaning the people have no right to rebel against tyranny. Filmer asks, “If it be unnatural for the multitude to choose their governors, or to govern, or to partake in the government, what can be thought of that damnable conclusion which is made by too many, that the multitude may correct or depose their prince if need be? Surely the unnaturalness and injustice of this position cannot sufficiently be expressed” (31).

Indeed, on Filmer’s account, “There were kings long before there were any laws,” making them “above laws” (34). At the same time, Filmer does grant that kings should generally govern in accordance with positive laws, albeit not out of respect for positive law as such, but only insofar as they “are naturally the best or only means for the preservation of the commonwealth” (41).

Many of these points will likely seem outrageous when viewed through the lens of conventional sensibilities. However, the arguments Filmer makes are well worth considering, even if one does not ultimately agree with all of his conclusions. To mention just a couple of examples, Filmer’s historical observations on Roman democracy are informative, and his overall profile of democracy will probably ring true for many today:

As [democracy] is begot by sedition, so it is nourished by arms; it can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home. The only means to preserve it is to have some powerful enemy near, who may serve instead of a king to govern it, that so, though they have not a king among them, yet they may have as good as a king over them, for common danger of an enemy keeps them in better unity than the laws they make themselves. (27‒28)

Then, too, Filmer’s logical analysis of the notion that the people choose their king raises numerous questions, such as how it came to be that many discrete nations each choose their own king, rather than all the people of the earth as one body choosing a single king:

Can they [the likes of Robert Bellarmine, Hugo Grotius, and Francisco Suárez] show or prove that ever the whole multitude met and divided this power, which God gave them in gross, by breaking into parcels and by apportioning a distinct power to each several commonwealth? Without such compact, I cannot see, according to their own principles, how there can be any election of a magistrate by any commonwealth, but by a mere usurpation upon the privilege of the whole world. (19)

However, there is at least one point in Filmer’s account of monarchy that must be denied, concerning the extent of the people’s obligation to obey. According to Filmer, it is not merely the case that subjects must obey their kings when they are wicked and tyrannical, which is a generally accepted principle within the Anglican tradition. More than this, he claims that subjects must obey even when kings command what is contrary to the law of God:

Here is a fit place to examine a question which some have moved, whether it be a sin for a subject to disobey the king if he command anything contrary to his laws? For satisfaction in this point we must resolve that not only in human laws, but even in divine, a thing may be commanded contrary to law, and yet obedience to such a command is necessary. (42)

Filmer’s grounds for this claim are that “the servant hath no authority or liberty to examine and judge whether his master sin or no in commanding, for there may be a just cause” for it (42). Furthermore, “It is not fit to tie the master to acquaint his servant with his secrets, counsels, or present necessity, and in such cases” the act in question “becomes the sin of the master, and not of the servant” (42).

The idea that people must obey even commands that are contrary to God’s law runs afoul of the Anglican (not to mention the larger Christian) tradition. In the First Book of Homilies, the homily titled “An Exhortation Concerning Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates” affirms with Filmer that “Christ taught us plainly that even the wicked rulers have their power and authority from God. And therefore it is not lawful for their subjects by force to resist them, although they abuse their power.”[3] Later on, however, the homily also clearly states,

Yet let us believe undoubtedly, good Christian people, that we may not obey kings, magistrates or any other, though they be our own fathers, if they would command us to do anything contrary to God’s commandments. In such a case we ought to say with the apostles: “We must rather obey God than man [Acts 5:29].” But nevertheless in that case we may not in any wise resist violently or rebel against rulers, or make any insurrection, sedition or tumults, either by force of arms or other ways, against the anointed of the Lord or any of his appointed officers, but we must in such case patiently suffer all wrongs and injuries, referring the judgment of our cause only to God.[4]

In the Second Book of Homilies, “An Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” echoes Filmer and the previous homily in saying that kings should be obeyed even if they are wicked, on the basis that wicked kings are God’s punishment for the people’s sins:

What if the prince be undiscreet and evil indeed, and it is also evident to all men’s eyes that he so is? I ask again, what if it belong of the wickedness of the subjects that the prince is undiscreet or evil? Shall the subjects both by their wickedness provoke God for their deserved punishment to give them an undiscreet or evil prince, and also rebel against him, and withal against God, who for the punishment of their sins did give them such a prince?[5]

While the second homily does not explicitly state that Christians should disobey kings who command what is contrary to God’s law, it does affirm the duty of Christians to know and follow the words of Scripture over and above the words of any other:

All are commanded to read or hear, to search and study the Holy Scriptures, and are promised understanding to be given them from God if they so do; all are charged not to believe either any dead man, nor if an angel should speak from heaven, much less if the pope do speak from Rome, against or contrary to the Word of God; from the which we may not decline, neither to the right hand nor to the left…. Old men and young, rich and poor, all men and all women, all estates, sexes and ages, are taught their several duties in the Word of God.[6]

The principle that human laws are not to be obeyed when they conflict with God’s law is further upheld in another early 17th-century work that treats the proper authority of kings, namely Bishop George Carleton’s Jurisdiction Regal, Episcopal, Papal. Carleton concurs with Filmer and the homilies cited above in disallowing rebellion, saying,

The doctrine that the Church may not stir up any uproars or wars against the magistrate hath been always maintained by the ancient Fathers. For we find that in the greatest persecutions the ancient bishops taught Christians always to live in peace and to pray for the emperors and governors, though they were persecutors, according to the command of Christ: “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you [Matthew 5:44].”[7]

Yet Carleton also approvingly cites divines who teach that human laws do not trump God’s law: “Ambrose saith, if the Emperor should command anything unlawful, he would not obey, neither durst he resist by force, but only bear with patience Arma enim nostra sunt preces & lachrima.”[8] And again,

He [Marsilius of Padua] examineth the authority of the Pope’s decretals, and giveth a learned and judicious distinction, declaring thereby how the Pope may be obeyed or not obeyed, commanding against the Emperor. For saith he, if the Emperor command any thing against the law of God, and the Pope command anything agreeable to the law, thou must out of doubt obey the Pope, and not the Emperor.[9]

In short, we find that on this point Filmer is woefully out of step with the Anglican formularies and other Anglican authors, to say nothing of the larger Christian tradition. Regarding the authority of the Homilies, Lee Gatiss notes that, historically, “Word-for-word agreement with [the Homilies] was not demanded, as if they were in themselves infallible, but clergy were told that they should not preach anything contradictory to the Homilies.”[10] Edward Harold Browne agrees with this judgment, in that while Anglicans are “not expected to express full concurrence with every statement, or every exposition of Holy Scripture contained in them,” they are nonetheless “in the general to approve of them, as a body of sound and orthodox discourses,”[11] on the basis of Article XXXV, which endorses the Homilies as “[containing] a godly and wholesome doctrine.”

Yet it should not be supposed that tradition is our only argument against Filmer on this point. Indeed, Scripture itself tells against him, not only in the Apostles’ resolution to “obey God rather than man,” but also when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defied Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the idol he erected (Daniel 3). If we take Filmer at his word, we are to believe that these three, subject as they were to Nebuchadnezzar, had “no authority or liberty to examine and judge” whether this command was sinful or not, and therefore should have bowed down without delay, letting Nebuchadnezzar take the sin, if any there be, upon himself. This, when even Nebuchadnezzar himself later commended them because they “set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (Daniel 3:28 ESV).

In contrast, as we have seen, the tenor and teachings of the English Reformation are against any refusal to consider and know for oneself what one’s duties to God are. For in each of the homilies and divines quoted above, in the exhortation that human laws contrary to God’s law are not to be obeyed, it is assumed (implicitly or explicitly) that people of all kinds—“old men and young, rich and poor, all men and all women, all estates, sexes and ages”—are in fact capable of understanding what God’s law is, independent of what the king or magistrate says.

To this effect we have not just a chance excerpt from the Homily Against Disobedience, but an entire homily titled “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture,” the very first sentence of which reads, “Unto a Christian man there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable that [sic] the knowledge of Holy Scripture, forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true Word, setting forth his glory and also man’s duty [italics mine].”[12] Again, John Jewel writes in An Apology of the Church of England,

Will ye say, that all our labour is lost, which is bestowed in that thing which Christ hath commanded us diligently to search, and to have evermore before our eyes? And will ye say that Christ and the apostles meant with subtilty to deceive the people, when they exhorted them to read the holy scriptures, that thereby they might flow in all wisdom and knowledge?[13]

In the face of such testimony, Filmer’s denial of any subject’s “authority or liberty to examine or judge” sounds a highly discordant note.

Now in fairness, it could be observed that elsewhere in Patriarcha Filmer says, “Let St. Basil expound this text [Matthew 22:21]: ‘Obediendum est in quibus mandatum Dei non impeditur: we must obey princes in those things wherein the commandment of God is not hindered’. There is no other law but God’s law to hinder our obedience” (37). This would seem to suggest that Filmer recognizes the primacy of God’s law over human laws. But in light of Filmer’s unequivocal statement quoted above—that “even in divine [laws], a thing may be commanded contrary to law, and yet obedience to such a command is necessary” (42)—it is difficult to know what to make of the comparatively vague declaration that “there is no other law but God’s law to hinder our obedience.” If anything, taking the two statements together, the inference could be drawn that only God’s law could hinder our obedience to kings, but in actuality it does not.

Make no mistake, though: Filmer’s Patriarcha and other works are well worth reading, for the simple reason that they offer a bracing counterpoint to the purported truism that democracy is enlightened and blessed while monarchy is benighted and cursed. When old assumptions about what makes for a good polity are being questioned, the door is opened for even older ideas to be reintroduced and sowed in the minds of those for whom conventional, worldly pieties have grown tiresome, in the hope that someday those older ideas might once again bear fruit. Patriarcha: The Complete Political Works can and should contribute to this quiet renaissance, and Imperium Press deserves our thanks for making it readily available in print once again.


  1. Recent examples include Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, trans. Teresa Adelson (New York: Encounter Books, 2016, repr. 2018), and Adrian Pabst, The Demons of Liberal Democracy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2019).
  2. See Charles A. Coulombe, Star-Spangled Crown: A Simple Guide to the American Monarchy (Arcadia, CA: Tumblar House, 2016); Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy (Havertown, PA: Eurospan, 2020); D. C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism (Steubenville, OH: New Polity Press, 2021); and P. Edmund Waldstein and Peter A. Kwasniewski, eds., Integralism and the Common Good: Selected Essays from The Josias, vol. 1, Family, City, and State (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021).
  3. Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co., 2015), 89. Compare John Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England, ed. Robin Harris and Andre Gazal (Leesburg, VA: Davenant Press, 2020), 56.
  4. Bray, Homilies, 92. Compare Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II.96.4, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920),
  5. Bray, Homilies, 515.
  6. Bray, Homilies, 546.
  7. George Carleton, Jurisdiction Regal, Episcopal, Papal, ed. Andre Gazal (Landrum, SC: Davenant Press, 2021), 70.
  8. Ambrose, Orat. In Auxent., quoted in Carleton, Jurisdiction, 71. According to Gazal, the Latin translated is “For our weapons are prayers and tears.”
  9. Carleton, Jurisdiction, 297.
  10. Lee Gatiss, “The Official Sermons of Anglicanism,” The North American Anglican, 3 November 2021,
  11. Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles: Historical and Doctrinal, ed. J. Williams (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1874), 783.
  12. Bray, Homilies, 7.
  13. Jewel, Apology, 76‒77.

James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

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