Sir Robert Filmer (1588 – 26 May 1653) was an English political theorist who defended Divine rights absolute monarchy. His best known work, Patriarcha, published posthumously in 1680, was the target of numerous Whig rebuttals, including Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, James Tyrrell’s Patriarcha Non Monarcha, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Filmer also wrote critiques of Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, Hugo Grotius, and Aristotle.
Going Against Grotius
Filmer wrote against Grotius, saying that the belief “that all things at first were common, and that all men were equal” … “was an error that the heathens taught”. [Tully: 54] His views were in strict accordance with the Bible, and to his mind, this would not allow everyone to have equal right to the land.
Filmer goes on to say, “Grotius saith, that by the law of nature all things were at first common, and yet teacheth, that after propriety was brought in, it was against the law of nature to use community. He doth thereby not only make the law of nature changeable, which he saith God cannot do, but he also makes the law of nature contrary to itself.” [Tully: 54]
And still, “Certainly it was a rare felicity, that all the men in the world at one instant of time should agree together in one mind to change the natural community of all things into private dominion: for without such a unanimous consent it was not possible for community to be altered.” [Tully: 98]
Filmer seems to incorrectly understand Grotius’ position. First, he seems to conflate “positive community” and “negative community”, as he believes everyone owned the land in common when it would be more correct to say that none of them owned it. He also says that Grotius claims that the law of nature can be changed by man, something that even God cannot do. But he does not mean to say the law of nature is changeable, but rather that the law of property is today no longer founded on the law of nature but rather on convention. The law of nature remains unchanged.
So, there never was a time when all men agreed to change natural community to private dominion. This does not mean Grotius is right, but at the least, Filmer is off in his condemnation of Grotius.
The Adamite View of Property
Filmer says that “every Man that is born is so far from being free, that by his very Birth he becomes a Subject of him that begets him” — essentially, a maker’s right. As God “owns” man by making him, so does any man who makes a child therefore own the child. This would continue to the present day.
Filmer uses an “Adamite” argument to explain property and says, “Adam was the Father, King and Lord over his family: a son, a subject and a servant or slave, were one and the same thing at first; the Father had power to dispose, or sell his children or servants; whence we find, that at the first reckoning up of goods in scripture, the manservant, and the maidservant are numbered among the possessions and substance of the owner, as other goods were.” [Tully: 56] How accurate it is to equate sons with servants is unclear, as we should assume that a son who comes of age would be free to be his own man whereas a slave would not.
Adam had a “natural and private dominion” over everything, as God granted him such a right, so Filmer says “none of his posterity had any right to possess anything, but by his grant or permission, or by succession from him”. [Tully: 56] If the Bible is literally true, a proposition that seems increasingly unlikely, this approach makes sense: how could anyone own anything without the prior owner’s permission? Certainly today there is no thing on earth not owned by someone — we cannot get any property aside from another owner.
Filmer followed John Selden, who also thought that God’s grant had been to Adam, “but he dissociated himself from Selden’s idea that the grant to Noah was to be held in common with the sons.” [Reeve: 55] Keep in mind that following the flood, only Noah, his wife and his sons were alive. Do they each own the land collectively, or is it only Noah? As stated, Filmer did not think they owned the land in common, and surely, if Noah owns his sons, it stands to reason that they could not own any land he did not grant them.
Francis Lieber does not mention Filmer directly in his analysis of Adamite property theory, but he raises a good point: what good is power without the ability to use it? “For what dominion would that be which has no sort of power for its exercise? How did Adam rule over a distant fish or a fowl, whose existence he could not affect in no manner whatever?” [Lieber: 125] This is not to say that Adam did not own the fish, but it is interesting to say he owned something he could not even know existed.
Today, Filmer should be taken an a relic and little more. By basing his views on the world of Adam, he is using a myth to argue fact. No historian would accept Adam as a real figure.
Reeve, Andrew. Property Humanities Press International, 1986.
Tully, James. A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries Cambridge University Press, 1980.