Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Filmer, Robert

FILMER, Sir ROBERT (d. 1653), political writer, was the eldest son of Sir Edward Filmer, knighted by Elizabeth, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Argall (or Argol) of East Sutton, Kent. Sir Edward bought the manor of East Sutton from his brother-in-law, John Argall of Colchester. Robert Filmer was at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was matriculated 5 July 1604. John Grant dedicated to him Ambrose Fisher's ‘Defence of the Liturgy.’ They had been contemporaries at college, and Fisher had conceived the work at the house of Filmer's uncle at Colchester. Filmer was knighted by Charles I at the beginning of his reign. He married Anne, daughter and coheiress of Martin Heton, bishop of Ely, by whom he had six sons and two daughters. He was a strong royalist, and suffered much during the civil war. It is said that his house at East Sutton was plundered ten times, and that in 1644 he was imprisoned in ‘Leeds Castle’ in Kent. He died 26 May 1653. His eldest son, Edward, died unmarried in 1669. His younger son, Robert, became first baronet in 1674.

Wotton, after noticing Filmer's sufferings in 1644, says that he died in 1635, which is no doubt an accidental transposition of the above date given by Hasted. A letter from Heylyn to Filmer's son Edward in the ‘Patriarcha’ speaks highly of the father's affability, learning, and orthodoxy, and regrets that they had been separated for some time before Filmer's death by Heylyn's loss of his preferment at Westminster.

Filmer's chief work, the ‘Patriarcha,’ remained in manuscript till 1680. Other treatises were republished about the same time, as the tory party considered them suitable for the controversies of the day. A list is given in an anonymous preface to ‘The Power of Kings, and in particular of the King of England …’ first published in 1680. They are:

  1. ‘The Anarchy of a Limited and Mixed Monarchy,’ 1648 (against Hunton).
  2. ‘The Freeholder's Grand Inquest,’ 1648.
  3. ‘Observations concerning the Original of Government’ (against Hobbes, Milton, and Grotius), 1652 (with the ‘Anarchy,’ &c., annexed).
  4. ‘Observations on Aristotle's Politiques touching Forms of Government,’ 1652.
  5. ‘Advertisement to the Jurymen of England touching Witches, together with the difference between a Hebrew and an English Witch,’ 1653; they were anonymous.

Nos. 3 and 4 are mentioned by Heylyn. Copies of 1, 2, and 4 are in the British Museum. No. 2 has been attributed to Sir Robert Holbourne. They were published together in 1679, and in 1680 appeared also (6) the ‘Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings asserted …’ separately, and with a title-page, ‘Discourses,’ to include the treatises of 1679. A second edition of the ‘Patriarcha,’ edited with an essay by Edmund Bohun [q. v.], appeared in 1685. The list above named also mentions ‘Quæstiones Quodlibeticæ, a discourse whether it may be lawful to take use for money,’ as written in 1630 and printed in 1656. A tract with the same English title was published in 1678, with a preface by Sir Roger Twysden, who says that it was written ‘almost thirty years since.’ A Latin tract called ‘Quæstio Quodlibetica’ was published at Cambridge in 1630, but it discusses the lawfulness of bearing arms under a prince of another religion. Another tract attributed to Filmer in the same list, ‘Of the Blasphemie against the Holy Ghost,’ 1646, is by John Hales, in whose tracts (1677) it is reprinted. Filmer in the above treatises defends usury, and, without expressly denying witchcraft, writes satirically against Perkins, its defender. His political treatises are a defence of the patriarchal theory, and an attack upon the social compact doctrine of Hobbes and others. He agrees with Hobbes's absolutism while objecting to his doctrine of the original base of government. Filmer is chiefly remembered through the first of Locke's ‘Two Treatises on Government,’ published in 1690, in which the ‘Patriarcha’ is attacked as the accepted manifesto of the absolutist party. It had also been attacked by Locke's friend, James Tyrrell, in a treatise called ‘Patriarcha non Monarcha,’ 1681. Mr. Gairdner points out that Filmer took a sensible view in the treatises upon usury and witchcraft, and thinks that his historical theory of the English constitution is more correct than that of his opponents, while his doctrine of the patriarchal origin of government is not more absurd than that of the social compact. If metaphysicians were to be condemned for the intrinsic absurdity of the doctrines which they have defended, few indeed would pass muster. But it can hardly be said that Filmer shows the powers of mind which give value to many defences of absurd theories. Locke says that so much ‘glib nonsense was never put together in well-sounding English;’ Hallam says that it is ‘hardly possible to find a more trifling and feeble work.’ Macaulay's agreement with these great whig authorities might be expected, but a rehabilitation would not be easy.

[Wotton's Baronetage (1771), ii. 387 (the original documents from which Wotton wrote are in Add. MS. 24120, ff. 317, 319, 321); Cole in Add. MS. 5869, f. 26; Hasted's Kent. ii. 418; Gairdner's Studies in English History, pp. 273, 274; Hallam's Literature of Europe, iii. 339, 340; Macaulay's History, chap. i.]

L. S.