Locke’s First Treatise Chapter II: Paternal and Regal Power


Quotes taken from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett.

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Having completed his introduction of Sir Robert Filmer’s work Patriarcha, Locke endeavors to explore the arguments made by Filmer. The first argument made is that of Paternal and Regal power. The argument for absolute monarchy according to Locke is far above anything man can think of, so high in fact “that Promises and Oaths, which tye the infinite Deity, cannot confine it.” This is a curious way of describing the idea behind absolute monarchy but upon further inspection one might find that even God cannot be described as an absolute Monarch in the manner in which Filmer uses the words. But if Locke is able to demonstrate that the logic used for absolute monarchy is faulty, then man can start a new with government by consent; Locke ends with “using their Reason to unite together into Society.”

The first instance of Absolute Monarchy is that of the parent over the child, which means that the child is not free and that the parents possess a regal authority over that child. At first glance one might think this is an argument against Filmer, but instead is actually against Aristotle who in the Politics argues that the relationship between a father and his child is that of kingly rule. Exactly what that fatherly authority is Locke and Filmer neglect to tell, instead Locke lays out three basic foundations in the beginning of the Patriarcha:

1. En Passant, Made his Obeysance to the Arcana Imperii.

2. Made his Compliment to the Rights and Liberties of this, or any other Nation which he is going presently to null and destroy.

3. Made his Leg to those Learned Men, who did not see so far into the Matter as himself.

In sum, Locke argues that Filmer’s use of absolute monarchy thumbs its nose at the idea of rule by consent of the majority. The basis for his argument of Fatherly authority stems from the Bible: Adam was the first human, our father who possessed absolute authority over the world; Noah and his sons reestablished the monarchy of Adam until the captivity of the Israelites; God re-established the line of king over Israel. And finally Filmer uses the commandment of Honor thy Father as proof of absolute fatherly authority. Locke immediately points out that this is only a half quote from the Ten Commandments and that the full commandment reads Honor thy Father and thy Mother. The problem of stating both Locke points out is that it would be a mixed monarchy, which ultimately leads to anarchy. It is for this reason that Filmer leaves out the latter part of the quote, which Locke calls Filmer “a wary Physician,… when he would have his Patient swallow some harsh or Corrosive Liquor…” for having done. Here Locke compares Filmer to the physician, who is representative of the legislative authority within philosophic thought.

It is then that Locke goes on to say “Without this, What Good could our A——do, or pretend to do, by erecting such an unlimited Power, but flatter the Natural Vanity and Ambition of Men, too apt of if it self to grow and encrease with the Possession of any Power?” The discussion of Absolute Monarchy, by extension of this argument, is the same as talking of anarchy. Locke finishes, “And by perswading those, who, by the consent of their Fellow-Men, are advanced to great, but limited degrees of it, that by that part which is given them, they have a Right to all, that was not so; and therefore may do what they please, because they have Authority to do more then others, and so tempt them to do what is neither for their own, nor the good of those under their Care, whereby great Mischiefs cannot but follow.” Everyone has a right to security and therefore they have the power to ensure their freedom, creating an anarchical state. Further, consent exists in the wrong system creating multiple centers of power as a result of Filmer’s argument.

From this Locke argues for three points for the argument of fatherly regal authority: Sovereignty of Adam, Absolute Power of Adam, and Adam’s Royal Authority. The first concerns with Adam’s authority over his own family, for Filmer argues that Adam had absolute power over his family including the power over life. In this the paternal powers becomes the regal power, and by extension calls into question maybe the polis and family. If Adam was not king by virtue of his title of father, then is the fatherly authority political, for if it is not then family is not by nature political which is contrary to the teachings of Aristotle. As for the second, Absolute Power of Adam, this is based on the authority of Adams over his posterity; this dominion then makes men nothing more than herds. Locke calls for Proofs and Reasons as to how Adam has gained this absolute authority, which creates two types of rule: reasonable and unreasonable. Filmer’s argument of Adam’s absolute power is an example of the unreasonable, because there lacks any proof or reason for such an assertion. Finally there is Adam’s Royal Authority, which is to say Adam’s paternal authority: Adam is king because he is father. While Filmer continues to argue for Adam’s Royal Authority, Locke points he fails to provide a proof. Analogously, the royal authority of Adam or the rule of absolute monarchy is the power of opinion or the power over the passions.

Locke’s argument against Paternal and Regal Authority is summed in that Filmer provides no proof of Adam’s authority as both father and king other than the half quote “Honor thy father.” Which itself is purposely cut short because the introduction of “honor thy mother” would imply a mixed monarchy and thus destroying any hopes of an absolute monarch. The argument for absolute monarchy does not exist within the realm of proofs or reason but rather in the power over opinion; which makes the argument far stronger because men are inclined to follower their passions. The Sovereignty of Adam, his absolute power, and is royal authority combine to make Adam a tyrant. He contains the power over life of his own family, he rules over his posterity like they are a herd and rules by appealing to human passions. This is juxtaposed to the idea the Law of Nature, social contract, and rule by reason. The first makes man a slave while the second provides for his security and safety.

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