Locke’s First Treatise

by Jon Mandle on October 25, 2005

Locke’s subtitle to his Two Treatises of Government explains the purpose of each of the two essays: “In the Former, the False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and His Followers, are Detected and Overthrown. The Latter is an Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government.” The Second Treatise is by far the more widely read these days. I only recently read the First, and it was not nearly as painful as I feared. In fact, much of it was downright amusing. Locke sets his sights squarely on Filmer’s divine right theory, according to which God gave Adam “Royal authority” which was passed down from father to son until … well, that part’s a little unclear. Anyway, Locke is pretty merciless.

Here’s Locke arguing that Filmer’s selective quotation of the Bible, when corrected, undermines his claim that one person has absolute power over others:

He is very frequent in such Assertions, but what is strange in all his whole Patriarcha, I find not one Pretence of a Reason to establish this his great Foundation of Government; not any thing that looks like an Argument, but these words: To confirm this Natural Right of Regal Power, we find in the Decalogue, that the Law which enjoyns Obedience to Kings, is delivered in the Terms, Honour thy Father, as if all Power were Originally in the Father. And why may I not add as well, That in the Decalogue, the Law that enjoyns Obedience to Queens, is delivered in the Terms of Honour thy Mother, as if all Power were originally in the Mother? The Argument, as Sir Robert putts it, will hold as well for one as t’other.” (I.11)

And here he is arguing against Filmer’s claim that parents, being the creators of their children, have absolute authority over them:

But had Men Skill and Power to make their Children, ‘tis not so slight a piece of Workmanship, that it can be imagined they could make them without designing it. What Father of a Thousand, when he begets a Child, thinks farther than the satisfying his present Appetite? God in his infinite Wisdom has put strong desires of Copulation into the Constitution of Men, thereby to continue the race of Mankind, which he doth most commonly without the intention, and often against the Consent and Will of the Begetter. And indeed those who desire and design Children, are but the occasions of their being, and when they design and wish to beget them, do little more towards their making, than Ducalion [Deucalion, son of Prometheus] and his Wife in the Fable did towards the making of Mankind, by throwing Pebbles over their Heads. (I.54)

And even if Adam did naturally have monarchical power, we need to decide how according to natural law it was passed down to the present day:

I go on then to ask whether in the inheriting of this Paternal Power, this Supreme Fatherhood, the Grand-Son by a Daughter, hath a Right before a Nephew by a Brother? Whether the Grand-Son by the Eldest Son, being an Infant, before the Younger Son a Man and able? Whether the Daughter before the Uncle? Or any other Man, descended by a Male Line? Whether a Grand-Son by a Younger Daughter, before a Grand-Daughter by an Elder Daughter? Whether the Elder Son by a Concubine, before a Younger Son by a Wife? From whence also will arise many Questions of Legitimation, and what in Nature is the difference betwixt a Wife and a Concubine? For as to the Municipal or Positive Laws of Man, they can signifie nothing here…. Who has the Paternal Power, whilst the Widow-Queen is with Child by the deceased King, and no body knows whether it will be a Son or a Daughter? Which shall be Heir of two Male-Twins, who by the Dissection of the Mother, were laid open to the World? Whether a Sister by the half Blood, before a Brothers Daughter by the whole Blood?

These, and many more such Doubts, might be proposed about the Titles of Succession, and the Right of Inheritance; and that not as idle Speculations, but such as in History we shall find, have concerned the Inheritance of Crowns and Kingdoms. [I.123-124]

Between the snarky tone, the humor, the smarts, and the anonymity (which he insisted on), I just can’t help but think that Locke would have been a great blogger.



jet 10.25.05 at 1:36 pm

I thought Locke’s First Treatise wasn’t so much about Patriarcha as it was about the ideas it reflected from Leviathan. Maybe I should read it before believing something I read in Wikipedia.


Dan Nexon 10.25.05 at 1:36 pm

The First Treatise is definitely a tour de force of intellectual destruction. One of my students once asked me why almost no one reads Filmer anymore – outside of academic specialists – given his importance in the period. The answer is, of course, the First Treatise.


Kieran Healy 10.25.05 at 2:01 pm

He is very frequent in such Assertions, but what is strange in all his whole Patriarcha, I find not one Pretence of a Reason to establish this his great Foundation of Government; not any thing that looks like an Argument

Sounds like he’s critiquing Maggie Gallagher avant la lettre.


nick s 10.25.05 at 3:04 pm

I only recently read the First, and it was not nearly as painful as I feared. In fact, much of it was downright amusing.

Oh, yes. It’s a contender for Most One-Sided Literary Fights Of Our Time.

A response to Hobbes? Hardly. Filmer, all the way. Two Treatises is an Exclusion Tract. Same as Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, which is also under-read.


John Quiggin 10.25.05 at 3:13 pm

I’ve always enjoyed the First Treatise, but it seems to me to leave Locke (and subsequent writers like Nozick), open to a tu quoque, along the lines:

“You claim to own this property, but where is your contract with the original appropriator”.


Ruchira 10.26.05 at 12:20 am

In my history of democracy class in college, on the other hand, we read Filmer just so we could read Locke tearing him apart in the First Treatise (before we read the Second Treatise, of course). Locke completely demolishes Filmer in sections 71-72:

“For having placed an Absolute Power in Fathers by Right of Begetting, he could not easily resolve how much of this Power belong’d to a Son over the Children he had begotten…This makes him so doubtful in his Expressions, and so uncertain where to place this Absolute Natural Power, which he calls Fatherhood; sometimes Adam alone has it all, as p. 13

Sometimes the Posterity of Adam, 244

Someetimes he that can catch it, an Usurper, p. 23…

72. Thus this New Nothing, that is to carry with it all Power, Authority, and Government; This Fatherhood which is to design the Person, and Establish the Throne of Monarchs, whom the People are to obey, may according to Sir Robert, come into any Hands, any how, and so by his Politicks give to Democracy Royal Authority, and make an Usurper a Lawful Prince. And if it will do all these fine Feats, much good do our Author and all his Followers with their Omnipotent Fatherhood, which can serve for nothing but to unsettle and destroy all the Lawful Governments in the World, and to Establish in their room Disorder, Tyranny, and Usurpation.”


Anna in Cairo 10.26.05 at 5:28 am

I re-read the 2nd recently, and the intro had info on how the first was basically an attack on this guy that most moderns have never heard about which is why it is not as widely read as the second. Interesting sounding though. Have you ever read Filmer himself? Is he studied at all now?

Speaking of pamphleteering, has anyone read Samuel Johnson’s attack on the US revolutionaries, “Taxation not Tyranny”? I bet that would be entertaining.


Alex 10.26.05 at 6:18 am

It’s a Cole-esque intellectual alleyway beating, certainly. I remember when I read the Treatises, I actually read the first one first, and I even considered reading Filmer so as to get an idea of who Locke was kicking around like a Chelsea fan in a Millwall pub carpark.

But then, who really reads whatever stack of wank from Powerline or the Corner a genuine blogger has ripped? Far more fun just to watch the blood and teeth fly.


Matt 10.26.05 at 8:13 am

Filmer’s book is avaliable in a nice edition from Cambridge (In the history of political thought series, I believe) but even they say that they publised it primarily to provide background for reading Locke. I’ve not read it myself but would like to some day. As someone above mentioned Locke is often taught as if he were responding to Hobbes. This is pretty natural, of course, but does anyone know if Locke actually had read Hobbes or wrote about him at all?


Aeon J. Skoble 10.26.05 at 8:30 am

Hi Jon, nice to see you blogging again!


Michael 10.26.05 at 12:49 pm

By the eighteenth century, Filmer’s arguments largely fell on deaf ears and ceased to have relevance. Some of this had to do with Locke’s destruction of Filmer’s thinking; some of it also had to do with the increasing public devotion to the British constitution and also to the constitutional changes wrought by the Revolution of 1688-89. Public reverence for the constitution closed down the space for divine-right theory, and for good. Filmer now seems to be an antiquated, minor curiosity at best.

On the other hand, I think he’s interesting and more relevant when used to understand the issues of the mid-seventeenth century. Given that Filmer experienced the English Civil War and wrote in defense of Charles I, his writing gives a good sense of the debates about the relationship between king, parliament, and the people. Sometimes I wonder if his work would have been more persuasive if Charles hadn’t inadvertantly proved the need for constitutional checks on royal authority by abusing his power in just about every way possible (not that divine-right theory is palatable; it’s just that in his actions Charles never made a good case for royal authority at all).

Aside from scholars who work specifically on English political thought in the 17th century, on the Civil War, or on Locke, most don’t really study Filmer anymore.


Ted 10.26.05 at 8:57 pm

Maybe one of you can help me out with something – I told my students that the _Two Treatises_ were originally published anonymously, which led one of them to ask whether people knew Locke was the author even though it was anonymous. My reply was that the people who agreed with him and were writing similar work knew, but it wasn’t generally known. But that’s based on dim graduate school memories. Was I correct, or should I have told them something else, and if so, what?


bordenl 10.26.05 at 10:28 pm

I thought that the “divine right of kings” might be based on some lines in Proverbs which suggest that a king always has good judgment, and that G-d directs the heart of kings.


Chris 10.27.05 at 12:57 am

by Samuel Johnson
In all the parts of human knowledge, whether terminating in science merely speculative, or operating upon life, private or civil, are admitted some fundamental principles, or common axioms, which, being generally received, are little doubted, and, being little doubted, have been rarely proved.
Of these gratuitous and acknowledged truths, it is often the fate to become less evident by endeavours to explain them, however necessary such endeavours may be made by the misapprehensions of absurdity, or the sophistries of interest. It is difficult to prove the principles of science; because notions cannot always be found more intelligible than those which are questioned. It is difficult to prove the principles of practice, because they have, for the most part, not been discovered by investigation, but obtruded by experience; and the demonstrator will find, after an operose deduction, that he has been trying to make that seen, which can be only felt.
Of this kind is the position, that “the supreme power of every community has the right of requiring, from all its subjects, such contributions as are necessary to the publick safety or publick prosperity,” which was considered, by all mankind, as comprising the primary and essential condition of all political society, till it became disputed by those zealots of anarchy, who have denied, to the parliament of Britain the right of taxing the American colonies.
That our commerce with America is profitable, however less than ostentatious or deceitful estimates have made it, and that it is our interest to preserve it, has never been denied; but, surely, it will most effectually be preserved, by being kept always in our own power. Concessions may promote it for a moment, but superiority only can ensure its continuance. There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good. The blind are said to feel with peculiar nicety. They who look but little into futurity, have, perhaps, the quickest sensation of the present. A merchant’s desire is not of glory, but of gain; not of publick wealth, but of private emolument; he is, therefore, rarely to be consulted about war and peace, or any designs of wide extent and distant consequence.
Yet this, like other general characters, will sometimes fail. The traders of Birmingham have rescued themselves from all imputation of narrow selfishness, by a manly recommendation to parliament of the rights and dignity of their native country.
To these men I do not intend to ascribe an absurd and enthusiastick contempt of interest, but to give them the rational and just praise of distinguishing real from seeming good; of being able to see through the cloud of interposing difficulties, to the lasting and solid happiness of victory and settlement.
Lest all these topicks of persuasion should fail, the greater actor of patriotism has tried another, in which terrour and pity are happily combined, not without a proper superaddition of that admiration which latter ages have brought into the drama. The heroes of Boston, he tells us, if the stamp act had not been repealed, would have left their town, their port, and their trade, have resigned the splendour of opulence, and quitted the delights of neighbourhood, to disperse themselves over the country, where they would till the ground, and fish in the rivers, and range the mountains, and be free.
These, surely, are brave words. If the mere sound of freedom can operate thus powerfully, let no man, hereafter, doubt the story of the Pied Piper. The removal of the people of Boston into the country, seems, even to the congress, not only difficult in its execution, but important in its consequences. The difficulty of execution is best known to the Bostonians themselves; the consequence alas! will only be, that they will leave good houses to wiser men.
Yet, before they quit the comforts of a warm home, for the sound of something which they think better, he cannot be thought their enemy who advises them, to consider well whether they shall find it. By turning fishermen or hunters, woodmen or shepherds, they may become wild, but it is not so easy to conceive them free; for who can be more a slave than he that is driven, by force, from the comforts of life, is compelled to leave his house to a casual comer, and, whatever he does, or where ever he wanders, finds, every moment, some new testimony of his own subjection? If choice of evil be freedom, the felon in the galleys has his option of labour or of stripes. The Bostonian may quit his house to starve in the fields; his dog may refuse to set, and smart under the lash, and they may then congratulate each other upon the smiles of liberty, “profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight.”
But Columbus came five or six hundred years too late for the candidates of sovereignty. When he formed his project of discovery, the fluctuations of military turbulence had subsided, and Europe began to regain a settled form, by established government and regular subordination. No man could any longer erect himself into a chieftain, and lead out his fellow-subjects, by his own authority, to plunder or to war. He that committed any act of hostility, by land or sea, without the commission of some acknowledged sovereign, was considered, by all mankind, as a robber or pirate, names which were now of little credit, and of which, therefore, no man was ambitious.
Columbus, in a remoter time, would have found his way to some discontented lord, or some younger brother of a petty sovereign, who would have taken fire at his proposal, and have quickly kindled, with equal beat, a troop of followers: they would have built ships, or have seized them, and have wandered with him, at all adventures, as far as they could keep hope in their company. But the age being now past of vagrant excursion and fortuitous hostility, he was under the necessity of travelling from court to court, scorned and repulsed as a wild projector, an idle promiser of kingdoms in the clouds; nor has any part of the world yet had reason to rejoice that he found, at last, reception and employment.
In the same year, in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind, by the Portuguese was discovered the passage of the Indies, and by the Spaniards the coast of America. The nations of Europe were fired with Boundless expectations, and the discoverers, pursuing their enterprise, made conquests in both hemispheres of wide extent. But the adventurers were not contented with plunder: though they took gold and silver to themselves, they seized islands and kingdoms in the name of their sovereigns. When a new region was gained, a governour was appointed by that power, which had given the commission to the conqueror; nor have I met with any European, but Stukely, of London, that formed a design of exalting himself in the newly found countries to independent dominion.
To secure a conquest, it was always necessary to plant a colony, and territories, thus occupied and settled, were rightly considered, as mere extensions, or processes of empire; as ramifications which, by the circulation of one publick interest, communicated with the original source of dominion, and which were kept flourishing and spreading by the radical vigour of the mother-country.
The colonies of England differ no otherwise from those of other nations, than as the English constitution differs from theirs. All government is ultimately and essentially absolute, but subordinate societies may have more immunities, or individuals greater liberty, as the operations of government are differently conducted. An Englishman in the common course of life and action feels no restraint.
That slavery is a miserable state we have been often told, and, doubtless, many a Briton will tremble to find it so near as in America; but bow it will be brought hither the congress must inform us. The question might distress a common understanding; but the statesmen of the other hemisphere can easily resolve it. “Our ministers,” they say, “are our enemies, and if they should carry the point of taxation, may, with the same army, enslave us. It may be said, we will not pay them; but remember,” say the western sages, “the taxes from America, and, we may add, the men, and particularly the Roman catholicks of this vast continent, will then be in the power of your enemies. Nor have you any reason to expect, that, after making slaves of us, many of us will refuse to assist in reducing you to the same abject state.”
These are dreadful menaces; but suspecting that they have not much the sound of probability, the congress proceeds: “Do not treat this as chimerical. Know, that in less than half a century, the quitrents reserved to the crown, from the numberless grants of this vast continent, will pour large streams of wealth into the royal coffers. If to this be added the power of taxing America, at pleasure, the crown will possess more treasure than may be necessary to purchase the remains of liberty in your island.”
All this is very dreadful; but, amidst the terrour that shakes my frame, I cannot forbear to wish, that some sluice were opened for these streams of treasure. I should gladly see America return half of what England has expended in her defence; and of the stream that will “flow so largely in less than half a century,” I hope a small rill, at least, may be found to quench the thirst of the present generation, which seems to think itself in more danger of wanting money, than of losing liberty.

“We are the acknowledged descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Britain, of men, who, before the time of history, took possession of the island desolate and waste, and, therefore, open to the first occupants. Of this descent, our language is a sufficient proof, which, not quite a century ago, was different from yours.


Anna in Cairo 10.27.05 at 2:12 am

Chris, thanks! The sarcasm is palpable. I recently read Boswell’s Life of Johnson and found all this interplay between people to be really a lot like the modern blogosphere. Particularly, printed wars between intellectuals and other public figures like Swift, Hume, Johnson, Garrick, etc.


nick 10.27.05 at 7:00 pm

My reply was that the people who agreed with him and were writing similar work knew, but it wasn’t generally known.

I think that’s a fairly accurate belief. There’s a good consensus that it was largely composed and circulated among leading Whigs a good decade before its publication, as an Exclusion Tract; so when it appeared in print, as an after-the-fact defence of the Glorious Revolution, the concepts (and the authorship, or at least the locus of authorship) were familiar.

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