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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

John Locke's First Treatise | The Rebuttal

Before we can fully grasp Locke’s first Treatise of Government, we have to understand Locke as an individual and the society he was responding to. Growing up in England made Locke weary of an absolute monarchy. He lived through the English Civil War, saw the absorption of Ireland into the United Kingdom, and witnessed the authority of tyrannical rulers. These events caused a lot of divisions within the United Kingdom and the political world was constantly shifting with alliances ever changing. Luckily, Locke was young enough that he didn’t have to really choose a position during the worst years, but his father had to choose and fight. As an officer in the Parliamentary army, he saw the worst, and eventually lost everything. Locke was left with very little, but he studied and observed.

This was surprisingly advantageous for Locke. He went to Oxford and became a scholar, and eventually studied medicine. He was a close friend of Robert Boyle, and they studied chemistry together. His medical studies pushed him to become one of Britain's first empiricists. Empiricism means he believed that our experiences are the most reliable source of knowledge rather than innate ideas and reason being our primary source. This gave rise to experimental science and emphasized the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas. Locke states...

“Speculations however curious or seeming profound and solid, if they teach not their followers to do something either better or in a short and easier way than otherwise they could, or else lead them to the discovery of some new and useful invention, deserve not the name of knowledge, or so much as the waste time or our idle hours to be thrown away upon such empty, idle philosophy."

While he was studying Medicine, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper who asked Locke to be his personal advisor (often including medical advice) after being impressed with the man. When Lord Ashley became the first Earl of Shaftesbury in 1673, Locke’s role grew and he became more involved in politics. He would find himself at one extreme end of the political debates of his generation, competing with very influential thinkers who supported strong authoritative rule such as Thomas Hobbes. This brings us to the Divine Right of Kings.

Once Henry the VIII broke away from the Catholic Church over a century before Locke in 1533, questions concerning religious and political authority exploded. As people questioned the legitimacy of their rulers, many thinkers came up with different ways to legitimize or delegitimize the position of their leaders. Some came to their ruler's aid by supporting an extreme position. An absolute monarchy. Supporters tried to legitimize the idea of an absolute monarchy in a multitude of ways. One of these ways was the idea of “divine right.”

The Divine Right of Kings is the “Theory of government that holds that a monarch receives the right to rule directly from God and not from the people.”

Locke published his Treatises in 1689. They were written in 1680 and 81 but publishing them under his own name was far too risky [picture of hanged man] He wrote them to respond to James the VII of Scotland taking the English throne. Locke’s political philosophy rested upon his religious beliefs which left him in a good position to critique this idea of divine right.

In Locke’s first Treatise, he dismantles Divine Right Activist Robert Filmer’s work “Patriarcha.” He chose Robert Filmer because of his reputation and Filmer "carried this Argument farthest, and is supposed to have brought it to perfection." In his book, Filmer uses the Bible to justify the idea of Divine Right of Kings by inflating paternal power with political power. The main point of his biblical argument is that Adam was made to be the first king and given total dominion of the world by God. He asserts that legitimate Kings are a part of the lineage of Adam therefore they, like their distant father Adam, have absolute dominion. Locke summarizes what Filmer's position actually means by stating...

“His system lies in a little compass, it is no more but this: “That all government is absolute monarchy.” And the ground he builds on, is this: “That no man is born free.”

As Locke reads Patriarcha, Locke finds and states, “Scripture or reason I am sure do not anywhere say so, notwithstanding the noise of divine right, as if divine authority hath subjected us to the unlimited will of another.”

If Filmer’s ideas don’t really come from scripture, where does Filmer even conceive of paternal power equaling political power? There is an old Pagan Roman law. It is the “power that the male head of a family exercised over his children and his more remote descendants in the male line, whatever their age, as well as over those brought into the family by adoption. This power meant originally not only that he had control over the persons of his children, amounting even to a right to inflict capital punishment, but that he alone had any rights in private law. Thus, acquisitions of a child became the property of the father.”

As Rome was Christianized, it did away with this pagan law because it went against scripture. Patria Potestas is exactly like Filmer's ideas, except in Filmer's ideas the State is the family, and the King is the Father.

Locke works through Filmer's work and cuts through his reasoning by showing...

(1). That Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood, or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, or dominion over the world, as is pretended:

(2). That if he had, his heirs, yet, had no right to it:

(3). That if his heirs had, there being no law of nature nor positive law of God that determines which is the right heir in all cases that may arise, the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined:

(4). That if even that had been determined, yet the knowledge of which is the eldest line of Adam's posterity, being so long since utterly lost, that in the races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another, the least pretense to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance"

Locke states...

"All these premises having, as I think, been clearly made out, it is impossible that the rulers now on earth should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of authority from that, which is held to be the fountain of all power, Adam's private dominion and paternal jurisdiction."

Locke literally says that even if Filmer is right, he is still wrong because of how absurd and awful the outcome of his reasoning is. To Locke, Fillmore’s stance didn’t have any common sense. He was pulling verses out of the biblical context and building an entire political theology that enslaved mankind on that kind of spotty work. Locke concludes his treatise by looking at the history told in the bible and the history of the world since then and states that there is no evidence to support Filmer’s arguments. If anything, the bible goes against the idea of a monarchy. When the people of Israel wanted a King, Samuel gave a list of reasons why they did not want a King and God responded in 1 Samuel 8:7 by saying...

Samuel 8:7: “And “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”

In his first Treatise, Locke used scripture and reason to tear Filmer’s arguments apart. He dismantled the idea that this kind of government is legitimized by God. Yeah, so Filmer is wrong, very wrong, hopelessly wrong. But many people, even most people, believed what he said. Why? It bears consideration. With the divine right of Kings out of the way, this prompts a new question. What does make any Government legitimate? Let us know what you think in the comments below. In our next video we will be going over Locke’s revolutionary answer to that question.



Ayers, A.J. . Thomas Paine: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Connolly J. Patrick. John Locke: Lehigh University.

Filmer, Robert. Patriarcha. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: ITL Digital Classic, 1995.

Locke, John. The & Second Treatise of Government: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Platform, 2016.

“Patria Potestas | Roman Law.” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Uzgalis, William. John Locke: Metaphyis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020.

Woolhouse, Roger. Locke: A Biography: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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