Skip to main content Accessibility help

From Suarez to Filmer: A Reappraisal

  • J. P. Sommerville (a1)


English political thought in the early seventeenth century is often regarded in terms of the disagreements between the king and his parliaments, and of debates amongst lawyers on the nature and contents of the ancient constitution. But a large proportion of the political writings of early seventeenth-century English theorists was directed against the views of Catholic authors. Sir Robert Filmer devoted much of his Patriarcha to refuting the theories of those two great pillars of counter-reformation Catholicism, Bellarmine and Suarez. Suarez's Defensio fidei was burned at Paul's Cross on 21 November 1613. James I believed that by ‘setting up the People above their naturall King’ the political thinking of the Jesuits laid ‘ an excellent ground in Divinitie for all rebels and rebellious people’. One aim of this paper is to suggest that many of the most characteristic ideas on politics of English writers in the early seventeenth century can best be understood in the context of their polemical aim: the refutation of the seditious doctrines of the Papists. This is particularly true of patriarchalism, a subject on which Filmer was no innovator.



Hide All

1 Chamberlain to Carleton, London, 25 November 1613, in The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. McClure, N. E. (Philadelphia, 1939), 1, 488.

2 James, I, Monitory preface, in Political works, ed. Mcllwain, C. H. (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), P. 153.

3 The Catholic theory described here and throughout the article is that of such men as Suarez, Bellarmine, Azorius, Lessius, Becan, Persons, Floyd and Kellison. It is true, of course, that therewere Catholics, notably the two Barclays and Thomas Preston, who disagreed with these writers on matters of political theory. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the views described were widely regarded as characteristic of Catholicism in the early seventeenth century. Similarly, not every opponent of Catholicism adopted James I's views on civil authority - Pareus is a notable example - though it is arguable that these views represent the dominant theory in early seventeenth-century England.

4 Suarez, De legibus ac Deo legislatore (1612), in Selections from three works of Francisco Suarez, S.J., translated by Williams, Gwladys al. (Oxford, 1944), pp. 364–5.

5 Ibid. p. 378.

6 Suarez, , Defensio fidei Catholicae (1613), iii, 2, 7, in Opera, 24 (Paris, 1859), 208 states that ‘ex vi rationis naturalis nulla potest excogitari ratio cur haec potestas determinetur ad unam personam, vel ad certum numerum personarum infra totam communitatem, magis quam ad alium; ergo ex vi naturalis concessionis solum est immediate in communitatée’. All subsequent page references to the Defensio are to this Paris edition. According to Matthew Kellison, The right and iurisdiction of the prelate and the prince, second edition (1621), p. 43, ‘seeing that Nature made all equall, and that there is no more reason why this power should be in one rather than another, it followeth that it is first in the Communitie’.

7 This point is made very clearly in Suarez, Defensio, iii, 4, 1, p. 383.

8 Bowe, Gabriel, The origin of political authority: an essay in Catholic political philosophy (London, 1955) passim, and especially pp. 31, 40–41, 50, 94. McCoy, C. N. R., ‘Note on the problem of the origin of political authority’, The Thomist, xvi (1953), 72–3.

9 Kellison, Right and iurisdiction, pp. 39, 41–3.

10 Persons, An answere to the fifth part of Reportes (1606), p. 26.

11 Suarez, De legibus, in Selections, pp. 374–80.

12 Filmer, Patriarcha, ed. Peter Laslett (Oxford, 1949), p. 56.

13 Suarez, Defensio, iii, 2, 8, in Opera, 24, 208–9. The analogy between civil authority and individual liberty is drawn in De legibus in Selections, p. 381.

14 Gough, J. W., The social contract, second edition (Oxford, 1957), p. 70. Suarez, De legibus, in Selections, pp. 377–9.

15 Skinner, Quentin, The foundations of modem political thought (Cambridge, 1978), II, 158–66.

16 Ibid. p. 163, quoting from Suarez's De legibus: cf. Selections, pp. 382–5.

17 A full discussion of this principle is in Leonard us Lessius, De iustitia et iure (Antwerp, 1612), pp. 92–101.

18 Locke, John, Two treatises of government, ed. Laslett, Peter (London, 1965), pp. 467–8, 469.

19 Kellison, Right and iurisdiction, p. 43.

20 Hamilton, Bernice, Political thought in sixteenth-century Spain (Oxford, 1963), p. 62. Quentin Skinner, Foundations, 11, 177.

21 Suarez, Defensio, vi, 4 and especially vi, 4, 6, in Opera, 24, 677. A similar discussion is in Lessius, De iustitia et iure, pp. 87–8. Joannes Azorius denied that an individual could ever kill a tyrant who had not been deposed by public sentence, though he admitted that this view ran counter to the common Catholic opinion: Institutionum moralium pars secunda (Rome, 1606), pp. 686–7.

22 Walzer, Michael, The revolution of the saints, paperback edition (New York, 1968), p. 281.

23 Suarez, Three theological virtues, in Selections, p. 854.

24 Kellison, Right and iurisction, p. 54.

25 Weston, Iuris pontificii sanctuarium (1613), p. 225. Suarez, Defensio, iii, 3, 3, in Opera, 24, 213.

26 Borgeaud, Charles, The rise of democracy in Old and Mew England (London, 1894), P. 7.

27 Tuck, Richard, Natural rights theories (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 56–7. The position which Tuck attributes to Suarez was adopted by the royalist Sir John Hayward in his reply to Persons' Conference: ‘And as a private man may altogether abandon his free estate, and subiect himselfe to servile condition, so may a multitude passe away both their authoritie and their libertie by publicke consent, ‘Hayward, An answer to the first part of a certaine conference (1603), p. 22.

28 Suarez, De legibus, in Selections, p. 381.

29 Suarez, Defensio, iii, 3, 3, in Opera, 124, 213, and vi, 4, g, p. 678.

30 Suarez, Three theological virtues, in Selections, p. 855. ‘Commonwealth’ is arguably a better rendering than ‘state’ of the Latin ‘respublica’. Similarly, the Jesuit Thomas Stephenson, claiming that tyrants can be deposed, argued not from an original contract, but from the function of government: ‘Si male gubernat, sed non excommunicatur, privari a regno est authoritate comitatis, a qua delectus est. nam ratio iubet ut is, qui delectus est ad reipublicae procurandam dignitatem et salutem, non praesit ad reipublicae perniciem. Quo more Richardus 2dus privatus factus est, et Henricus 4US rex appellatus in regni Comitiis parlamentaribus, anno 1400.’ B. L. MSS Royal 12. E. X, fo. 170V. This treatise, entitled Cyclopaedia aut compendium omnium scientiarum, is of particular historical interest, since it was written for the Gunpowder Plotter Robert Catesby early in 1604. For the attribution to Stephenson cf. George Abbot to William Trumbull, Croydon, 9 September 1613, calendared in Historical manuscripts commission, report on the manuscripts of the marquess of Downshire, iv, 193–4.

31 J. D. du Perron, Oration (1616), anonymous English preface, sig. 3*2. Much valuable information on this tract and on the political works of Kellison, Floyd and Weston is given in A. F. Allison, ‘The later life and writings of Joseph Creswell, S. J., (1556–1623)’, Recusant History xv(1979). 79144.

32 Thomas White, The grounds of obedience and government, second edition (1655), p. 62.

33 John Floyd, God and the king, p. 19. The formulation of a theory of individual inalienable rights is attributed to Civil War radicals and especially the Levellers, in Tuck, Richard, Natural rights theories, (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 143, 147–155.

34 The claim that the king's power is from God alone is made by David Owen, A perswasion to loyalty (1642), p. 1, reprinted from Herod and Pilate reconciled (1610); Thomas Ireland, The oath of allegiance (1610), sig. E4r; Sebastian Benefield, A sermon preached in St. Maries Church in Oxford (1613), p. 4; Deus et rex (1615), p. 22, and by a host of other authors.

35 Jackson, Thomas, A treatise of Christian obedience, in Works, XII (Oxford 1844), 310–13. This work was first published in 1673. Much of it is a reply to Kellison's Right and iurisdiction, but one chapter is a post suggests that the Treatise of Christian obedience was written as a supplement to the Treatise of the holy Catholic Church, published in 1627. Jackson died in 1640 and it is highly probable that the whole of his Treatise of Christian obedience antedates Filmer's Patriarcha.

36 Dominis, M. A. de, Ostensio errorum in De republica ecclesiastica pars secunda (London, 1620), pp. 919–20.

37 James I, speech to parliament of 21 March 1610, in Tanner, J. R., Constitutional documents of the reign of James I (Cambridge, 1930), p. 16. Thomas Morton, An encounter against M. Parsons (1610), p. 246.

38 Kellison, Right and iurisdiction, p. 44. Skinner, Foundations, 11, 156. J. N. Figgis, L., ‘On some political theories of the early Jesuits’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, new series, xi (1897), 104.

39 James I's speech to parliament of 21 March 1610, in Tanner, Constitutional documents, p. 15. This passage casts doubt on G. J. Schochet's contention that James ‘rejected jus patemum as one of the historical sources of government’: Patriarchalism in political thought (London, 1975), p. 88.

40 Bishop Overall's convocation book (1690), pp. 2–3. Andrewes, A sermon preached before his Maiestie. on Sunday the fifth of August (1610), p. 13.

41 Buckeridge, De potestate Papae in rebus temporalibus (1614), p. 99.

42 Ibid. p. 282: ‘Potestas enim patria & regia, quoad essentiam & rem eadem sunt, etsi ambitu & extensione differant: eadem enim est potestas in una familia & in multis. ’

43 Ibid. p. 531: ‘Potestas enim patria, origo est omnis potestatis, in qua potestas omnis fundatur; et omnis potestas vera, justa, et legitima, patria itidem est. ’

44 Field, Richard, Of the church, ii (Cambridge, 1849), 3; cf. Roger Maynwaring, Religion and alegiance (1627), p. 13: ‘Adam had Dominion settled in him, before there was either Pope, or People’.

45 Jackson, , Treatise of Christian obedience, in Works, XII, 310–13.

46 Morton, Full satisfaction (1606), p. 29; Encounter (1610), lib. 2, p. 49; cf. Sheldon, Certain general reasons (1611), pp. 11–12.

47 Jackson, , Treatise of Christian obedience, in Works, XII, 312, 317.

48 Daly, James, Sir Robert Filmer and English political thought (Toronto, 1979), pp. 178–9.

49 Ibid. pp. 65, 125.

50 Filmer, Patriarcha, ed. Laslett, p. 62.

From Suarez to Filmer: A Reappraisal

  • J. P. Sommerville (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed