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SIDNEY’S RESPONSE - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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Filmer’s Patriarcha was divided, in the 1680 edition that Sidney read, into three chapters with these titles:
Accordingly, Sidney’s reply in the Discourses is also divided into three (untitled) chapters, which argue that:
Sidney sarcastically summed up Filmer’s argument in this way: God “caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs.” Sidney (and Tyrrell and Locke) argued the opposite, that “men are naturally free,” equal liberty being “the gift of God and nature.” However, “Man cannot continue in the … liberty that God hath given him. The liberty of one is thwarted by that of another; and whilst they are all equal, none will yield to any, otherwise than by a general consent. This is the ground of all just government.” Not birth but free choice determines men’s rightful rulers (I.10, III.33).
But in Sidney liberty can be an equivocal term. In one sense it means the complete absence of external restraint: “liberty solely consists in an independency upon the will of another” (I.5). “Liberty without restraint,” however, is undesirable, “being inconsistent with any government, and the good which man naturally desires for himself, children, and friends” (II.20).
Sidney alludes to a different understanding of liberty when he speaks of “one who is transported by his own passions or follies, a slave to his lusts and vices” (III.25 end). Following Aristotle, Sidney calls human beings who are incapable of self-control “slaves by nature” (I.2). In this sense liberty is acting in accord with reason, not passion.
Rational liberty, in either sense, involves some restraint. Liberty needs virtue as its support. More important, men need virtue if they are going to be masters of themselves. The purpose of government therefore goes beyond the protection of mere liberty; it must reward excellence and punish vice (I.20). “If the publick safety be provided, liberty and propriety secured, justice administered, virtue encouraged, vice suppressed, and the true interest of the nation advanced, the ends of government are accomplished,” Sidney wrote (III.21).
Of course, the purpose of government, discovered by reason, is to protect the people in their natural liberty as far as that is prudent. In the ordinary course of providing for their families and subsistence, the people ought to be left alone (III.41). Government therefore must protect the people’s rights to their “lands, goods, lives, and liberties” (III.16).
Governments are first formed when the people make an agreement with each other to give up some of their natural liberty. They contract to obey their rulers on condition that their rulers contract with them to rule for the sake of the ends for which government is constituted (II.32). Therefore all government should be limited to those ends.
The ends of government are determined by the natural law, by which Sidney meant something simple: the rules of conduct that common sense derives from reflecting on the nature of man. In Sidney’s view, natural law teaches us, among other things, that human beings are born free, that fathers are to be obeyed, that injuries are to be repelled and avenged, that those best qualified ought to rule, and that one ought not to be a slave to one’s passions. “Nothing but the plain and certain dictates of reason can be generally applicable to all men as the law of their nature; and they who, according to the best of their understanding, provide for the good of themselves and their posterity, do all equally observe it” (II.20).
Just government being instituted by the consent of the governed and for ends limited by the natural law and by the original contract, it follows that the people have a right to overthrow their government when it violates these limits. This right to revolution was the most controversial part of Sidney’s teaching. It was denounced at his trial and led directly to his conviction and execution.
Since all human beings are subject to passion and inclined to self-interest, the good of the people is best secured through the rule of law. In a passage that John Adams liked to quote, Sidney says law is “void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ’Tis mens sine affectu [mind without passion], written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection” (III.15, paraphrasing Aristotle). In Sidney’s strict use here, the term law excludes that which serves the private interest of the ruler. For “That which is not just is not law, and that which is not law ought not to be obeyed” (III. 11 section title).
Of the several forms of government, Sidney unsurprisingly likes monarchy least. But it is not immediately evident whether his principles provide clear guidance as to the best form of government. (The question also arises in regard to the American Declaration of Independence.) It might seem that the people may consent to any form of government they please. However, it becomes clear as Sidney proceeds that partly or wholly democratic governments are his preference. They are most consistent with the liberty we are born to and provide the greatest opportunity for merit to receive its due reward and for wisdom to prevail in the public business (II.20, 21, III.16).
Prudence dictates that political constitutions are to some extent relative to the particular circumstances of a people (II.17). Rome became so corrupt that “the best men found it … impossible to restore liberty to the city” (II.19). But Sidney was not a relativist. The principles of government are eternally true; only their application varies with the times.
Sidney opposed hereditary monarchy not only because it denies liberty, but because it denies equal opportunity for merit. Unlike some other writers whose political theories were based upon man’s natural liberty, Sidney accepted the principle, taught by Plato and Aristotle, that the most virtuous ought to rule. “Detur digniori [let it be given to the worthier] is the voice of nature; all her most sacred laws are perverted, if this be not observed in the disposition of the governments of mankind” (I.16). Sidney was even willing to admit, with Aristotle, the right of a godlike prince to rule without the consent of the governed. “When such a man is found, he is by nature a king.” But Sidney went on to deny, in Aristotle’s name, that any such being could be found among imperfect human beings. Thus the apparently aristocratic Aristotle turns out to be a teacher of republicanism (III.23). From this argument we may better understand why Thomas Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was based on “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” and why the monarchical philosopher Thomas Hobbes complained that the ancient Greek and Roman authors taught Englishmen that democracy was the best form of government.7
A leading difficulty in Sidney’s argument lies in his simultaneous assertion that the right to rule derives from consent (from man’s natural liberty) and that it derives from merit (from the sacred law of detur digniori). As a practical matter Sidney was confident that the people—if they are not corrupt—would recognize and elevate those most deserving of political power. For in a republic no accidents of birth can stand in the way of the people’s honoring whoever is best. Further, Sidney was sure that corruption and absolute monarchy always go together in practice. But what if the people err and place fools or villains in power? Do we abandon democracy or merit? Which is more fundamental in principle: consent or virtue?
A similar question may be asked of his twofold conception of liberty. If one must choose, which form of liberty counts most: freedom from dependence on the will of a ruler one has not consented to, or freedom from enslavement to one’s base passions? For practical purposes, experience solves the question for Sidney. A people unable to control its passions will not long retain its political freedom. But in principle the question may remain unresolved.
One characteristic feature of Sidney’s book associates him with Machiavelli. That is his celebration of warlike virtue and foreign conquest. Like Machiavelli, Sidney prefers imperialist Rome to nonexpansionist Sparta. He asserts that “That is the best government, which best provides for war.” Popular governments do this best, for their citizens are hardy and spirited, and there is a mutual rivalry for the honor that anyone may earn (II.15, II.22–23). But unlike Machiavelli, Sidney qualifies his imperialism with the requirement that a war of acquisition be a just war, carried on for a just cause and by just means.
The Discourses includes a vast amount of historical material. Some of Sidney’s readers have inferred that his republicanism rests more on the prescriptive lessons of English history than on principles discovered by reason. That is not so. Sidney did believe that “the English nation has always been governed by itself or its representatives.”8 But in the end such evidence cannot be decisive: “time can make nothing lawful or just, that is not so of itself. … therefore in matters of the greatest importance, wise and good men do not so much inquire what has been, as what is good and ought to be” (III.28). So “there can be no reason, why a polite people should not relinquish the errors committed by their ancestors in the time of their barbarism and ignorance” (III.25).
Scholars have wondered about the religious dimension of Sidney’s thought. The Discourses teems with Biblical references. But Sidney invokes the authority of divine revelation to vindicate conclusions reached by reason. At one point, quoting Ecclesiastes, Sidney notes that it “perfectly agrees with what we learn from Plato, and plainly shews, that true philosophy is perfectly conformable with what is taught us by those who were divinely inspired” (II.1). For Sidney, Biblical events are sometimes better explained by man’s unaided reason than by religious doctrines. In the traditional view God in his wrath punished the Hebrews for their idolatry after Solomon’s death by subjecting them to the rule of absolute monarchs. In Sidney’s view the Hebrew “tragedy” actually proceeded “from such causes as are applicable to other nations. … [C]husing rather to subject themselves to the will of a man, than to the law of God, they deservedly suffer’d the evils that naturally follow the worst counsels” (II.24).
Similarly, Sidney meets the objection that his argument, which praises armed resistance to evil, is anti-Christian. “We shall be told, that prayers and tears were the only arms of the first Christians, and that Christ commanded his disciples to pray for those that persecuted them.” Sidney responds “that those precepts were merely temporary, and directed to the persons of the apostles, who were armed only with the sword of the spirit; that the primitive Christians used prayers and tears only no longer than whilst they had no other arms” (III.7). Sidney sums up the sturdy spirit of his Christianity in a remark that later became famous: “God helps those who help themselves” (II.23). In this way Sidney defends Christianity against the Machiavellian charge that it celebrates feminine qualities at the expense of manliness and spiritedness and leads to the triumph of bad men over good by teaching nonresistance to evil.
Sidney’s (and Locke’s) overall argument gave to political obligation a new basis consistent with Christianity’s universal claim but independent of any particular religious sect. The God of all mankind could now be the God of a particular political community. For if natural liberty and natural law come from God, only one kind of community will satisfy God’s law: a consent-based republic protecting the equal liberty of all. The final stanza of “America” shows that this argument is no mere logical inference but a tenet of faith for the political community that established a representative democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal:
Citizens can fight for their country in good conscience, knowing that the cause of liberty is the cause of God, but free of the fanaticism so often associated with religious sectarianism.9 The argument was new, but as expressed by Sidney it preserved the heart of the political teaching of the ancients. Politics and life are still understood in light of man’s natural purpose: virtue and happiness.
Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 in Writings, p. 1501. Hobbes makes this assertion in Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Ferdinand Tönnies (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969), pp. 43, 56, 158.
Sidney’s account of the English past has been much criticized by J. G. A. Pocock in The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), ch. 2 and 3, and others, but defended persuasively in James Conniff, “Reason and History in Early Whig Thought: The Case of Algernon Sidney,”Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982), pp. 397–416.
Jaffa, Original Intent, pp. 315–316.