Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 2: The common Notions of Liberty are not from School Divines, but from Nature. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 2: The common Notions of Liberty are not from School Divines, but from Nature. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The common Notions of Liberty are not from School Divines, but from Nature.
In the first lines of his book he seems to denounce war against mankind, endeavouring to overthrow the principle of liberty in which God created us, and which includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards the felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other. To this end he absurdly imputes to the School divines that which was taken up by them as a common notion, written in the heart of every man, denied by none, but such as were degenerated into beasts, from whence they might prove such points as of themselves were less evident.1 Thus did Euclid lay down certain axioms, which none could deny that did not renounce common sense, from whence he drew the proofs of such propositions as were less obvious to the understanding; and they may with as much reason be accused of paganism, who say that the whole is greater than a part, that two halfs make the whole, or that a straight line is the shortest way from point to point, as to say, that they who in politicks lay such foundations, as have been taken up by Schoolmen and others as undeniable truths, do therefore follow them, or have any regard to their authority. Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all men saw, nor lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself. But if he doth unjustly impute the invention of this to School divines, he in some measure repairs his fault in saying, This hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity: The divines of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it. That is to say, all Christian divines, whether reformed or unreformed, do approve it, and the people everywhere magnify it, as the height of human felicity. But Filmer and such as are like to him, being neither reformed nor unreformed Christians, nor of the people, can have no title to Christianity; and, in as much as they set themselves against that which is the height of human felicity, they declare themselves enemies to all that are concern’d in it, that is, to all mankind.
But, says he, They do not remember that the desire of liberty was the first cause of the fall of man: and I desire it may not be forgotten, that the liberty asserted is not a licentiousness of doing what is pleasing to everyone against the command of God; but an exemption from all human laws, to which they have not given their assent. If he would make us believe there was anything of this in Adam’s sin, he ought to have proved, that the law which he transgressed was imposed upon him by man, and consequently that there was a man to impose it; for it will easily appear that neither the reformed or unreformed divines, nor the people following them, do place the felicity of man in an exemption from the laws of God, but in a most perfect conformity to them. Our Saviour taught us not to fear such as could kill the body, but him that could kill and cast into hell: And the Apostle tells us that we should obey God rather than man.2 It hath been ever hereupon observed, that they who most precisely adhere to the laws of God, are least solicitous concerning the commands of men, unless they are well grounded; and those who most delight in the glorious liberty of the sons of God, do not only subject themselves to him, but are most regular observers of the just ordinances of man, made by the consent of such as are concerned according to the will of God.
The error of not observing this may perhaps deserve to be pardoned in a man that had read no books, as proceeding from ignorance; if such as are grossly ignorant can be excused, when they take upon them to write of such matters as require the highest knowledge: But in Sir Robert ’tis prevarication and fraud to impute to Schoolmen and Puritans that which in his first page he acknowledged to be the doctrine of all reformed and unreformed Christian churches, and that he knows to have been the principle in which the Grecians, Italians, Spaniards, Gauls, Germans, and Britains, and all other generous nations ever lived, before the name of Christ was known in the world; insomuch that the base effeminate Asiaticks and Africans, for being careless of their liberty, or unable to govern themselves, were by Aristotle and other wise men called slaves by nature,3 and looked upon as little different from beasts.
This which hath its root in common sense, not being to be overthrown by reason, he spares his pains of seeking any; but thinks it enough to render his doctrine plausible to his own party, by joining the Jesuits to Geneva, and coupling Buchanan to Doleman,4 as both maintaining the same doctrine; tho he might as well have joined the Puritans with the Turks, because they all think that one and one makes two. But whoever marks the proceedings of Filmer and his masters, as well as his disciples, will rather believe that they have learn’d from Rome and the Jesuits to hate Geneva, than that Geneva and Rome can agree in anything farther than as they are obliged to submit to the evidence of truth; or that Geneva and Rome can concur in any design or interest that is not common to mankind.
These men allowed to the people a liberty of deposing their princes. This is a desperate opinion. Bellarmine and Calvin look asquint at it.5 But why is this a desperate opinion? If disagreements happen between king and people, why is it a more desperate opinion to think the king should be subject to the censures of the people, than the people subject to the will of the king? Did the people make the king, or the king make the people? Is the king for the people, or the people for the king? Did God create the Hebrews that Saul might reign over them? or did they, from an opinion of procuring their own good, ask a king, that might judge them, and fight their battles? If God’s interposition, which shall be hereafter explained, do alter the case; did the Romans make Romulus, Numa, Tullus Hostilius, and Tarquinius Priscus kings? or did they make or beget the Romans? If they were made kings by the Romans, ’tis certain they that made them sought their own good in so doing; and if they were made by and for the city and people, I desire to know if it was not better, that when their successors departed from the end of their institution, by endeavouring to destroy it, or all that was good in it, they should be censured and ejected, than be permitted to ruin that people for whose good they were created? Was it more just that Caligula or Nero should be suffered to destroy the poor remains of the Roman nobility and people, with the nations subject to that empire, than that the race of such monsters should be extinguished, and a great part of mankind, especially the best, against whom they were most fierce, preserved by their deaths?
I presume our author thought these questions might be easily decided; and that no more was required to shew the forementioned assertions were not at all desperate, than to examine the grounds of them; but he seeks to divert us from this enquiry by proposing the dreadful consequences of subjecting kings to the censures of their people: whereas no consequence can destroy any truth; and the worst of this is, that if it were received, some princes might be restrained from doing evil, or punished if they will not be restrained. We are therefore only to consider whether the people, senate, or any magistracy made by and for the people, have, or can have such a right; for if they have, whatsoever the consequences may be, it must stand: And as the one tends to the good of mankind in restraining the lusts of wicked kings; the other exposes them without remedy to the fury of the most savage of all beasts. I am not ashamed in this to concur with Buchanan, Calvin, or Bellarmine, and without envy leave to Filmer and his associates the glory of maintaining the contrary.
But notwithstanding our author’s aversion to truth, he confesses, That Hayward, Blackwood, Barclay,6 and others who have bravely vindicated the right of kings in this point, do with one consent admit, as an unquestionable truth, and assent unto the natural liberty and equality of mankind, not so much as once questioning or opposing it. And indeed I believe, that tho since the sin of our first parents the earth hath brought forth briars and brambles, and the nature of man hath been fruitful only in vice and wickedness; neither the authors he mentions, nor any others have had impudence enough to deny such evident truth as seems to be planted in the hearts of all men; or to publish doctrines so contrary to common sense, virtue, and humanity, till these times. The production of Laud, Manwaring, Sybthorpe, Hobbes, Filmer, and Heylyn7 seems to have been reserved as an additional curse to compleat the shame and misery of our age and country. Those who had wit and learning, with something of ingenuity and modesty, tho they believed that nations might possibly make an ill use of their power, and were very desirous to maintain the cause of kings, as far as they could put any good colour upon it; yet never denied that some had suffered justly (which could not be, if there were no power of judging them) nor ever asserted anything that might arm them with an irresistible power of doing mischief, animate them to persist in the most flagitious courses, with assurance of perpetual impunity, or engage nations in an inevitable necessity of suffering all manner of outrages. They knew that the actions of those princes who were not altogether detestable, might be defended by particular reasons drawn from them, or the laws of their country; and would neither undertake the defence of such as were abominable, nor bring princes, to whom they wished well, into the odious extremity of justifying themselves by arguments that favoured Caligula and Nero, as well as themselves, and that must be taken for a confession, that they were as bad as could be imagined; since nothing could be said for them that might not as well be applied to the worst that had been, or could be. But Filmer, Heylyn, and their associates scorning to be restrained by such considerations, boldly lay the ax to the root of the tree, and rightly enough affirm, That the whole fabrick of that which they call popular sedition would fall to the ground, if the principle of natural liberty were removed. And on the other hand it must be acknowledged that the whole fabrick of tyranny will be much weakened, if we prove, that nations have a right to make their own laws, constitute their own magistrates; and that such as are so constituted owe an account of their actions to those by whom, and for whom they are appointed.
[Sidney’s quotations from Filmer in this section are from Patriarcha, ch. 1 (“The Natural Freedom of Mankind, a New, Plausible, and Dangerous Opinion”), pp. 53–54 of Laslett’s edition.]
[Luke 12:4; Acts 5:29.]
[Aristotle, Politics (Loeb, 1932), bk. 1, 1255a.]
[In Sidney’s day the Jesuits were the most extreme advocates of Catholic political power; Geneva was the home of the Protestant political writer John Calvin. The Protestant George Buchanan (in De jure regni apud Scotos 1579) and the Jesuit R. Doleman (in A Conference about the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland, 1594) both defended the people’s right to choose their form of government and to overthrow tyrannical kings. But Doleman (pseudonym for Robert Parsons) was abhorred in England as a treasonous advocate of Catholic Spain’s pretensions to the British throne.]
[Filmer cited the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, De Laicis, bk. 3, ch. 6, and Calvin’s Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10.]
[John Hayward answered Doleman (previous note) in An Answer … (London, 1603), attacking Doleman’s defense of the people’s right to choose their government and upholding the naturalness of monarchy. Hayward does not in fact argue for natural freedom and equality, as Filmer claimed (although he conceded for the sake of argument that even if there were natural freedom and equality, hereditary monarchy and passive obedience would still follow).
[These men were leading 17th-century defenders of absolute monarchy. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, sought to eliminate Puritanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland. Parliament impeached him for high treason, and he was executed in 1645.