Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 20: Unjust Commands are not to be obey'd; and no man is obliged to suffer for not obeying such as are against Law. - Discourses Concerning Government
SECTION 20: Unjust Commands are not to be obey’d; and no man is obliged to suffer for not obeying such as are against Law. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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- The Argument of Sidney’s Discourses
- Filmer’s Position On Political Power
- Sidney’s Response
- Sidney and Locke
- Sidney’s Legacy
- Sidney’s Life
- Editor’s Note
- Reading the Discourses
- The Text
- Modernization of the Text
- Discourses Concerning Government
- Chapter One
- Section 1: Introduction.
- Section 2: The Common Notions of Liberty Are Not From School Divines, But From Nature.
- Section 3: Implicit Faith Belongs to Fools, and Truth Is Comprehended By Examining Principles.
- Section 4: The Rights of Particular Nations Cannot Subsist, If General Principles Contrary to Them Are Received As True.
- Section 5: To Depend Upon the Will of a Man Is Slavery.
- Section 6: God Leaves to Man the Choice of Forms In Government; and Those Who Constitute One Form, May Abrogate It.
- Section 7: Abraham and the Patriarchs Were Not Kings.
- Section 8: Nimrod Was the First King, During the Life of Cush, Ham, Shem, and Noah.
- Section 9: The Power of a Father Belongs Only to a Father.
- Section 10: Such As Enter Into Society, Must In Some Degree Diminish Their Liberty.
- Section 11: No Man Comes to Command Many, Unless By Consent Or By Force.
- Section 12: The Pretended Paternal Right Is Divisible Or Indivisible: If Divisible, ’tis Extinguished; If Indivisible, Universal.
- Section 13: There Was No Shadow of a Paternal Kingdom Amongst the Hebrews, Nor Precept For It.
- Section 14: If the Paternal Right Had Included Dominion, and Was to Be Transferred to a Single Heir, It Must Perish If He Were Not Known; and Could Be Applied to No Other Person.
- [section 15] 1
- Section 16: The Ancients Chose Those to Be Kings, Who Excelled In the Virtues That Are Most Beneficial to Civil Societies.
- Section 17: God Having Given the Government of the World to No One Man, Nor Declared How It Should Be Divided, Left It to the Will of Man.
- Section 18: If a Right of Dominion Were Esteemed Hereditary According to the Law of Nature, a Multitude of Destructive and Inextricable Controversies Would Thereupon Arise.
- Section 19: Kings Cannot Confer the Right of Father Upon Princes, Nor Princes Upon Kings.
- Section 20: All Just Magistratical Power Is From the People.
- Chapter Two
- Section I: That ’tis Natural For Nations to Govern, Or to Chuse Governors; and That Virtue Only Gives a Natural Preference of One Man Above Another, Or Reason Why One Should Be Chosen Rather Than Another.
- Section 2: Every Man That Hath Children, Hath the Right of a Father, and Is Capable of Preferment In a Society Composed of Many.
- Section 3: Government Is Not Instituted For the Good of the Governor, But of the Governed; and Power Is Not an Advantage, But a Burden.
- Section 4: The Paternal Right Devolves To, and Is Inherited By All the Children.
- Section 5: Freemen Join Together and Frame Greater Or Lesser Societies, and Give Such Forms to Them As Best Please Themselves.
- Section 6: They Who Have a Right of Chusing a King, Have the Right of Making a King.
- Section 7: The Laws of Every Nation Are the Measure of Magistratical Power.
- Section 8: There Is No Natural Propensity In Man Or Beast to Monarchy.
- Section 9: The Government Instituted By God Over the Israelites Was Aristocratical.
- Section 10: Aristotle Was Not Simply For Monarchy Or Against Popular Government; But Approved Or Disapproved of Either According to Circumstances.
- Section 11: Liberty Produceth Virtue, Order and Stability: Slavery Is Accompanied With Vice, Weakness and Misery.
- Section 12: The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans Began and Ended With Their Liberty.
- Section 13: There Is No Disorder Or Prejudice In Changing the Name Or Number of Magistrates, Whilst the Root and Principle of Their Power Continues Entire.
- Section 14: No Sedition Was Hurtful to Rome, Till Through Their Prosperity Some Men Gained a Power Above the Laws.
- Section 15: The Empire of Rome Perpetually Decay’d When It Fell Into the Hands of One Man.
- Section 16: The Best Governments of the World Have Been Composed of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy.
- Section 17: Good Governments Admit of Changes In the Superstructures, Whilst the Foundations Remain Unchangeable.
- Section 18: Xenophon In Blaming the Disorders of Democracies, Favours Aristocracies, Not Monarchies.
- Section 19: That Corruption and Venality Which Is Natural to Courts, Is Seldom Found In Popular Governments.
- Section 20: Man’s Natural Love to Liberty Is Temper’d By Reason, Which Originally Is His Nature.
- Section 21: Mixed and Popular Governments Preserve Peace, and Manage Wars, Better Than Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 22: Commonwealths Seek Peace Or War According to the Variety of Their Constitutions.
- Section 23: That Is the Best Government, Which Best Provides For War.
- Section 24: Popular Governments Are Less Subject to Civil Disorders Than Monarchies; Manage Them More Ably, and More Easily Recover Out of Them.
- Section 25: Courts Are More Subject to Venality and Corruption Than Popular Governments.
- Section 26: Civil Tumults and Wars Are Not the Greatest Evils That Befall Nations.
- Section 27: The Mischiefs and Cruelties Proceeding From Tyranny Are Greater Than Any That Can Come From Popular Or Mixed Governments.
- Section 28: Men Living Under Popular Or Mix’d Governments, Are More Careful of the Publick Good, Than In Absolute Monarchies.
- Section 29: There Is No Assurance That the Distempers of a State Shall Be Cured By the Wisdom of a Prince.
- Section 30: A Monarchy Cannot Be Well Regulated, Unless the Powers of the Monarch Are Limited By Law.
- Section 31: The Liberties of Nations Are From God and Nature, Not From Kings.
- Section 32: The Contracts Made Between Magistrates, and the Nations That Created Them, Were Real, Solemn, and Obligatory.
- Chapter Three
- Section 1: Kings Not Being Fathers of Their People, Nor Excelling All Others In Virtue, Can Have No Other Just Power Than What the Laws Give; Nor Any Title to the Privileges of the Lord’s Anointed.
- Section 2: The Kings of Israel and Judah Were Under a Law Not Safely to Be Transgress’d.
- Section 3: Samuel Did Not Describe to the Israelites the Glory of a Free Monarchy; But the Evils the People Should Suffer, That He Might Divert Them From Desiring a King.
- Section 4: No People Can Be Obliged to Suffer From Their Kings What They Have Not a Right to Do.
- Section 5: The Mischiefs Suffer’d From Wicked Kings Are Such As Render It Both Reasonable and Just For All Nations That Have Virtue and Power to Exert Both In Repelling Them.
- Section 6: ’tis Not Good For Such Nations As Will Have Kings, to Suffer Them to Be Glorious, Powerful, Or Abounding In Riches.
- Section 7: When the Israelites Asked For Such a King As the Nations About Them Had, They Asked For a Tyrant, Tho They Did Not Call Him So.
- Section 8: Under the Name of Tribute No More Is Understood Than What the Law of Each Nation Gives to the Supreme Magistrate For the Defraying of Publick Charges; to Which the Customs of the Romans, Or Sufferings of the Jews Have No Relation.
- Section 9: Our Own Laws Confirm to Us the Enjoyment of Our Native Rights.
- Section 10: The Words of St. Paul Enjoining Obedience to Higher Powers, Favour All Sorts of Governments No Less Than Monarchy.
- Section 11: That Which Is Not Just, Is Not Law; and That Which Is Not Law, Ought Not to Be Obeyed.
- Section 12: The Right and Power of a Magistrate Depends Upon His Institution, Not Upon His Name.
- Section 13: Laws Were Made to Direct and Instruct Magistrates, And, If They Will Not Be Directed, to Restrain Them.
- Section 14: Laws Are Not Made By Kings, Not Because They Are Busied In Greater Matters Than Doing Justice, But Because Nations Will Be Governed By Rule, and Not Arbitrarily.
- Section 15: A General Presumption That Kings Will Govern Well, Is Not a Sufficient Security to the People.
- Section 16: The Observation of the Laws of Nature Is Absurdly Expected From Tyrants, Who Set Themselves Up Against All Laws: and He That Subjects Kings to No Other Law Than What Is Common to Tyrants, Destroys Their Being.
- Section 17: Kings Cannot Be the Interpreters of the Oaths They Take.
- Section 18: The Next In Blood to Deceased Kings Cannot Generally Be Said to Be Kings Till They Are Crowned.
- Section 19: The Greatest Enemy of a Just Magistrate Is He Who Endeavours to Invalidate the Contract Between Him and the People, Or to Corrupt Their Manners.
- Section 20: Unjust Commands Are Not to Be Obey’d; and No Man Is Obliged to Suffer For Not Obeying Such As Are Against Law.
- Section 21: It Cannot Be For the Good of the People That the Magistrate Have a Power Above the Law: and He Is Not a Magistrate Who Has Not His Power By Law.
- Section 22: The Rigour of the Law Is to Be Temper’d By Men of Known Integrity and Judgment, and Not By the Prince Who May Be Ignorant Or Vicious.
- Section 23: Aristotle Proves, That No Man Is to Be Entrusted With an Absolute Power, By Shewing That No One Knows How to Execute It, But Such a Man As Is Not to Be Found.
- Section 24: The Power of Augustus Caesar Was Not Given, But Usurped.
- Section 25: The Regal Power Was Not the First In This Nation; Nor Necessarily to Be Continued, Tho It Had Been the First.
- Section 26: Tho the King May Be Entrusted With the Power of Chusing Judges, Yet That By Which They Act Is From the Law.
- Section 27: Magna Charta Was Not the Original, But a Declaration of the English Liberties. the King’s Power Is Not Restrained, But Created By That and Other Laws; and the Nation That Made Them Can Only Correct the Defects of Them.
- Section 28: The English Nation Has Always Been Governed By Itself Or Its Representatives.
- Section 29: The King Was Never Master of the Soil.
- Section 30: Henry the First Was King of England By As Good a Title As Any of His Predecessors Or Successors.
- Section 31: Free Nations Have a Right of Meeting, When and Where They Please, Unless They Deprive Themselves of It.
- Section 32: The Powers of Kings Are So Various According to the Constitutions of Several States, That No Consequence Can Be Drawn to the Prejudice Or Advantage of Any One, Merely From the Name.
- Section 33: The Liberty of a People Is the Gift of God and Nature.
- Section 34: No Veneration Paid, Or Honor Conferr’d Upon a Just and Lawful Magistrate, Can Diminish the Liberty of a Nation.
- Section 35: The Authority Given By Our Law to the Acts Performed By a King De Facto, Detract Nothing From the People’s Right of Creating Whom They Please.
- Section 36: The General Revolt of a Nation Cannot Be Called a Rebellion.
- Section 37: The English Government Was Not Ill Constituted, the Defects More Lately Observed Proceeding From the Change of Manners, and Corruption of the Times.
- Section 38: The Power of Calling and Dissolving Parliaments Is Not Simply In the King. the Variety of Customs In Chusing Parliament Men, and the Errors a People May Commit, Neither Prove That Kings Are Or Ought to Be Absolute.
- Section 39: Those Kings Only Are Heads of the People, Who Are Good, Wise, and Seek to Advance No Interest But That of the Publick.
- Section 40: Good Laws Prescribe Easy and Safe Remedies Against the Evils Proceeding From the Vices Or Infirmities of the Magistrate; and When They Fail, They Must Be Supplied.
- Section 41: The People For Whom and By Whom the Magistrate Is Created, Can Only Judge Whether Be Rightly Perform His Office Or Not.
- Section 42: The Person That Wears the Crown Cannot Determine the Affairs Which the Law Refers to the King.
- Section 43: Proclamations Are Not Laws.
- Section 44: No People That Is Not Free Can Substitute Delegates.
- Section 45: The Legislative Power Is Always Arbitrary, and Not to Be Trusted In the Hands of Any Who Are Not Bound to Obey the Laws They Make.
- Section 46: The Coercive Power of the Law Proceeds From the Authority of Parliament.
Unjust Commands are not to be obey’d; and no man is obliged to suffer for not obeying such as are against Law.
In the next place our author gravely proposes a question, Whether it be a sin to disobey the king, if he command anything contrary to law? and as gravely determines, that not only in human laws, but even in divine, a thing may be commanded contrary to law, and yet obedience to such a command is necessary. The sanctifying of the Sabbath is a divine law, yet if a master command his servant not to go to church upon a Sabbath day, the best divines teach us, the servant must obey, &c. It is not fit to tie the master to acquaint the servant with his secret counsel. Tho he frequently contradicts in one line what he says in another, this whole clause is uniform and suitable to the main design of his book. He sets up the authority of man in opposition to the command of God, gives it the preference, and says, the best divines instruct us so to do. St. Paul then must have been one of the worst, for he knew that the powers under which he lived, had under the severest penalties forbidden the publication of the Gospel; and yet he says, Woe to me if I preach it not. St. Peter was no better than he, for he tells us, That it is better to obey God than man: and they could not speak otherwise, unless they had forgotten the words of their master, who told them, They should not fear them that could only kill the body, but him who could kill and cast into hell. And if I must not fear him that can only kill the body, not only the reason, but all excuse for obeying him is taken away.
To prove what he says, he cites a pertinent example from St. Luke, and very logically concludes, that because Christ reproved the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (who generally adhered to the external and circumstantial part of the law, neglecting the essential, and taking upon themselves to be the interpreters of that which they did not understand), the law of God is not to be obeyed: and as strongly proves, that because Christ shewed them that the same law, which by their own confession permitted them to pull an ass out of a pit on the sabbath day, could not but give a liberty of healing the sick, therefore the commands of kings are to be obeyed, tho they should be contrary to human and divine laws. But if perverseness had not blinded him, he might have seen, that this very text is wholly against his purpose; for the magistratical power was on the side of the Pharisees, otherwise they would not have sought an occasion to ensnare him; and that power having perverted the law of God by false glosses, and a superinduction of human traditions, prohibited the most necessary acts of charity to be done on the sabbath day, which Christ reproved, and restored the sick man to his health in their sight.
But I could wish our author had told us the names of those divines, who, he says, are the best, and who pretend to teach us these fine things. I know some who are thought good, that are of a contrary opinion, and say that God having required that day to be set apart for his service and worship, man cannot dispense with the obligation, unless he can abrogate the law of God. Perhaps, for want of other arguments to prove the contrary, I may be told, that this savours too much of Puritanism and Calvinism. But I shall take the reproach, till some better patrons than Laud and his creatures may be found for the other opinion. By the advice and instigation of these men, from about the year 1630, to 1640, sports and revelings, which ended for the most part in drunkenness and lewdness, were not only permitted on that day, but enjoined. And tho this did advance human authority in derogation to the divine, to a degree that may please such as are of our author’s mind, yet others resolving rather to obey the laws of God than the commands of men, could not be brought to pass the Lord’s day in that manner. Since that time no man except Filmer and Heylyn has been so wicked to conceive, or so impudent to assert such brutal absurdities. But leaving the farther consideration of the original of this abuse, I desire to know, whether the authority given to masters to command things contrary to the law of God, be peculiar in relation to the Sabbath, or to a few other points, or ought generally to extend to all God’s laws; and whether he who may command his servant to act contrary to the law of God, have not a right in himself of doing the same. If peculiar, some authority or precept must be produced, by which it may appear that God has slighted his ordinance concerning that day, and suffer’d it to be contemned, whilst he exacts obedience to all others. If we have a liberty left to us of slighting others also, more or less in number, we ought to know how many, what they are, and how it comes to pass, that some are of obligation and others not. If the empire of the world is not only divided between God and Caesar, but every man also who can give five pounds a year to a servant, has so great a part in it, that in some cases his commands are to be obeyed preferably to those of God, it were fit to know the limits of each kingdom, lest we happen preposterously to obey man when we ought to obey God, or God when we are to follow the commands of men. If it be general, the law of God is of no effect, and we may safely put an end to all thoughts and discourses of religion: the word of God is nothing to us; we are not to enquire what he has commanded, but what pleases our master, how insolent, foolish, vile or wicked soever he may be. The apostles and prophets, who died for preferring the commands of God before those of men, fell like fools, and perished in their sins. But if every particular man that has a servant, can exempt him from the commands of God, he may also exempt himself, and the laws of God are at once abrogated throughout the world.
’Tis a folly to say there is a passive, as well as an active obedience, and that he who will not do what his master commands ought to suffer the punishment he inflicts: for if the master has a right of commanding, there is a duty incumbent on the servant of obeying. He that suffers for not doing that which he ought to do, draws upon himself both the guilt and the punishment. But no one can be obliged to suffer for that which he ought not to do, because he who pretends to command, has not so far an authority. However, our question is, whether the servant should forbear to do that which God commands, rather than whether the master should put away or beat him if he do not: for if the servant ought to obey his master rather than God, as our author says the best divines assert, he sins in disobeying, and that guilt cannot be expiated by his suffering. If it be thought I carry this point to an undue extremity, the limits ought to be demonstrated, by which it may appear that I exceed them, tho the nature of the case cannot be altered: for if the law of God may not be abrogated by the commands of men, a servant cannot be exempted from keeping the Sabbath according to the ordinance of God, at the will of his master. But if a power be given to man at his pleasure to annul the laws of God, the apostles ought not to have preached, when they were forbidden by the powers to which they were subject: The tortures and deaths they suffer’d for not obeying that command were in their own wrong, and their blood was upon their own heads.
His second instance concerning wars, in which he says the subject is not to examine whether they are just or unjust, but must obey, is weak and frivolous, and very often false; whereas consequences can rightly be drawn from such things only as are certainly and universally true. Tho God may be merciful to a soldier, who by the wickedness of a magistrate whom he honestly trusts, is made a minister of injustice, ’tis nothing to this case. For if our author say true, that the word of a king can justify him in going against the command of God, he must do what is commanded tho he think it evil: The Christian soldiers under the pagan emperors were obliged to destroy their brethren, and the best men in the world for being so: Such as now live under the Turk have the same obligation upon them of defending their master, and slaughtering those he reputes his enemies for adhering to Christianity: And the king of France may when he pleases, arm one part of his Protestant subjects to the destruction of the other; which is a godly doctrine, and worthy our author’s invention.
But if this be so, I know not how the Israelites can be said to have sinned in following the examples of Jeroboam, Omri, Ahab, or other wicked kings: they could not have sinned in obeying, if it had been a sin to disobey their commands; and God would not have punished them so severely, if they had not sinned. ’Tis impertinent to say they were obliged to serve their kings in unjust wars, but not to serve idols; for tho God be jealous of his glory, yet he forbids rapine and murder as well as idolatry. If there be a law that forbids the subject to examine the commands tending to the one, it cannot but enjoin obedience to the other. The same authority which justifies murder, takes away the guilt of idolatry; and the wretches, both judges and witnesses, who put Naboth to death, could as little allege ignorance, as those that worshipped Jeroboam’s calves; the same light of nature by which they should have known, that a ridiculous image was not to be adored as God, instructing them also, that an innocent man ought not under pretence of law to be murdered by perjury.