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James Tyrrell on Authority and Liberty

James Tyrrell on Authority and Liberty

By Eric Mack, Professor of Philosophy, Tulane University, New Orleans


This list provides a sampling of contentions and arguments in James Tyrrell’s 1681 critique of the most famous (or notorious) seventeenth century British defense of unlimited and unmixed monarchical authority, Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha is an important and unduly neglected document in the history of liberal political theory.

Further Reading:

Source: James Tyrrell, Patriarcha non monarcha. The Patriarch unmonarch’d: Being Observations on a late treatise and divers other miscellanies, published under the name of Sir Robert Filmer Baronet. In which the falseness of those opinions that would make monarchy Jure Divino are laid open: and the true Principles of Government and Property (especially in our Kingdom) asserted. By a Lover of Truth and of his Country (London: Richard Janeway, 1681).

The whole of Patriarcha non Monarcha

The republication in 1679 of several of Robert Filmer’s essays in defense of unlimited and unmixed monarchical authority and the posthumous first publication of Filmer’s Patriarcha in 1680 instigated the composition of three critical responses to Filmer’s case for patriarchal authoritarianism. One of these was John Locke’s First Treatise of Government. Only a third of this work survives; it was published by Locke as part of his Two Treatises of Government in 1689. Another response to Filmer was Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government which was not published until 1698. (Sidney had been executed in 1683 for his participation in the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York.) The third response was Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha published in 1681 and hence, the only one of these responses which actually was published at the height of the Filmer controversy. Tyrrell and Locke were in close philosophical contact during the period in which each wrote his response to Filmer (and Locke was also writing at least the preliminary version of his Second Treatise of Government). Indeed, during this period Tyrrell and Locke co-authored a still unpublished defense of religious toleration.

So, beyond its own considerable intrinsic intellectual interest, Tyrrell’s Patriarcha non Monarcha is of interest for the ways in which it either overlaps with or contrasts with Locke’s radical whig doctrine in his Two Treatises. Tyrrell’s work, organized as it is as a point-by-point critique of Filmer — especially Filmer’s Patriarcha — does not have a orderly intellectual structure of its own. In what follows I identify some of the key contentions and arguments from the preface of Tyrrell’s work and each of the four chapters and supply characteristic passages in which these contentions or arguments appear. Aside from its sharp insights and historically interesting intellectual moves, readers of Patriarcha non Monarcha should be prepared for some tedious and repetitive pounding of Filmer’s scriptural and historical claims.


In his Preface Tyrrell seeks to cast himself as a moderate who opposed Filmer’s absolutist authoritarianism at least in part because Filmer’s view breeds a “Slavish Dread” of Princes and Governments.

Tyrrell insists that he is as much opposed to anti-monarchical democracy as he is opposed to Filmer’s position which takes away “all distinctions between Kings and Tyrants, and between Slaves and Subjects.” Tyrrell tell us “… I know not which is worst, to be knawn to death by Rats, or devoured by a Lion.”

this asserting of such an unlimited Power in all Monarchs, and such an entire Subjection as this Author exacts from Subjects, can produce nothing but a Slavish Dread, without that Reverence, Esteem, and Affection for their Princes Person and Government which is so necessary for the quiet of Princes, and which they will have, whilst they believe he thinks himself obliged in Conscience and Honour to protect their Lives and Fortunes from Slavery and Oppression, according to just and known Laws:

Chapter I [untitled]

Filmer holds that the model for monarchical authority is paternal authority and holds that monarchical authority is unlimited and unmixed because paternal authority is unlimited and unmixed. Against Filmer, Tyrrell argues extensively that parental authority is not unlimited and that, under the Law of Nature, limited parental authority is divided between the child’s mother and father. Tyrrell insists that Adam did not possess any unique universal authority — as Cain himself recognized when he expected that anyone he encountered, not just his father, would punish him for killing Abel.

According to Tyrrell, paternal authority and its limits are to be explained by reference to the Law of Nature. Tyrrell provides a utilitarian-sounding explication of the Law of Nature according to which each person is to promote “the common good and preservation of Mankinde.” Indeed, this Law of Nature encompasses a right of children to defend themselves against their fathers.

Since therefore the Father’s greatest interest in his Child proceeds from his having bred it up, and taken care of it, and that this Duty is founded on that great Law of Nature, that every Man ought to endeavour the common good of Mankinde, which he performs, as far as lies in his power, in breeding up, and taking care of his Child; it follows, that this right in the Child, or power over it, extends no farther than as it conduces to this end, that is, the good and preservation thereof: and when this Rule is transgressed, the Right ceases. For God hath not delivered one man into the power of another, merely to be tyrannized over at his pleasure; but that the person who hath this Authority, may use it for the good of those he governs. And herein lies the difference between the Interest which a Father hath in his Children, and that property which he hath in his Horses or Slaves; since his right to the former extends only to those things that conduce to their Good and Benefit; but in the other he hath no other consideration, but the profit he may reap from their labour and service, being under no other obligation but that of Humanity, and of using them as becomes a goodnatur’d and merciful man; yet still considering and intending his own advantage, as the principal end of his keeping of them. Whereas in his Children he is chiefly to design their good and advantage, as far as lies in his power, without ruining himself;

… if the Fathers (as I said before) are intended for the good and preservation of their Child; and that where their Right ceases, the Childrens Right to preserve themselves takes place: It seems to conduce more to the general good of Mankinde, that the Children should make use of this last refuge of defending themselves, when they cannot otherwise preserve their Lives and Members, than that Fathers should have such an absolute Right to deal with them as they pleased, without any power in the Children to resist or defend themselves

Chapter II

The title of this chapter refers to one of the last essays which Filmer published in his lifetime, viz., his “Observations on the Directions for Obedience in doubtful times.” In this 1653 essay, Filmer attempted to explain how a royalist such as himself still owed at least passive obedience to the de facto rule, Oliver Cromwell. Tyrrell argues that Filmer’s case for obedience to usurpers involves a betrayal of Filmer’s own patriarchal theory of legitimate authority.

In one main line of argument, Tyrrell exploits Filmer’s concession that when the true heir to a throne is unknown, fatherly authority reverts to the (male) heads of families who may then choose a new monarch. Tyrrell argues that Filmer cannot both hold that the establishment of government by agreement is impossible and propose the selection of a new monarch by agreement among these heads of families. Moreover, Tyrrell argues, these heads of families could build limits on the monarch’s authority into their authorizing agreement. Hence, Filmer’s concession undermines his case for the necessity of unlimited monarchic authority.

it being morally impossible, if this devolution of the Government should happen in a populous Country, for all the Authors independent Heads or Fathers of Families, ever to meet in Person to chuse a King; these being vastly numerous, and divided from each other at great distances. So that all the Author’s Objections against a mixt Popular Election will prove as strong against this of Fathers alone: For how, except by some secret miraculous instinct, should they all meet at one time and place?

…since these Fathers of Families had in the state of Nature an absolute Power of governing themselves, I shall now enquire in the next place, Whether they may not pass over this Power upon some certain Conditions, and reserving some Rights and Priviledges to themselves and Children, upon the making of the Compact with their new Prince.

And if these Fathers of Families may limit the power they confer upon their new Prince, upon this Escheat of the Soveraign Power, and retain some of it to themselves; they might do the same upon the first institution of the Government…

Chapter III [untitled]

This short chapter is mostly devoted to criticizing Filmer’s use of Aristotle in Filmer’s “Observations on Aristotle’s Politics.” One noteworthy recurring contention — which also appears in Locke — is that it is not enough for rulers to care for their subjects because their subjects are useful to them. For this is merely the sort of care that an owner of beasts takes for his beasts.

a Grasier or Butcher takes care of his Cattel that they thrive and do well (as they call it) yet every body knows that they take this care onely for their Carcasses, which yield them so much ready money at the Market. So that indeed a Tyrant onely considers his own good in the welfare of his Subjects, and looks upon them as no better than brute Beasts, in which he hath an absolute property to shear or kill, as he thinks it most conduces to his own profit; without considering to what end he is set over them:

Chapter IV [untitled]

Aside from holding that Adam was the original universal monarch of the earth and that all truly legitimate authority was held by Adam’s heirs, Filmer held that Adam was the original universal owner of the earth and all its fruits and creatures and that after Adam’s death only the particular individuals who count as Adam’s heirs are true owners of portions of the earth. In this extremely long chapter — which Tyrrell may have meant to break into several chapters — Tyrrell disputes this second doctrine.

He argues that the earth is originally held in common by all men but that this “negative communion” allows individuals to make parts of the earth their own — by taking possession and using those portions of the earth. However, although an individual’s labour plays some role in the establishment of private property rights, it does not play the salient role that Locke assigns to it. Indeed, in some passages, Tyrrell seems to hold that some sort of agreement among the individuals who occupy some portion of the earth is needed in order for individually used or appropriated segments of that portion of the earth to count as the property of the user or appropriator which others are obligated to respect.

In addition, Tyrrell seems to hold that in the state of nature no man’s property in land can extend beyond what he himself can cultivate. According to “the right of occupancy… no man in the state of nature, hath a right to more land or territory than he can well manure for the necessities of himself and Family.”

Another important contention in this chapter is that Filmer’s (and Hobbes’) claim that a sovereign cannot be limited by law is false — although Tyrrell struggles to reconcile his view that the sovereign can be limited by law with his view that law is the expression of the will of the sovereign. Tyrrell cites many actual cases of legal limits on a monarch’s authority, e.g., the case of the Justice of Aragon who had the authority to judge the King’s actions to be contrary to law.

… for since all the Children of Adam had as much right to their lives as Adam had himself, it must likewise follow, that they had as good a right to the fruits of the earth, which were then the only means to maintain it, and consequently might have filled their bellies when they pleased with any of the natural products of the earth, without their Fathers leave; for the Psalmist saith, God gave the Earth to the Children of men, that is, not to any one man, nor yet absolutely in common, but to be either divided, or used in common, as they should find it stand best with their convenience and way of living…

…yet since Gods first Command to man was, encrease and multiply, if he hath a right to perform the end, he hath certainly a right to the means of his preservation, and the propagation of his species, so that though the fruits of the earth, or beasts, for food were all in common, yet when once any man had by his own labour acquired such a proportion of either as would serve the necessities of himself, and Family…

… yet I hope I may be able to shew that this Doctrine of a limited Monarchy is not but of Yesterday, as our Author will have it: But that all the learned men in the laws and constitutions of these Northern Kingdoms, have held it to be no such damnable Doctrine, but that the contrary would introduce all Tyranny, and Arbitrary Government among them, which is at this day practiced in the Eastern parts of the world.

… as for Arragon in particular they had a Popular Magistrate called the chief Justiciary, who did in all cases oppose and cancel the Orders and Judgments of the King himself where they exceeded the just bounds of his power, and were contrary to the Laws…

Last modified April 10, 2014