Algernon Sidney on not unquestioningly “rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” before checking to see if they legitimately belong to Caesar (1689)

Algernon Sidney

The English radical republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) wants us to ask “who is this Caesar” and “what legitimately belongs to him” before we give Caesar anything:

Our author (Filmer) confines the subject’s choice to acting or suffering, that is, doing what is commanded, or lying down to have his throat cut, or to see his family and country made desolate. This he calls giving to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; whereas he ought to have considered that the question is not whether that which is Caesar’s should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him.

The English radical republican Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) wrote his Discourses Concerning Government (1898) to rebut the arguments of the defender of absolute monarchy Robert Filmer. Filmer urged his readers “not to meddle with mysteries of state” by asking too many questions about the character or the motives of those who ruled them, how they came to hold they powers that they had, and by what right they continued to wield those powers. In his view they were “mysteries” which should remain mysteries. On the other hand, Sidney wanted to know about their qualifications to rule over him and, if they proved to be unsatisfactory, take his business elsewhere, just as he would make inquiries about the skills and qualifications of a shoe maker before deciding to get a pair of shoes made. And if the shoes hurt his foot he would find another shoe maker. Sidney was determined to do the same with the ruler of the government. He wanted to “know what he is, why he is, and by whom he is made to be what he is” and, most importantly, what was “the original right of the commander.” Living in a very religious age, he wittily turns a story from Matthew 22: 15-22 concerning the submissive and rather passive duty of Christians to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” into the much more radical demand that “the question is not whether that which is Caesar’s should be rendered to him, for that is to be done to all men; but who is Caesar, and what doth of right belong to him.” It was questions like this that got Sidney executed for treason in 1689.