The English political theorist Sir Robert Filmer (died 1653) was influential in the development of English conservative thought. His treatises formed the basis for a royalist or Tory theory of kingship and government.
The eldest son of Sir Edward Filmer, Robert Filmer was born in the last decade of Elizabeth I's reign. After being educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he retreated to his country estates in Kent, where he devoted himself to scholarly pursuits and to winning the hand of Anne, daughter of the bishop of Ely. At the beginning of Charles I's reign Filmer was knighted, but he appears to have played no major role either in local government or in Parliament.
As the conflict between Crown and Parliament deepened, Filmer took a strong royalist stand. When civil war erupted in 1641, Filmer's response was to write his Patriarcha or the Natural Powers of Kings, which, though not published, was circulated in manuscript form. His writings earned him the active hostility of Charles's parliamentary opponents. His house was looted by a parliamentary force in 1643, and the next year he was temporarily imprisoned in Leeds Castle.
With the end of the first civil war, Filmer regained his freedom and apparently played no part in the second internecine struggle, which broke out soon after. He did, however, return to his writing, and before the execution of Charles I he authored his most thoughtful treatise, The Anarchy of Limited or Mixed Monarchy, in which he argued for the establishment of a "pure" monarchy such as existed in France. Like his earlier work, this was not published at the time.
After the establishment of the Commonwealth, Filmer retreated into deeper obscurity. He continued to write, but as his ideas were anathema to England's new rulers, publication was impossible. After an appeal to the landed classes to restore traditional government in The Free-holders' Grand Inquest, he undertook an analysis of Aristotle's Politics which dealt with the question of "mixt" as opposed to "pure" forms of government, and Filmer argued, as did the French writer Jean Bodin, for the superiority of the latter type.
In 1652 Filmer wrote Observations Concerning the Original of Governments, in which he enunciated a theory of absolutism that not only opposed the more liberal ideas of John Milton and Hugo Grotius, but that also differed with the more (to him) congenial ideas of his other contemporary Thomas Hobbes. Filmer rejected any sort of "social compact"—whether stemming from man's "natural goodness" as Milton would have had it or from his depravity as Hobbes averred—as the original basis for government. He also rejected extreme mechanism and thus alienated many contemporaries. Filmer was, however, a rationalist; before his death in 1653 he wrote two works which cast doubt on the validity of witchcraft, An Advertisement to the Jurymen of England Touching Witches and The Difference between a Hebrew and an English Witch.
After the Restoration a genuine wave of promonarchical sentiment existed, and Filmer's once unpopular ideas were gradually resurrected. In 1679 his treatises (except the Patriarcha) were published. The remaining work appeared in print the following year.
There is no modern study of Filmer, for the scarcity of information about him precludes a full-length treatment. Thomas I. Cook, ed., in his introduction to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1947) provides a thorough and sympathetic analysis of Filmer's importance.