Victor Nuovo: Locke saw the evil in ‘Patriarchy’

Editor’s note: This is the 21st essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought, focusing on the great political thinkers.
By Victor Nuovo
Patriarchy is a vile practice. It is like an invasive weed that has taken root in all human institutions: the family, the state, churches, and most of the professions. Perfect equality will not be achieved until it is rooted out completely and cast aside as odious weed. It is comparable to the practice of slavery, which it mimics. If one were seeking reasons to honor John Locke, one is sure to find one here, for he was the first man to oppose it publicly.
Having reviled Patriarchy, I am obliged to define it. By “patriarchy” I do not mean fatherhood in general, which coupled with motherhood, forms the essential social institution of parenthood. Patriarchy is a political doctrine, drawing upon the belief that fathers have an absolute right to rule their families as they see fit; this right of dominion is supposed to range over their wives and children and includes the right of life and death. Advocates of patriarchy believed that civil government is an instance of paternal power and authority. They supposed that monarchy is the only proper form of government, that only men are rightfully monarchs, and those whom they rule, their subjects are their children, and of course, “Father knows best”. The state was supposed to be like a great family, in which children never progress to mature adulthood, nor women beyond servitude.
This doctrine became fashionable in England during the seventeenth century and was popularized by a now largely forgotten political writer, Sir Robert Filmer, in a book entitled Patriarcha, or The Natural Power of Kings.
Filmer claimed that the doctrine of patriarchy is grounded in the Bible, which he regarded as divine revelation as well as in the nature of things. In the former, he claimed that Adam is the archetypal monarch and representative man. He noted that, according to the biblical narrative, after God created Adam, he granted him sovereignty over the whole of earth, commanding him to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it”. This sovereignty was supposed to be transmitted to Adam’s male heirs, which could happen in several ways: directly from a father to his son, or if a father had several sons, he could divide his dominion and grant a part to each of them, as Noah did to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, granting them each a different portion of the earth. Or a kingdom could be acquired by usurpation, as David did. By whatever means, and however many kingdoms there came to be, a king’s power was supposed to be supreme and undivided within his dominion. For all other human beings, male and female, they were not born free and equal, rather they were born as subjects and servants. However, every male had the consolation of being lord of his particular household, his little domain. So much for patriarchy.
Enter Locke. His major political work is entitled Two Treatises of Government; it was first published in 1689, but written almost a decade earlier. As the title states, it contains two parts, which were originally planned as the beginning and concluding chapters of a much longer work; the missing parts are lost.
Locke takes on Filmer in the First Treatise. His refutation is long and tedious, but it is worth reading, for it contains some very enlightened biblical interpretation. For example, Genesis 1: 27–8 is a crucial passage:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and said to them Be fruitful, and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Now, Locke observes, rightly I believe, that God’s command to be fruitful and multiply is not addressed to a particular man, named Adam, but to the species of mankind, whose basic unit is binary: male and female. God addressed both together, and through them all their successive generations. Note that the Hebrew word adam, is not a proper name, but denotes a species, like eagle, or rabbit, or horse. This dominion, then, is granted to the entire species, which consists of male and female members, which is an essential feature, for without it, there could be no generation and no future, in which case the divine directive would have been idle. It is only in Genesis 2 that an individual man appears; even there, he is not called by name, but referred to as “the man”. From a literary-critical perspective, Genesis 1 and 2 are entirely separate narratives, which cannot be harmonized—but this is going beyond Locke.
And what sort of dominion did God grant to the human species in Genesis 1? Locke notes that it has nothing to do with government or sovereignty. God did not make Adam “Monarch of the earth”, rather he granted mankind the use of the earth and all other living things as means to sustain life. It was supposed to be a grant in common of the earth and its resources to all in common, male and female, in their successive generations; it consisted of a right to hunt and fish and till the soil and to build habitations made from stone and timber and other material resources.
Another place in the bible that Filmer claimed supported the doctrine of sovereignty was the fifth commandment. Here too Locke is right that Filmer has misread the text, for the commandment states not “Honor thy father” but “Honor thy father and thy mother”. Moreover, Locke observes that the commandment does not enjoin that children regard their parents as absolute rulers, but that they show them proper respect. The structure of the family was not meant to be a paradigm for civil government. Moreover, Locke was sure that the authority of parents over their children extends only to the period of their immaturity; it is more properly parental care, which is supposed to nourish and to prepare a child for life; and, when a child attains maturity, it is to be relinquished. What is left when all goes well is affection and gratitude.
The conclusion of all this argument is a principle, that man, the species, and hence male and female, are created free and equal and that they possess the earth in common. This is the thesis upon which Locke will build his theory of civil government and offer explanations of how, from this common endowment or state of nature, individuals, societies, and nations can gain exclusive right to parts of it, how, that is to say, not only life and liberty, but also property are to be acquired and secured.

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