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English Absolutism and the Great Chain of Being

[Excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]

Dominant in English political thought from the early 16th to the early 17th century was a form of simplistic and militant absolutist thought that has been called the “correspondence theory” or the “political theory of order.”

This royalist doctrine was fashioned for the Tudor-Stuart age in which the king struggled to establish his absolute power as against the international influence of the old religion, Catholicism, and over the Calvinist Puritans, who had definite republican and populist tendencies. In contrast, God was now supposed to be speaking through the English king and therefore through the head of the Anglican Church.

The basic philosophic groundwork was the “natural order” — the “great chain of being” — which, since the Middle Ages, had been seen as strictly hierarchical, with God at the head and man as the highest of his material creatures. But then came the fundamental methodology — flimsy analogy, or “argument by correspondence.”

Just as God was sovereign, and superior to various ranks of angels and finally to man and then other inferior earthly creatures in the “macrocosm,” so in the individual “microcosm,” within each person, the head must be sovereign over the body, and reason and will dominant over the appetites. Similarly, the father is sovereign over his family. More specifically and pointedly in the political realm, the king, the father of his people, must be sovereign over the body politic.

This flimsy organicist analogy was pushed to great lengths. The head in the human body was the king in the body politic; health in the former constituted social wellbeing in the latter; the circulation of the blood was the same as the circulation of money; rule of the rational soul was royal sovereignty; and so on. The only “argument” was correspondence — that the “governmental” and social ranking alleged to exist in the heavenly sphere must be duplicated in earthly government and in social life.

One problem with the argument from correspondence is that freedom of the human will enters into politics and social life but does not do so elsewhere. It is rare for the liver to “rebel” against the head, and yet an important conclusion of this royalist political philosophy was that political rebellion is as evil and antinatural as such “rebellion” by the liver. Similarly, individual subjects must obey the divinely appointed monarch, else the divine order collapses into anarchy and disorder, and corruption and decay then rule in human life.

While the liver has not often rebelled against the head, the royal absolutists did, of course, have an analogy to fall back on in heavenly government — Satan’s wicked rebellion against the sovereignty of God. Similarly, the great fact of human history was Adam’s Fall, brought on by rebelliousness against divine authority and by overweening self-pride.

God and the king; Satan, Adam, and rebellious subjects — these were the analogies and correspondences that the royal absolutists tried to drive home. Thus, Anglican Church homilies on obedience, in 1547 and 1570, called obedience to the sovereign “the very root of all virtues,” while “a wicked boldness” is the source of all sin and misery. As the homilies stated, all “sins possible to be committed against God or man be contained in rebellion,” which “turn[s] all good order upside down.” It is the absolute duty of all inferiors “always and only to obey,” just as the body obeys the soul, and as the universe obeys God.

In stark contrast to the Scholastics, as well as to Calvinist or Leaguer monarchomach thinkers, the Anglican preachers of order stressed time and again that the subjects must obey the king in any and all circumstances, whether or not the king or his actions were good or evil. There must be no resistance whatever, even to evil princes. The king is the divinely mandated representative of God on earth by hereditary right. To question, much less to disobey, the king, therefore, was not only treason but blasphemy. Disobeying the king is disobeying God. As the influential Mirror for Magistrates, which went through many editions from 1559 to 1587, maintained, “God ordains all magistrates.” Therefore, God ordains “good when he favoureth the people; and evil when he will punish them.” In short, good kings are a blessing sent to the people by God; wicked kings are a punishment equally sent by the divinity. In either case the duty of the subject is absolute obedience to God’s/the king’s commands. “And therefore whosoever rebelleth against any ruler either good or bad, rebelleth against GOD, and shall be sure of a wretched end.”

To the royalist thinkers, the rising claims of individual freedom and the natural rights of each individual only led to mischief and destruction of God’s rational order. Thus Richard Hooker (ca. 1554–1600), the leading Anglican theologian of the 16th century, in his famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594–1597), lashed out at any notion of individualism. Though himself a moderate on royal absolutism, Hooker wrote that the idea of every man as “his own commander” “shaketh universally the fabric of government, tendeth to anarchy and mere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdoms, churches and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authority and power upheld.”

One of the most extreme royal absolutists in the Tudor-Stuart era was Edward Forset (ca. 1553–1630), a playwright, owner of the manor of Tyburn, and a justice of the peace. Forset’s magnum opus was A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politic (1606), whose very title reeks of the argument by correspondence and the political philosophy of order. At some points, Forset came close to saying that a monarch could never harm his people; in other words, however evil his deeds may seem, they must really be good, virtually by definition.

Indeed, at one point, Forset came close to the justification of a king’s acts by mystery and power as in the Book of Job. Thus, as Professor Greenleaf puts it in his discussion of Forset’s doctrine, “the seemingly evil acts of a ruler were only an appearance the real nature of which was misconstrued by the fallible minds of the citizens.”1 The strong implication, of course, is that the mind of the monarch, in contrast to that of the lowly citizen, is infallible.

Probably the most intelligent and surely the most influential of the absolutist order-theorists in 17th-century England was Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653). Toward the end of his life, this obscure Kentish nobleman published a series of royal-absolutist essays, in the late 1640s and early 1650s. Then, three decades later, a Filmer revival took place, his collected essays being published in 1679 and his most famous work, Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings, written in the late 1630s or early 1640s, was printed for the first time the following year. Filmer immediately and posthumously became the leading defender of royal absolutism from the older perspective of order theory.

Filmer angrily rejected the idea that “by law of nature all men are born free” as “heathen” doctrine. Linking individualism and self-direction to sinful rebellion against God, Filmer warned against the “very desire for freedom which caused Adam’s fall from grace.”2 Most notable in Filmer was his searching critique of the rising contractarian doctrine, which laid the foundation of, and therefore justified, the state in some original social contract.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) had spent all his life in service as a tutor, companion, and intellectual guide to the Cavendishes, who were related to the royal Stuart family. Hobbes had worked out a contractarian justification for royal absolutism during the 1640s. Filmer spotted crucial flaws in Hobbes’s social-contract theory that were to apply just as fully to John Locke’s libertarian version four decades later.

Filmer asked how likely it was … that all men would agree to a contract, as was necessary before it could become universally binding; he wanted to know how and why a contract should bind all subsequent generations; he suggested it was unreasonable to invoke the specious notion of tacit consent.3

Filmer also trenchantly criticized the growing classical-liberal idea of grounding government in the consent of the governed. Governments, he pointed out, could not then be stable, for governments could sometimes find that consent to be withdrawn. Once concede the power of the people to consent as well as the natural law of “equal freedom from subjection,” and the logical consequence must be anarchism. For then

every petty company hath a right to make a kingdom by itself; and not only every city, but every village, and every family, nay, every particular man, a liberty to choose himself to be his own King if he please; and he were a madman that being by nature free, would choose any man but himself to be his own governor. Thus to avoid the having but of one King of the whole world, we shall run into a liberty of having as many Kings as there be men in the world, which upon the matter, is to have no king at all, but to leave all men to their natural liberty.4

  • 1W.H. Greenleaf, Order, Empiricism and Politics: Two Traditions of English Political Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 52.
  • 2In the paraphrase of Professor Greenleaf, op. cit., note 1, p. 92.
  • 3Greenleaf, op. cit., note 1, p. 93.
  • 4In Peter Laslett (ed.), Patriarcha and Other Political Works of Sir Robert Filmer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949), p. 286. Quoted in Carl Watner, “’Oh, Ye are for Anarchy!’: Consent Theory in the Radical Libertarian Tradition,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 8 (Winter 1986): 119.
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