Ending Tyranny Without Violence

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essay was first published under the title of The Political Thought
of tienne de La Boétie.

de La Boétie[1]
has been best remembered as the great and close friend of the eminent
essayist Michel de Montaigne, in one of history’s most notable friendships.
But he would be better remembered, as some historians have come
to recognize, as one of the seminal political philosophers, not
only as a founder of modern political philosophy in France but also
for the timeless relevance of many of his theoretical insights.

de La Boétie was born in Sarlat, in the Périgord
region of southwest France, in 1530, to an aristocratic family.
His father was a royal official of the Périgord region
and his mother was the sister of the president of the Bordeaux
Parlement (assembly of lawyers). Orphaned at an early age, he
was brought up by his uncle and namesake, the curate of Bouilbonnas,
and received his law degree from the University of Orléans
in 1553. His great and precocious ability earned La Boétie
a royal appointment to the Bordeaux Parlement the following
year, despite his being under the minimum age. There he pursued
a distinguished career as judge and diplomatic negotiator until
his untimely death in 1563, at the age of thirty-two. La Boétie
was also a distinguished poet and humanist, translating Xenophon
and Plutarch, and being closely connected with the leading young
Pleiade group of poets, including Pierre Ronsard, Jean Dorat,
and Jean-Antoine de Baif.

La Boétie’s
great contribution to political thought was written while he
was a law student at the University of Orléans, where
he imbibed the spirit of free inquiry that prevailed there.
In this period of questing and religious ferment, the University
of Orléans was a noted center of free and untrammeled
discussion. La Boétie’s main teacher there was the fiery
Anne du Bourg, later to become a Huguenot martyr, and burned
at the stake for heresy in 1559. Du
Bourg was not yet a Protestant, but was already tending
in that direction, and it was no accident that this University
was later to become a center of Calvinism, nor that some of
La Boétie’s fellow students were to become Huguenot leaders.
One of these was La Boétie’s best friend at the University,
and Du Bourg’s favorite student, Lambert Daneau. The study of
law in those days was an exciting enterprise, a philosophical
search for truth and fundamental principles. In the sixteenth
century, writes Paul Bonnefon, "The teaching of the law
was a preaching rather than an institution, a sort of search
for truth, carried on by teacher and student in common, and
which they feverishly undertook together, opening up an endless
field for philosophic speculation."[2]
It was this kind of atmosphere in the law schools of Orléans
and other leading French universities in which Calvin himself,
two decades earlier, had begun to develop his ideas of Protestant
Reform.[3] And
it was in that kind of atmosphere, as well, that lawyers were
to form one of the most important centers of Calvinist strength
in France.

In the ferment
of his law school days at Orléans, Étienne de La Boétie
composed his brief but scintillating, profound and deeply radical
of Voluntary Servitude
(Discours de la Servitude Volontaire).[4]
The Discourse was circulated in manuscript form and
never published by La Boétie. One can speculate that its
radical views were an important reason for the author’s withholding
it from publication. It achieved a considerable fame in local Périgordian
intellectual circles, however. This can be seen by the fact that
Montaigne had read the essay long before he first met La Boétie
as a fellow member of the Bordeaux Parlement in 1559.

The first striking
thing about the Discourse is the form: La Boétie’s
method was speculative, abstract, deductive. This contrasts with
the rather narrowly legal and historical argument of the Huguenot
monarchomach writers (those sectarian writers who argued for the
right of subjects to resist unjust rulers) of the 1570’s and 1580’s,
whom La Boétie resembled in his opposition to tyranny. While
the Huguenot monarchomachs, best exemplified by Franois Hotman’s
(1573), concentrated on grounding their arguments on real or
presumed historical precedents in French laws and institutions,
La Boétie’s only historical examples were numerous illustrations
of his general principles from classical antiquity, the very remoteness
of which added to the timeless quality of his discourse. The later
Huguenot arguments against tyranny tended to be specific and concrete,
rooted in actual French institutions, and therefore their conclusions
and implications were limited to promoting the specific liberties
against the State of various privileged orders in French society.
In contrast, the very abstraction and universality of La Boétie’s
thought led inexorably to radical and sweeping conclusions on the
nature of tyranny, the liberty of the people, and what needed to
be done to overthrow the former and secure the latter.

In his abstract,
universal reasoning, his development of a true political philosophy,
and his frequent references to classical antiquity, La Boétie
followed the method of Renaissance writers, notably Niccol Machiavelli.
There was, however, a crucial difference: whereas Machiavelli attempted
to instruct the Prince on ways of cementing his rule, La Boétie
was dedicated to discussing ways to overthrow him and thus to secure
the liberty of the individual. Thus, Emile Brehier makes a point
of contrasting the cynical realism of Machiavelli with the "juridical
idealism" of Étienne de La Boétie.[5]
In fact, however, La Boétie’s concentration on abstract reasoning
and on the universal rights of the individual might better be characterized
as foreshadowing the political thinking of the eighteenth century.
As J. W. Allen writes, the Discourse was an "essay on
the natural liberty, equality and fraternity of man." The essay
"gave a general support to the Huguenot pamphleteers by its
insistence that natural law and natural rights justified forcible
resistance to tyrannous government." But the language of universal
natural rights itself, Allen
correctly adds, "served no Huguenot purpose. It served, in
truth, no purpose at all at the time, though, one day, it might
come to do so."[6]
Or, as Harold Laski trenchantly put it: "A sense of popular
right such as the friend of Montaigne depicts is, indeed, as remote
from the spirit of the time as the anarchy of Herbert Spencer in
an age committed to government interference."[7]

The contrast
between the proto-eighteenth-century speculative natural rights
approach of La Boétie, and the narrowly legalistic and
concrete-historical emphasis of the Huguenot writers who reprinted
and used the Discourse, has been stressed by W. F. Church.
In contrast to the "legal approach" which dominated
political thought in sixteenth-century France, Church writes,
purely speculative treatises, so characteristic of the eighteenth
century, were all but non-existent and at their rare appearances
seem oddly out of place. Church then mentions as an example of
the latter La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.[8]

The Discourse
of Voluntary Servitude is lucidly and coherently
structured around a single axiom, a single percipient insight
into the nature not only of tyranny, but implicitly of the State
apparatus itself. Many medieval writers had attacked tyranny,
but La Boétie delves especially deeply into its nature,
and into the nature of State rule itself. This fundamental insight
was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general
popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves,
for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this
were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could
long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly
elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support
is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including
the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person,
and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much
less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant
their obedience by their own consent.[9]

This, then,
becomes for La Boétie the central problem of political
theory: why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?
La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should
be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of
civil obedience. Why do people, in all times and places, obey
the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small
minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of
general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling:

I should
like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so
many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer
under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power
they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to
which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could
do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up
with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!
Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder
the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness,
their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude
than they… [10]

And this
mass submission must be out of consent rather than simply out
of fear:

Shall we
call subjection to such a leader cowardice? …
If a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man,
should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but
the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates
indifference rather than cowardice? When not a hundred, not
a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities,
a million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest
treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery,
what shall we call that? Is it cowardice? … When
a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect
themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be
called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth…
What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve
to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found
vile enough … ? [11]

It is evident
from the above passages that La Boétie is bitterly opposed
to tyranny and to the public’s consent to its own subjection.
He makes clear also that this opposition is grounded on a theory
of natural law and a natural right to liberty. In childhood, presumably
because the rational faculties are not yet developed, we obey
our parents; but when grown, we should follow our own reason,
as free individuals. As La Boétie puts it: "If we
led our lives according to the ways intended by nature and the
lessons taught by her, we should be intuitively obedient to our
parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become
slaves to nobody." [12]
Reason is our guide to the facts and laws of nature and to humanity’s
proper path, and each of us has "in our souls some native
seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training,
flowers into virtue, but which, on the other hand, if unable to
resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted."[13]
And reason, La Boétie adds, teaches us the justice of equal
liberty for all. For reason shows us that nature has, among other
things, granted us the common gift of voice and speech. Therefore,
"there can be no further doubt that we are all naturally
free," and hence it cannot be asserted that "nature
has placed some of us in slavery."[14]
Even animals, he points out, display a natural instinct to be
free. But then, what in the world "has so, denatured man
that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory
of his original condition and the desire to return to it?"[15]

La Boétie’s
celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience,
for mass non-violent resistance as a method for the overthrow
of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the
fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses,
and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really
rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow
is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight
of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a
non-violent revolution. (The Tory David Hume did not, unsurprisingly,
draw similar conclusions from his theory of mass consent as
the basis of all governmental rule.)

Thus, after
concluding that all tyranny rests on popular consent, La Boétie
eloquently concludes that "obviously there is no need of
fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically
defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement."
Tyrants need not be expropriated by force; they need only be
deprived of the public’s continuing supply of funds and resources.
The more one yields to tyrants, La Boétie points out,
the stronger and mightier they become. But if the tyrants "are
simply not obeyed," they become "undone and as nothing."
La Boétie then exhorts the "poor, wretched, and
stupid peoples" to cast off their chains by refusing to
supply the tyrant any further with the instruments of their
own oppression. The tyrant, indeed, has nothing more than the
power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he
acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide
them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with,
if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down
your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own?
How does he have any power over you except through you? How
would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?

La Boétie
concludes his exhortation by assuring the masses that to overthrow
the tyrant they need not act, nor shed their blood. They can do
so "merely by willing to be free." In short,

to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask
that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but
simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold
him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled
away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.[16]

It was
a medieval tradition to justify tyrannicide of unjust rulers
who break the divine law, but La Boétie’s doctrine, though
non-violent, was in the deepest sense far more radical. For
while the assassination of a tyrant is simply an isolated individual
act within an existing political system, mass civil disobedience,
being a direct act on the part of large masses of people, is
far more revolutionary in launching a transformation of the
system itself. It is also more elegant and profound in theoretical
terms, flowing immediately as it does from La Boétie’s
insight about power necessarily resting on popular consent;
for then the remedy to power is simply to withdraw that consent.[17]

The call
for mass civil disobedience was picked up by one of the more
radical of the later Huguenot pamphlets, La France Turquie
(1575), which advocated an association of towns and provinces
for the purpose of refusing to pay all taxes to the State.[18]
But it is not surprising that among the most enthusiastic advocates
of mass civil disobedience have been the anarchist thinkers,
who simply extend both La Boétie’s analysis and his conclusion
from tyrannical rule to all governmental rule whatsoever. Prominent
among the anarchist advocates of non-violent resistance have
been Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Benjamin R. Tucker, all of the nineteenth
century, and all, unsurprisingly, associated with the non-violent,
pacifist branch of anarchism. Tolstoy, indeed, in setting forth
his doctrine of non-violent anarchism, used a lengthy passage
from the Discourse as the focal point for the development
of his argument.[19]
In addition, Gustav Landauer, the leading German anarchist of
the early twentieth century, after becoming converted to a pacifist
approach, made a rousing summary of La Boétie’s Discourse
of Voluntary Servitude the central core of his anarchist
work, Die Revolution (1919). A leading Dutch pacifist-anarchist
of the twentieth century, Barthelemy de Ligt, not only devoted
several pages of his Conquest of Violence to discussion
and praise of La Boétie’s Discourse; he
also translated it into Dutch in 1933.[20]

historians of anarchism have gone so far as to classify La Boétie’s
treatise itself as anarchist, which is incorrect since La Boétie
never extended his analysis from tyrannical government to government
per se.[21]
But while La Boétie cannot be considered an anarchist,
his sweeping strictures on tyranny and the universality of his
political philosophy lend themselves easily to such an expansion.
All this considerably disturbed La Boétie’s biographer,
Paul Bonnefon, who wrote of the Discourse:

having failed to distinguish legitimate from illicit authority,
and having imprudently attacked even the principle of authority,
La Boétie put forth a nave illusion. He seems to believe
that man could live in a state of nature, without society
and without government, and discovered that this situation
would be filled with happiness for humanity. This dream is

To the
acute analyst Pierre Mesnard, Bonnefon’s alarm is wide of the
mark; Mesnard believes that La Boétie defined tyranny
as simply any exercise of personal power.[23]
In doing so, La Boétie went beyond the traditional twofold
definition of tyranny as either usurpation of power, or government
against the "laws" (which were either defined as customary
law, divine law, or the natural law for the "common good"
of the people).[24]
Whereas the traditional theory thus focused only on the
means of the ruler’s acquiring power; and the use made
of that power, Mesnard points out that La Boétie’s definition
of tyranny went straight to the nature of power itself.
Tyranny does not depend, as many of the older theorists had
supposed, on illicit means of acquiring power, the tyrant need
not be a usurper. As La Boétie declares, "There
are three kinds of tyrants: some receive their proud position
through elections by the people, others by force of arms, others
by inheritance."[25]
Usurpers or conquerors always act as if they are ruling a conquered
country and those born to kingship "are scarcely any better,
because they are nourished on the breast of tyranny, suck in
with their milk the instincts of the, tyrant, and consider
the people under them as their inherited serfs. As for elected
they would seem to be "more bearable," but they are
always intriguing to convert the election into a hereditary
despotism, and hence "surpass other tyrants …
in cruelty, because they find no other means to impose this
new tyranny than by tightening control and removing their subjects
so far from any notion of liberty that even if the memory of
it is fresh it will soon be eradicated." In sum, La Boétie
can find no choice between these three kinds of tyrants:

For although
the means of coming into power differ, still the method of
ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act
as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors
make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat
them as if they were their natural slaves.[26]

Yet Mesnard’s
neat conclusion – that La Boétie meant simply to
indict all personal power, all forms of monarchy, as
being tyrannical – is inadequate.[27]
In the first place, in the passage quoted above La Boétie
indicts elected as well as other rulers. Moreover, he states
that, "having several masters, according to the number
one has, it amounts to being that many times unfortunate."[28]
These are not precisely indictments of the concept of a republic,
but they leave the definition of tyranny in La Boétie
sufficiently vague so that one can easily press on the anarchist

Why do
people continue to give their consent to despotism? Why do they
permit tyranny to continue? This is especially puzzling if tyranny
(defined at least as all personal power) must rest on mass consent,
and if the way to overthrow tyranny is therefore for the people
to withdraw that consent. The remainder of La Boétie’s
treatise is devoted to this crucial problem, and his discussion
here is as seminal and profound as it is in the earlier part
of the work.

The establishment
of tyranny, La Boétie points out, is most difficult at
the outset, when it is first imposed. For generally, if given
a free choice, people will vote to be free rather than to be
slaves: "There can be no doubt that they would much prefer
to be guided by reason itself than to be ordered about by the
whims of a single man."[29]
A possible exception was the voluntary choice by the Israelites
to imitate other nations in choosing a king (Saul). Apart from
that, tyranny can only be initially imposed by conquest or by
deception. The conquest may be either by foreign armies or by
an internal factional coup. The deception occurs in cases where
the people, during wartime emergencies, select certain persons
as dictators, thus providing the occasion for these individuals
to fasten their power permanently upon the public. Once begun,
however, the maintenance of tyranny is permitted and bolstered
by the insidious throes of habit, which quickly accustom
the people to enslavement.

It is
true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and
by force; but those who come after them obey without regret
and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because
they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then
nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further
effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any
other state or right, and considering as quite natural the
condition into which they are born … the powerful
influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than
in this, namely, habituation to subjection.[30]

Thus, humanity’s
natural drive for liberty is finally overpowered by the force
of custom, for the reason that native endowment, no matter how
good, is dissipated unless encouraged, whereas environment always
shapes us in its own way, whatever that might be in spite of
nature’s gifts.[31]
Therefore, those who are born enslaved should be pitied and
forgiven, "since they have not seen even the shadow of
liberty, and being quite unaware of it, cannot perceive the
evil endured through their own slavery…."
While, in short, "it is truly the nature of man to be free
and to wish to be so," yet a person’s character "instinctively
follows the tendencies that his training gives him…"
La Boétie concludes that "custom becomes the first
reason for voluntary servitude." People will

accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection,
that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think
they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves
by example and imitation of others, finally investing those
who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the
idea that it has always been that way.[32]

is also actively encouraged and engineered by the rulers; and
this is another major reason for the persistence of civil obedience.
Various devices are used by rulers to induce such consent. One
method is by providing the masses with circuses, with entertaining

farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures,
and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the
bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments
of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient
dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the
yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes
and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience
as navely, but not so creditably, as little children learn
to read by looking at bright picture books.[34]

method of inducing consent is purely ideological: duping the
masses into believing that the tyrannical ruler is wise, just,
and benevolent. Thus, La Boétie points out, the Roman
emperors assumed the ancient title of Tribune of the People,
because the concept had gained favor among the public as representing
a guardian of their liberties. Hence the assumption of despotism
under the cloak of the old liberal form. In modern times, La
Boétie adds, rulers present a more sophisticated version
of such propaganda, for "they never undertake an unjust
policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with
some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good."[35]
Reinforcing ideological propaganda is deliberate mystification:
"The kings of the Assyrians and … the Medes
showed themselves in public as seldom as possible in order to
set up a doubt in the minds of the rabble as to whether they
were not in some way more than man…" Symbols
of mystery and magic were woven around the Crown, so that "by
doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration….
It is pitiful to review the list of devices that early despots
used to establish their tyranny; to discover how many little
tricks they employed, always finding the populace conveniently
gullible…. [36]
At times, tyrants have gone to the length of imputing themselves
to the very status of divinity: "they have insisted on
using religion for their own protection and, where possible,
have borrowed a stray bit of divinity to bolster up their evil
Thus, "tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have
made every effort to train their people not only in obedience
and servility toward themselves, but also in adoration."

this point, La Boétie inserts his one and only reference
to contemporary France. It is on its face extremely damaging,
for he asserts that "our own leaders have employed in France
certain similar [quasidivine] devices, such as toads, fleurs-de-lys,
sacred vessels, and standards with flames of gold [oriflammes]."[39]
He quickly adds that in this case he does not "wish, for
my part, to be incredulous," for French kings "have
always been so generous in times of peace and so valiant in time
of war, that from birth they seem not to have been created by
nature like many others, but even before birth to have been designated
by Almighty God for the government and preservation of this kingdom."
In the light of the context of the work, it is impossible not
to believe that the intent of this passage is satirical, and this
interpretation is particularly confirmed by the passage immediately
following, which asserts that "even if this were not so,"
he would not question the truth of these French traditions, because
they have provided such a fine field for the flowering of French
poetry. "Certainly I should be presumptuous," he concludes,
surely ironically, "if I tried to cast slurs on our records
and thus invade the realm of our poets."[41]

ideology, mystery, circuses; in addition to these purely propagandistic
devices, another device is used by rulers to gain the consent
of their subjects: purchase by material benefits, bread as well
as circuses. The distribution of this largesse to the people is
also a method, and a particularly cunning one, of duping them
into believing that they benefit from tyrannical rule. They do
not realize that they are in fact only receiving a small proportion
of the wealth already filched from them by their rulers. Thus:

tyrants … provided the city wards with feasts
to cajole the rabble…. Tyrants would distribute
largesse, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce:
and then everybody would shamelessly cry, "Long live the
King!" The fools did not realize that they were merely
recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler
could not have given them what they were receiving without having
first taken it from them. A man might one day be presented with
a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius
and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be
forced to abandon his property to their avarice, his children
to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these magnificent
emperors, without offering any more resistance than a stone
or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way –
eagerly open to bribes… [42]

And La
Boétie goes on to cite the cases of the monstrous tyrannies
of Nero and Julius Caesar, each of whose deaths was deeply mourned
by the people because of his supposed liberality.

Here La
Boétie proceeds to supplement this analysis of the purchase
of consent by the public with another truly original contribution,
one which Professor Lewis considers to be the most novel and
important feature of his theory.[43]
This is the establishment, as it were the permanent and continuing
purchase, of a hierarchy of subordinate allies, a loyal band
of retainers, praetorians and bureaucrats. La Boétie
himself considers this factor "the mainspring and the secret
of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny."[44]
Here is a large sector of society which is not merely duped
with occasional and negligible handouts from the State; here
are individuals who make a handsome and permanent living out
of the proceeds of despotism. Hence, their stake in despotism
does not depend on illusion or habit or mystery; their stake
is all too great and all too real. A hierarchy of patronage
from the fruits of plunder is thus created and maintained: five
or six individuals are the chief advisors and beneficiaries
of the favors of the king. These half-dozen in a similar manner
maintain six hundred "who profit under them," and
the six hundred in their turn "maintain under them six
thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the
government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order
that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing
orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around
that they could not last except under the shadow of the six
hundred…" [45]

In this
way does the fatal hierarchy pyramid and permeate down through
the ranks of society, until "a hundred thousand, and even
millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are
tied." In short,

the point is reached, through big favors or little ones, that
large profits or small are obtained under a tyrant, there
are found almost as many people to whom tyranny seems advantageous
as those to whom liberty would seem desirable…
Whenever a ruler makes himself a dictator, all the wicked
dregs of the nation … all those who are corrupted
by burning ambition or extraordinary avarice, these gather
around him and support him in order to have a share in the
booty and to constitute themselves petty chiefs under the
big tyrant.[46]

Thus, the
hierarchy of privilege descends from the large gainers from
despotism, to the middling and small gainers, and finally down
to the mass of the people who falsely think they gain from the
receipt of petty favors. In this way the subjects are divided,
and a great portion of them induced to cleave to the ruler,
"just as, in order to split wood, one has to use a wedge
of the wood itself." Of course, the train of the tyrant’s
retinue and soldiers suffer at their leader’s hands, but they
"can be led to endure evil if permitted to commit it, not
against him who exploits them, but against those who like themselves
submit, but are helpless." In short, in return for its
own subjection, this order of subordinates is permitted to oppress
the rest of the public.[47]

is tyranny concretely to be overthrown, if it is cemented upon
society by habit, privilege and propaganda? How are the people
to be brought to the point where they will decide to withdraw
their consent? In the first place, affirms La Boétie,
not all the people will be deluded or sunk into habitual submission.
There is always a more percipient elite who will understand
the reality of the situation; "there are always a few,
better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke
and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off."
These are the people who, in contrast to "the brutish mass,"
possess clear and far-sighted minds, and "have further
trained them by study and learning." Such people never
quite disappear from the world: "Even if liberty had entirely
perished from the earth, such men would invent it."[48]

of the danger these educated people represent, tyrants often
attempt to suppress education in their realms, and in that way
those who "have preserved their love of freedom, still
remain ineffective because, however numerous they may be, they
are not known to one another; under the tyrant they have lost
freedom of action, of speech, and almost of thought; they are
alone in their aspiration."[49]
Here La Boétie anticipates such modern analysts of totalitarianism
as Hannah Arendt. But there is hope; for still the elite exists,
and, culling examples once again from antiquity, La Boétie
maintains that heroic leaders can arise who will not fail "to
deliver their country from evil hands when they set about their
task with a firm, whole-hearted and sincere intention."[50]
The evident task, then, of this valiant and knowledgeable elite
is to form the vanguard of the revolutionary resistance movement
against the despot. Through a process of educating the public
to the truth, they will give back to the people knowledge of
the blessings of liberty and of the myths and illusions fostered
by the State.

In addition
to rousing the people to the truth, the opposition movement
has another vital string to its bow: the unnatural lives lived
by the despots and their hierarchy of favorites. For their lives
are miserable and fearful and not happy. Tyrants live in constant
and perpetual fear of the well-deserved hatred they know is
borne them by every one of their subjects. [51]
Courtiers and favorites live miserable, crawling, cringing lives
every moment of which is bent on servilely fawning upon the
ruler on whom they depend. Eventually, as enlightenment spreads
among the public, the privileged favorites will begin to realize
the true misery of their lot, for all their wealth can be seized
from them at any moment should they fall out of step in the
race for the favors of the king. When they "look at themselves
as they really are … they will realize clearly
that the townspeople, the peasants whom they trample under foot
and treat worse than convicts or slaves … are
nevertheless, in comparison with themselves, better off and
fairly free."[52]

he does not explicitly say so, it seems to be La Boétie’s
contention that the spread of enlightenment among the public
will not only generate refusal of consent among the mass, but
will also aid its course immeasurably by splitting off, by driving
a wedge inside, a portion of the disaffected privileged bureaucracy.[53]

There is
no better way to conclude a discussion of the content of La
Boétie’s notable Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
than to note Mesnard’s insight that "for La Boétie
as for Machiavelli, authority can only be grounded on acceptance
by the subjects: except that the one teaches the prince how
to compel their acquiescence, while the other reveals to the
people the power that would lie in their refusal."[54]

After graduating
from law school, Étienne de La Boétie took up
an eminent career as a royal official in Bordeaux. He never
published the Discourse, and as he pursued a career in
faithful service of the monarch, never a hint did he express
along the lines of his earlier treatise. Certainly one of the
reasons for Montaigne’s stout insistence on his friend’s conservatism
and monarchical loyalty is that La Boétie had changed
his political views by the time they met around 1559. Indeed,
in late 1562, shortly before he died, La Boétie wrote
but did not publish a manuscript forgotten and lost until recent
years, in which he, with moderate conservatism, advised the
State to punish Protestant leaders as rebels, to enforce Catholicism
upon France, but also to reform the abuses of the Church moderately
and respectably by the agency of the king and his Parlements.
Protestants would then be forced to convert back to Catholicism
or leave the country.[55]

it is far from unusual for a young university student, eagerly
caught up in a burst of free inquiry, to be a fiery radical,
only to settle into a comfortable and respectable conservatism
once well entrenched in a career bound to the emoluments of
the status quo. But there seems to be more here than
that. For the very abstractness of La Boétie’s argument
in the Discourse, the very Renaissance-like remoteness
of the discussion from the concrete problems of the France of
his day, while universalizing and radicalizing the theory, also
permitted La Boétie, even in his early days, to divorce
theory from practice. It permitted him to be sincerely radical
in the abstract while continuing to be conservative in the concrete.
His almost inevitable shift of interest from the abstract to
concrete problems in his busy career thereby caused his early
radicalism to drop swiftly from sight as if it had never existed.[56]

But if
his abstract method permitted La Boétie to abandon his
radical conclusions rapidly in the concrete realm, it had an
opposite effect on later readers. Its very timelessness made
the work ever available to be applied concretely in a radical
manner to later problems and institutions. And this was precisely
the historical fate of La Boétie’s Discourse.
It was first published, albeit anonymously and incompletely,
in the radical Huguenot pamphlet, Reveille-Matin des Franois
(1574), probably written by Nicholas Barnaud with the collaboration
of Theodore Beza.[57]
The full text with the author’s name appeared for the first
time two years later, in a collection of radical Huguenot essays
compiled by a Calvinist minister at Geneva, Simon Goulard.
was furious at the essay’s publication under revolutionary Huguenot
auspices. He had intended to publish it himself. Now, however,
not only did he refuse to do so, but he tried to refurbish La
Boétie’s conservative reputation by successively averring
that his friend had been eighteen, and then sixteen, years old
at the time of the essay’s writing. For their part, however,
even the Huguenots used La Boétie in gingerly fashion.
"Attractive as was the spirit of La Boétie’s essay,"
writes Harold Laski, "avowed and academic republicanism
was meat too strong for the digestion of the time. Not that
La Boétie was entirely without influence; but he was
used as cautiously as an Anglican bishop might, in the sixties,
have an interest in Darwinism."[59]

completely forgotten in the more peaceful days of the first
half of the seventeenth century in France, the Discourse
became widely known again during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth
century, through being printed as a supplement to Montaigne’s
essays, but was not particularly influential. Finally, and unsurprisingly,
the essay found its metier in the midst of the French
Revolution, when it was twice reprinted. Later the radical Abbe
de Lammenais reprinted the Discourse with a "violent"
preface of his own, and the same was done by another writer
in 1852 to strike back at the coup d’tat of Napoleon
III. And we have seen how the Discourse inspired the
non-violent wing of the anarchist movement in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. As the centuries went on, the abstract
argument of the Discourse continued to exert a fascination
for radicals and revolutionaries. The speculative thought of
the young law student was taking posthumous revenge upon the
respectable and eminent official of the Bordeaux Parlement.

La Boétie’s
Discourse has a vital importance for the modern reader
– an importance that goes beyond the sheer pleasure of
reading a great and seminal work on political philosophy, or,
for the libertarian, of reading the first libertarian political
philosopher in the Western world. For La Boétie speaks
most sharply to the problem which all libertarians – indeed,
all opponents of despotism – find particularly difficult:
the problem of strategy. Facing the devastating and seemingly
overwhelming power of the modem State, how can a free and very
different world be brought about? How in the world can we get
from here to there, from a world of tyranny to a world of freedom?
Precisely because of his abstract and timeless methodology,
La Boétie offers vital insights into this eternal problem.

In the
first place, La Boétie’s insight that any State, no matter
how ruthless and despotic, rests in the long run on the consent
of the majority of the public, has not yet been absorbed into
the consciousness of intellectuals opposed to State despotism.
Notice, for example, how many anti-Communists write about Communist
rule as if it were solely terror imposed from above on the angry
and discontented masses. Many of the errors of American foreign
policy have stemmed from the idea that the majority of the population
of a country can never accept and believe in Communist ideas,
which must therefore be imposed by either a small clique or
by outside agents from existing Communist countries. In modern
political thought, only the free-market economist Ludwig von
Mises has sufficiently stressed the fact that all governments
must rest on majority consent.

Since despotic
rule is against the interests of the bulk of the population,
how then does this consent come about? Again, La Boétie
highlights the point that this consent is engineered, largely
by propaganda beamed at the populace by the rulers and their
intellectual apologists. The devices – of bread and circuses,
of ideological mystification – that rulers today use to
gull the masses and gain their consent, remain the same as in
La Boétie’s days. The only difference is the enormous
increase in the use of specialized intellectuals in the service
of the rulers. But in this case, the primary task of opponents
of modem tyranny is an educational one: to awaken the public
to this process, to demystify and desanctify the State apparatus.
Furthermore, La Boétie’s analysis both of the engineering
of consent and of the role played by bureaucrats and other economic
interests that benefit from the State, highlights another critical
problem which many modem opponents of statism have failed to
recognize: that the problem of strategy is not simply one of
educating the public about the "errors" committed
by the government. For much of what the State does is not an
error at all from its own point of view, but a means of maximizing
its power, influence, and income. We have to realize that we
are facing a mighty engine of power and economic exploitation,
and therefore that, at the very least, libertarian education
of the public must include an exposé of this exploitation,
and of the economic interests and intellectual apologists who
benefit from State rule. By confining themselves to analysis
of alleged intellectual "errors," opponents of government
intervention have rendered themselves ineffective. For one thing,
they have been beaming their counter-propaganda at a public
which does not have the equipment or the interest to follow
the complex analyses of error, and which can therefore easily
be rebamboozled by the experts in the employ of the State. Those
experts, too, must be desanctified, and again La Botie strengthens
us in the necessity of such desanctification.

The libertarian
theorist Lysander Spooner, writing over four hundred years after
La Boétie, propounded the similar view that the supporters
of government consisted largely of "dupes" and "knaves":

The ostensible
supporters of the Constitution, like the ostensible supporters
of most other governments, are made up of three classes, viz.:
1. Knaves, a numerous and active class, who see in the government
an instrument which they can use for their own aggrandizement
or wealth. 2. Dupes – a large class, no doubt –
each of whom, because he is allowed one voice out of millions
in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own
property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice
in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have
in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself, is stupid enough
to imagine that he is a "free man," a "sovereign";
that this is a "free government"; "a government
of equal rights," "the best government on earth,"
and such like absurdities. 3. A class who have some appreciation
of the evils of government, but either do not see how to get
rid of them, or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private
interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to
the work of making a change.[60]

The prime
task of education, then, is not simply abstract insight into
governmental "errors" in advancing the general welfare,
but debamboozling the public on the entire nature and procedures
of the despotic State. In that task, La Boétie also
speaks to us in his stress on the importance of a perceptive,
vanguard elite of libertarian and anti-statist intellectuals.
The role of this "cadre" – to grasp the essence
of statism and to desanctify the State in the eyes and minds
of the rest of the population – is crucial to the potential
success of any movement to bring about a free society. It becomes,
therefore, a prime libertarian task to discover, coalesce, nurture,
and advance its cadre – a task of which all too many libertarians
remain completely ignorant. For no amount of oppression or misery
will lead to a successful movement for freedom unless such a
cadre exists and is able to educate and rally the intellectuals
and the general public.

There is
also the hint in La Boétie of the importance of finding
and encouraging disaffected portions of the ruling apparatus,
and of stimulating them to break away and support the opposition
to despotism. While this can hardly play a central role in a
libertarian movement, all successful movements against State
tyranny in the past have made use of such disaffection and inner
conflicts, especially in their later stages of development.

La Boétie
was also the first theorist to move from the emphasis on the
importance of consent, to the strategic importance of toppling
tyranny by leading the public to withdraw that consent.
Hence, La Boétie was the first theorist of the strategy
of mass, non-violent civil disobedience of State edicts and
exactions. How practical such a tactic might be is difficult
to say, especially since it has rarely been used. But the tactic
of mass refusal to pay taxes, for example, is increasingly being
employed in the United States today, albeit in a sporadic form.
In December 1974 the residents of the city of Willimantic, Connecticut,
assembled in a town meeting and rejected the entire city budget
three times, finally forcing a tax cut of 9 percent. This is
but one example of growing public revulsion against crippling
taxation throughout the country.

On a different
theme, La Boétie provides us with a hopeful note on the
future of a free society. He points out that once the public experiences
tyranny for a long time, it becomes inured, and heedless of the
possibility of an alternative society. But this means that should
State despotism ever be removed, it would be extremely difficult
to reimpose statism. The bulwark of habit would be gone, and statism
would be seen by all for the tyranny that it is. If a free society
were ever to be established, then, the chances for its maintaining
itself would be excellent.

More and
more, if inarticulately, the public is rebelling, not only against
onerous taxation but – in the age of Watergate – against
the whole, carefully nurtured mystique of government. Twenty
years ago, the historian, Cecilia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist
opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them
for being "men of little faith" – little faith,
that is, in a strong central government.[61]
It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in
government today. In such an age as ours, thinkers like Étienne
de La Boétie have become far more relevant, far more genuinely
modern, than they have been for over a century.


Properly pronounced not, as might be thought, La Bo-ay-see,
but rather La Bwettie (with the hard t) as it was pronounced
in the Prigord dialect of the region in which La Boétie
lived. The definitive discussion of the proper pronunciation
may be found in Paul Bonnefon, Oeuvres Completes d’Estienne
de La Boétie (Bordeaux: C. Gounouilhou, and Paris:
J. Rouam et Cie., 1892), pp. 385–6.

Bonnefon, op. cit., p. xlvi.

Pierre Mesnard, L ‘Essor de la Philosophie Politique Au XVle
Siecle (Paris: Boivin et Cie., 1936), p. 391.

Having remained long in manuscript, the actual date of writing
the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude remains a matter
of dispute. It seems clear, however, and has been so accepted
by recent authorities, that Montaigne’s published story that
La Boétie wrote the Discourse at the age of eighteen
or even of sixteen was incorrect. Montaigne’s statement, as
we shall see further below, was probably part of his later campaign
to guard his dead friend’s reputation by dissociating him from
the revolutionary Huguenots who were claiming La Boétie’s
pamphlet for their own. Extreme youth tended to cast the Discourse
in the light of a work so youthful that the radical content
was hardly to be taken seriously as the views of the author.
Internal evidence as well as the erudition expressed in the
work make it likely that the Discourse was written in
1552 or 1553, at the age of twenty-two, while La Boétie
was at the University. See Bonnefon, op. cit., pp. xxxvi–xxxvii;
Mesnard, op. cit., pp. 390–1; and Donald Frame,
A Biography
(New York: Harcourt Brace, & World,
1965), p. 71. There is no biography of La Boétie. Closest
to it is Bonnefon’s “Introduction” to his Oeuvres Completes,
op. cit., pp. xi-lxxxv, later reprinted as part of Paul
Bonnefon, Montaigne et ses Amis (Paris: Armand Colin
et Cie., 1898), I, pp. 103–224.

Emile Brehier, Histoire de la Philosophie, Vol. I: Moyen
Age et Renaissance, cited in Mesnard, op. cit., p.
404n. Also see Joseph Banere, Estienne de La Boétie
contre Nicholas Machiavel (Bordeaux, 1908), cited in ibid.

J. W. Allen, A
History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century
York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 314.

Harold J. Laski, “Introduction,” A
Defence of Liberty Against Tyrants
(Gloucester, Mass.:
Peter Smith, 1963), p. 11.

William Fan Church, Constitutional
Thought in Sixteenth-Century France
(Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1941), p. 13 and 13n.

David Hume independently discovered this principle two centuries
later, and phrased it with his usual succinctness and clarity:

appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs
with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many
are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which
men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their
rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected,
we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed,
the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is
therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this
maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments,
as well as to the most free and most popular.

David Hume,
“Of the First Principles of Government,” in Essays,
Literary, Moral and Political

See p. 46 below.

p. 48.

p. 55.

pp. 55–56.

p. 56.

p. 58.

pp. 50–53.

The historian Mesnard writes that this theory is “rigorous and
profound,” that the critics have never fully grasped its point,
and that “it is the humanist solution to the problem of authority.”
Mesnard, op. cit., p. 400.

See Laski, op. cit., p. 29; Allen, op. cit., p.

Thus, Tolstoy writes:

situation of the oppressed should not be compared to the constraint
used directly by the stronger on the weaker, or by a greater
number on a smaller. Here, indeed it is the minority who oppress
the majority, thanks to a lie established ages ago by clever
people, in virtue of which men despoil each other….

Then, after
a long quote from La Boétie, Tolstoy concludes,

would seem that the workers, not gaining any advantage from
the restraint that is exercised on them, should at last realize
the lie in which they are living and free themselves in the
simplest and easiest way: by abstaining from taking part in
the violence that is only possible with their co-operation.

Leo Tolstoy,
Law of Love and the Law of Violence
(New York: Rudolph
Field, 1948), pp. 42–45.

Tolstoy’s Letter
to a Hindu
, which played a central role in shaping Ghandi’s
thinking toward mass non-violent action, was heavily influenced
by La Boétie. See Bartelemy de Ligt, The
Conquest of Violence
(New York, E.P. Dutton & Co.,
1938), pp. 105–6.

Etienne de La Boétie, Vrijwillige Slavernij (The
Hague, 1933, edited by Bart. de Ligt). Cited in Bart. de Ligt,
op. cit., p. 289. Also see ibid., pp. 104–6.
On Landauer, see ibid., p. 106, and George Woodcock,
(Cleveland, Ohio: World Pub. Co., 1962), p. 432.

Among those making this error was Max Nettlau, the outstanding
historian of anarchism and himself an anarchist. Max Nettlau,
Der Vorfruhling der Anarchie; Ihre Historische Entwicklung
den Anfangen bis zum Jahre 1864 (Berlin, 1925). On this
see Bert F. Hoselitz, “Publisher’s Preface,” in G.P. Maximoff,
ed., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (Glencoe, Dl.:
The Free Press, 1953), pp. 9–10.

The first
historian of anarchism, E. V. Zenker, a non-anarchist, made
the same mistake. Thus, he wrote of La Boétie’s Discourse,
that it contained: "A glowing defence of Freedom,
which goes so far that the sense of the necessity of authority
disappears entirely. The opinion of La Boétie is that
mankind does not need government; it is only necessary that
man should really wish it, and he would find himself happy and
free again, as if by magic."

E. V. Zenker,
(London: Methuen & Co., 1898), pp. 15–16.

Bonnefon, op. cit., “Introduction,” p. xliii. In short,
even Bonnefon, reacting gingerly to the radical nature and implications
of La Boétie’s work, classified it as anarchist.

Mesnard, op. cit., p. 395–6.

On the classical and medieval concepts of tyranny, see John
D. Lewis, “The Development of the Theory of Tyrannicide to 1660″
in Oscar Jaszi and John D. Lewis, Against
the Tyrant: The Tradition and Theory of Tyrannicide
Dl.: The Free Press, 1957), pp. 3–96, esp. pp. 3ff., 20ff.

p. 58.

pp. 58–59.

Mesnard writes: “If La Boétie does not distinguish between
monarchy and tyranny (as he was charged by Bonnefon), it is
precisely because the two are equally illegitimate in his eyes,
the first being only a special case of the second.” Mesnard,
op. cit., pp. 395–6. La Boétie also levels
a general attack on monarchy when he questions whether monarchy
has any place among true commonwealths, “since it is hard to
believe that there is anything of common wealth in a country
where everything belongs to one master.” p. 46.

p. 46.

p. 59.

p. 60.

p. 61.

pp. 64–65.

David Hume was later to write in his essay "Of the Origin
of Government": "Habit soon consolidates what other
principles of human nature had imperfectly founded; and men,
once accustomed to obedience, never think of departing from
that path, in which they and their ancestors have constantly
trod. . . ."

pp. 69–70

p. 71.

p. 72.

p. 73.

p. 75.

p. 74.


pp. 74–75. Bonnefon seizes the occasion to claim his subject
as, deep down and in spite of his radical deviations, a good
conservative Frenchman at heart: “It was not the intention of
the young man to attack the established order. He formally excepts
the king of France from his argument, and in terms which are
stamped by deference and respect.” Bonnefon, op. cit., p.
xli. See also the critique of Bonnefon’s misinterpretation by
Mesnard, op. cit., p. 398.

p. 70.

Lewis, op. cit. pp. 56–57.

p. 77.

p. 78.

pp. 78–79. John Lewis declares that “La Boétie here
put his finger on one important element of tyranny which earlier
writers had neglected and which contemporary writers sometimes
neglect.” Lewis, op. cit., p. 56.

pp. 79–80.

p. 65.

p. 66.


pp. 67–68.

pp. 79–80. Also, pp. 79–86

See the thoughtful conclusion in Mesnard, op. cit., p.
404. Also see Oscar Jaszi, “The Use and Abuse of Tyrannicide,”
in Jaszi and Lewis, op. cit., pp. 254–5.

Mesnard, op. cit., p. 400.

This was La Boétie’s Memoir Concerning the Edict of
January, 1562. See Frame, op. cit., pp. 72–3,

Mesnard, op. cit., pp. 405–6.

See J.H.M. Salmon, The
French Religious Wars in English Political Thought
Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 19n.

The third volume of the Memoires de L ‘estat de
France (1576). See Bonnefon, “Introduction,” op. cit.,
pp. xlix–l.

Laski, op. cit., p. 24.

Lysander Spooner, No
Treason: The Constitution of No Authority
Springs, Co.: Ralph Myles Pub., 1973), p. 18.

Cecilia Kenyon, “Men of Little Faith: the Anti-Federalists on
the Nature of Representative Government,” William and Mary
Quarterly (1955), pp. 3–46.

Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

by Étienne de La Boétie, written 1552–53,
is translated by Harry
for the edition that carried Rothbard’s introduction, "The
Political Thought of tienne de La Boétie."

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice president
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary

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