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essays

March 1978

Voluntary Servitude

Keohane explores Etienne La Boetie and Renaissance “radical humanism.”

“The Radical Humanism of Étienne de la Boétie.” Journal of the History of Ideas (USA), 38 (1977): 119–130.

La Boétie (1530–1563), the French Renaissance classicist, gained fame both for his friendship with Montaigne and for his short treatise La Servitude Volontaire [see the translation by Harry Kurz and introduction by Murray N. Rothbard of The Politics of Obedience: “The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975)]. La Boétie’s Discourse identifies liberty as the primary human value and condemns all personal authority except parental guardianship. We may summarize La Boétie’s political and social vision as “radical humanism.” The vision embraces humanism because it proclaims the classical values of a free and equal society guided by reason and nature. We see it as a radical vision because La Boétie completely departs from conventional ways of organizing human life under hegemony and political authority. His vision also offers highly sophisticated insights into ethics and political psychology.

The Discourse begins by rejecting all political authority, the subjection of some men by others. It poses Rousseau’s paradox that man although born free is everywhere in chains. How did this political servitude come about? This appears all the stranger when we realize that if the subjects withdrew their sanction and consent, their political masters would be toppled from authority: “Only be resolved to serve no more, and you will be free.” Since all men are by nature free and equal, how did unnatural mass servitude become universal?

The answer is complex. It was force that originally constrained men to bend to the political yoke; but gradually the custom and habit of obedience “denatured” men. In the final part of his Discourse, La Boétie analyzes the several techniques used by governors and tyrants “to put their subjects to sleep beneath the yoke.” Through bread and circuses (paid for through taxes), and through the trappings of the secular and religious symbols of power, rulers stultify and mesmerize the minds of the ruled. Finally, the machinery of the tyranny rests its power, (in addition to public largesse through taxation, pomp, and symbols), on an extensive network of patron-client relationships which passes on the privileges and economic power in concentric circles of vested interests.

In La Boétie’s intricate analysis of power, rulers manipulate the strength of custom, ideology, and the bewitching spell of symbols to win obedience. The strong linkages of shared profit and power cementing rulers with privileged underlings reinforce these techniques. In reality, those who are best off in such a system of complicity are those at the bottom, who enjoy some measure of freedom by not worrying about falling from the ruler’s favor.

The question is no longer why the many do not throw off the ruler’s shackles and realize their nature as free persons. The web of the ruler’s techniques seems allencompassing and explains the ingrained psychology of servitude. The many have been implicated in forging the chains of their own bondage, and have avidly accepted baubles (trinkets) and huckster’s tricks in exchange for their natural right to liberty. Any call to regicide, given the popular delusion and love of servitude, would be vainglorious. Regicide would simply substitute another ruler to rule over still docile subjects.

Thus we see La Boétie as a man of anarchistic premises but nonanarchistic, rather pessimistic, conclusions. La Boétie appears a radical anarchist in opposing all forms of institutionalized authority. But the powerful fear of freedom, and the pessimism about the mass psychology of obedience and voluntary servitude, hide from him any practical alternative. Any call to revolution would be unreasonable since it would merely change the cast of rulers while continuing the popular obedience to the new set of rulers.

La Boétie’s melancholic pessimism about the human herd and submissive psychology (reflected in voluntary submission) surfaces in his question: “what unhappy accident can it have been which has so much denatured man, born, alone among all the animals to live freely; and caused him to lose even the memory of his original being and the desire to find it again.”

La Boétie relieves this pessimism, although in elitist fashion, by his humanistic hope that superior men of reason would find their true liberty in an intellectual tradition that rejected the “gross populace’s” servitude and valued liberty at least in the silence of their conscience or writings. The sad irony is that La Boétie for all his love of liberty found himself immeshed in the power network he so condemned.