Small acts of resistance in isolation do not stop the leviathan, but they do show that it is possible to oppose the state.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous yet controversial experiment known as the Milgram experiment. In 1961, deeply perturbed by the willingness of ordinary people to comply with the Nazi regime and enthusiastically carry out heinous crimes, Milgram devised an experiment to investigate the willingness of people to obey an authority figure who commanded them to undertake tasks which conflicted with their own sense of morality.

The experiment design was quite simple. Participants would be paid four dollars for an hour of their time, the equivalent of about thirty dollars today, adjusting for inflation. Two volunteers would be introduced to each other by an overseer who would explain the purpose of their tests. The volunteers were told that they were taking part in a study on memory and learning and that each should pick a role as either teacher or learner.

The experiment could then begin in earnest. The learner was strapped to what looked like an electric chair while the teacher and overseer retired to a room where they could hear but not see the learner. The teacher was told to read aloud a word, followed by four possible answers. If the learner answered incorrectly, they were given a minor electric shock, which was administered by the teacher by simply pressing a button. With each successive incorrect answer, the voltage would increase until reaching 450‐​volts, enough to kill a person.

Eventually, successive shocks would cause the learner to be in immense pain and they would beg the teacher to stop. If the teacher at any time wished to stop the experiment, the overseer had been primed to given specific verbal cues, such as ‘please continue’, or ‘the experiment requires that you continue’, or ‘it is absolutely essential that you continue’ and ultimately, ‘you have no other choice, you must go on.’

Thankfully, this was all a carefully orchestrated ruse. The learner was always an actor who was in no real danger.

Of the 40 participants in the original experiment, 26 administered what they thought to be a fatal 450‐​volt shock to the learner, even after being told that the learner had a heart condition. While there are many criticisms one could mount against the ethics and voyeuristic nature of Milgram’s experiment, no one can dispute that the results are disturbing.

How can regular people be so easily convinced to hurt and possibly kill another human being simply because a person in authority told them to do so? The answer possibly lies in the work of a 16th century writer Étienne De La Boétie, who had attempted to answer this question in his seminal book entitled, A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude .

The Life of Étienne

In 1530 Étienne was born into an aristocratic family in Sarlat, a small town located in southwest France. At an early age, Étienne was orphaned and raised by his uncle. Despite these hardships, he trained as a lawyer at the University of Orleans and became good friends with the famous Michel de Montaigne, who later penned an essay about his friendship with Étienne. Sadly, Étienne did not live a long life, dying at the age of 32. Étienne is an obscure figure today; most scholars know of his existence due to works about Montaigne. However, despite his obscurity Étienne is easily the most radical thinker of his century. A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is a short yet scathing attack on the very nature of political authority.

The Nature of Liberty

Étienne believed that all human beings are equal, that we are all created in the same likeness “so that each of us may find himself reflected in another.” Even if there are inequalities in our abilities or talents this does not give one person the right to dominate another. “If in distributing her gifts nature has favored some more than others with respect to body or spirit, she has nevertheless not planned to place us within this world as if it were a field of battle.” There is no excuse for the strong to dominate the weak, and violence against another is wholly unnatural since nature “has not endowed the stronger or the cleverer in order that they may act like armed brigands in a forest and attack the weaker.” Equality is the natural order of things while subordination is wholly perverse. For Étienne, “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.” The only natural authority is parental authority, which ends once a child is capable of reasoning for themselves.

All living things wish to be free. A horse must be broken before it can be ridden without resistance. Étienne believes this urge for freedom is so immense that elephants will break their tusks off against rocks, deterring hunters by yielding their ivory rather than living in slavery. Every animal resists captivity, viciously even, except for one, humans. Étienne believes humans are the only animals in the world who will willingly subject themselves to slavery, misery, and torment despite their unique rational capacities. If all people are free and equal by their very nature, how could one ever justify holding sway over the other? Furthermore, Étienne suggests that if people were given a choice “there can be no doubt that they would rather follow reason than serve another man.”

In Étienne’s day, the majority of Europe was ruled by powerful monarchs and most of Étienne’s contemporaries saw no problem with this state of affairs. Kings were divinely ordained to rule over their people. Contemporary political thinkers theorized that the difference between tyranny and kingship was that a king obeyed the laws and customs of the land while a tyrant ignored these norms.

Étienne disagreed, arguing that absolute power, even if not used, is fundamentally unjust. Its existence puts one at the complete mercy of another’s will. On absolute power Étienne writes “it is a great misfortune to be at the beck and call of one master, for it is impossible to be sure that he is going to be kind, since it is always in his power to be cruel whenever he pleases.” By rejecting the dichotomy between a tyrant and a king, Étienne was denouncing all forms of one‐​man rule. Whether they have risen to positions of power through elections, conquest, or inheritance, all kings are tyrants; there are no exceptions.

Étienne did not discuss how tyrants came to power nor parse their character. Instead, he wished to answer why people are willing to endure the hardships and humiliations that tyranny inflicts. Étienne believed that people tacitly consented to their situation and so became voluntary slaves. How could anyone ever consent to such a situation, where one “single little man” held all of the power while the rest kowtowed to his will? Étienne believed there are three reasons that tyranny endures despite humanity’s inseparable traits of liberty and natural equality.


Étienne believes that men are “born and bred as serfs,” and because of this it never crosses their mind that they are meant to be free by nature. Étienne, in agreement with his good friend Montaigne, holds that nurture holds more sway over us than nature. Étienne explains, “It is true that it is man’s nature to be free and also such that he naturally takes the bent which nurture gives him.” Though it may be in our nature to be free, the force of habit dulls nature’s urges for freedom.

Étienne compares people who find themselves in a state of involuntary servitude to children who are born in regions where there are months of darkness on end. Since they were born in the dark, they never long for the light. Étienne concludes that “anything comes to be natural to a man if he accustoms himself to it.” Akin to the child in the dark, since we have never experienced this natural and idyllic liberty, we do not long for it. The first generation under a tyrant might grumble and groan about their oppression. However, as Étienne explains, the second generation will reason that their “fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil.” Habit and custom are the first reason people accept their oppressed state.

Being Bamboozled

The second method that tyrants use to solidify their rule is trickery. The Roman emperors held lavish games at the colosseum and distributed bread to the public. This led the people to believe that without their rulers they would not have these wonderful displays or the bounty of food. In reality, Étienne explains they are merely being returned a small portion of the property stolen from them through taxation.

Other tyrants attempt to convince people that they are something more than human, perhaps even divine. In Étienne’s day both the French and English monarchs claimed to have the divine power to heal the sick. Étienne mocks those who believe a king’s simple touch could cure diseases and explains that it is merely a trick to dupe the desperate.These tyrants attempt to bamboozle their subjects by borrowing a “splinter of divinity.” The modern parallel to this phenomenon is the cult of personality that 20th century dictators cultivated through mass propaganda, a prime example being Kim Il‐​sung the founding leader of North Korea, who in his life accumulated many grandiose titles such as Heavenly leader.

The Network of Patronage

Rulers’ ability to employ custom and the trickery to their advantage are potent methods of making people tacitly consent to their subjection. However, Étienne believes “the mainspring and secret principle of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny” was the benefits that state give to a select few. Every tyrant has a close cabal of cronies who carry out their bidding. For their subservient loyalty, they are handsomely rewarded. Each of these cronies then hires their own underlings to carry out their bidding, creating a complicated network of patronage. Eventually, through this web of relations “a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.” For many entangled in this web of patronage, liberty would mean the end of their livelihoods. Therefore servitude becomes the more profitable and comfortable option. These entrenched soldiers, bureaucrats, and servants fiercely defend the status quo.

Getting Rid of a Tyrant By Mass Civil Disobedience

The situation Étienne describes is a grim affair. He asks “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?” The forces of custom, trickery, and entrenched interests make it seem like reverting to Étienne’s ideal world of equals voluntarily cooperating would be a hopeless task.

Throughout the medieval and early modern period there had been a tradition of theorizing on the topic of tyrannicide, the ethical justification of killing a tyrant. French Protestant writers, due to religious persecution, had been theorizing doctrines of tyrannicide during Étienne’s lifetime. William Barclay later dubbed these thinkers as Monarchomachs, those who fight against monarchs.

However, Étienne did not advocate for killing tyrants. If one tyrant was killed, another more ruthless might take their place. Étienne’s solution to tyranny is much more radical as it strikes at the root of power. Instead of fighting against the forces of the state, we should withdraw our consent in an act of unprecedented mass civil disobedience.

Étienne reasons that the state is upheld by our tacit consent and reflexive obedience. However, the state is not a magical and transcendent force. In reality, it is composed of people just like us, people who have no right to demand our obedience. The state is wholly artificial and supported by our contributions. Thus Étienne explains that “if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.” Étienne reasons that we would then see the truth of political power, that it is illegitimate, against nature, and wholly untenable. Étienne compares a tyrant to a colossus being supported by the people and says that once “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.”

The Legacy of Étienne

Étienne’s work is especially unique for his day as it did not tackle any immediate political issue. Unlike contemporary Huguenots who were attempting to justify resistance against particular regimes, Étienne’s highly abstract and deductive methodology provided a powerful indictment of all central authority.

Because Étienne did not focus on particular rulers and instead made a concerted effort to attack the very concept of political power, Étienne has found fans in a broad spectrum of ideologies including Anarchists, Marxists, and Libertarians. Leo Tolstoy liberally quoted sections of Étienne in The Law of Love and The Law of Violence, a work that was read by both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The political scientist Gene Sharp, who specializes in non‐​violent resistance and has been called the Machiavelli of non‐​violence, refers to Étienne’s work numerous times in his seminal work The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Étienne’s main focus in the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is not on the tyrants themselves, but those who serve beneath their reign. He explains that people reflexively and unwittingly obey political authority due to custom enforced over generations, the public works of the state, and, finally, the entrenched interests of those who benefit from the state’s dominance. The simple solution to dissolving state power is to revoke consent on a mass scale. Once the state has been exposed to be not a leviathan but a mouse, liberty will flourish as nature intended. Discourse is not only a scathing attack on all political authority but also a concise strategy on how to overthrow the state.

Milgram’s experiment had many flaws, there is some evidence that he manipulated the results to get the conclusion he wanted. Contrary to Milgram’s experiments, there are glimmers of hope all over the world as people quietly disobey authority. Recently, over two hundred workers at a tech company quit their jobs after realizing their work was aiding Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Two hundred people in a world of seven billion barely represents even a drop in the ocean. However, today, the world is more deeply interconnected than ever one example can be seen by millions in an instant. Small acts of resistance in isolation do not stop the leviathan, but they do show that it is possible to oppose the state.