While in college at the young age of eighteen, Étienne De La Boétie wrote a Discourse on Voluntary Servitude a book which attempted to explain why people obey tyrants despite their better judgement. Étienne explains how tyranny endures through the powers of habit, trickery, and patronage. But by far, Étienne’s most unique view is that the state must be dismantled by simple acts of mass civil disobedience reminding rulers we can always choose not to obey.
In 1562 the twelve‐year‐old French king Charles IX while meeting with his court was introduced to three men from a tribe from the newly discovered lands of America. The tribe was unlike anything the French had seen before with the most notable thing about the tribesmen being that they practiced a form of ritualistic cannibalism. The young king decided that showing off these new worlders was a great way of displaying the majesty of France and showing off his three new loyal subjects. Many French aristocrats were asked to visit and gawk at the three men as if they were a living museum exhibit.
One of the many invited to observe the cannibals was the famous French Philosopher Michel De Montaigne who recorded his experiences at this event in his essay quite simply entitled Of Cannibalism. After being gawked at and quizzed by the French aristocrats Montaigne recounts that eventually the tribesmen were given a chance to say what they thought of France and to praise their new French king. Everyone there assumed the cannibals would be amazed by France and consider it the peak of civilization. But the cannibals were greatly confused by French civilization, they asked why did the aristocrats before them have so much wealth while people starved and they couldn’t wrap their heads around why their king was a young boy.
I never thought I would hear myself say this but the cannibals have a good point, why are a bunch of grown men obeying the whims of a twelve‐year‐old boy with a shiny hat that we call a crown? The moral of the story is don’t throw stones in glass houses, sure the tribesmen ritualistic consumed the flesh of their vanquished foes, but France in the 16th‐century was just as bizarre with a fattened aristocracy lording over scrawny peasants toiling in the fields and a boy king overseeing the affairs of the nation. Political power does weird things to the minds of people. Despite France’s trappings of civilization, their practices are just as absurd and outlandish as the cannibals in some ways. While writing this essay, Montaigne was probably thinking about his good friend Etienne who had viciously criticized the nature of political power as absurd, inhumane, and dangerous.
Throughout history, there has been a tendency of the majority of people to reflexively acquiesce to tyrannical regimes, no matter how cruel, ruthless or incompetent that authority may be. Today I will be chatting about Etienne de La Boetie a Renaissance Humanist who attempted to answer the phenomenon of why we so often fall into the trap of obeying tyrants despite our better judgement, and importantly how to escape from this misery.
In some time around 1530, Étienne was born into an aristocratic family in a small town called Sarlat in southwest France. But tragically, at an early age, Étienne was orphaned and raised by his uncle. Having the means to attend college, Etienne trained as a lawyer at the University of Orleans which stood out at a time of great religious tension as a bastion of free inquiry and unhindered debate. Etienne’s foremost teacher Anne Du Bourg would later be burned at the stake for heresy and many of his dissenting classmates would suffer the same fate.
By 1553 he completed his education and was quickly appointed to the Bordeaux parliament. Despite being under the minimum age requirements, Etienne’s abilities were too valuable to waste and so despite his youth he was admitted into parliament. While serving at parliament Etienne met Montaigne and the two became close friends. Etienne quickly embarked upon a career as a diplomat and a judge working night and day to distinguish himself. When not working Etienne buried himself in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome even writing his own translations and composing poetry. It is obvious when reading Etienne that he was enamoured with ancient history constantly finding parallels between the ancient world and contemporary France. Being a part of the humanist movement, Etienne admired the literature of the ancient world and wished to see their revival and emulation. Despite a bright future, in 1563 at the depressingly young age of 32, Etienne tragically died. A heartbroken Montaigne wrote a lengthy essay entitled On Friendship praising his good friend and lamenting his passing.
Etienne is a relatively obscure figure today, we do not know very much about his life and most people who know him are only aware of him due to Montaigne’s praise. But Etienne wrote a short treatise entitled a Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, which is, in my opinion, the most original piece of the political writing of the 16th century and the first work in the western world which called for mass civil disobedience against the state.
Etienne begins his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude with a simple question, why do people obey tyrants? How can one single person hold so much power over thousands if not millions of people? He states that his aim is to explain “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.” The more we obey a tyrant the more we embolden their ego. Slowly through passivity a single person becomes a monster who can dictate the destiny of thousands if not millions of people. Etienne questions how it is that people not only obey their rulers but are driven to a state of passive servility. If we had two armies clash, one a band of people defending their freedom and the other a horde attempting to suppress the freedom of others who would win? Etienne believes at least in the abstract the side fighting for freedom would win
“One side will have before its eyes the blessings of the past and the hope of similar joy in the future.” The battle will be dangerous but in the end, the side for freedom will be fighting for not only their own freedom but also their children giving them even more reason to steel themselves. On the other hand, the army fighting to take away freedom “has nothing to inspire it with courage except the weak urge of greed, which fades before danger and which can never be so keen.” But when Etienne looked around at 16th‐century Europe he saw a world dominated by increasingly absolutist monarchs who were pushing to cement their power further. Kings claimed their position was ordained by God and that they even had quasi‐mystical powers such as a healing touch for the sick, complete lunacy.
Tyranny was an often discussed aspect in medieval and Renaissance thought. Tyrants were usually conceptualized as those seized power unjustly or disrespected the established laws and customs of the land. For many contemporaries, a tyrant was a king gone wrong. What separated tyrants from kings was their conduct. But Etienne disagreed, he believed the rule of one person above the rest is tyranny. Even well‐intentioned kings are tyrants because they always have the lingering option of using absolute power. Etienne concludes there is no fundamental difference between a king and a tyrant. By rejecting the contemporary 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, they were all just as bad as each other .
Etienne wondered why people are willing to endure the hardships and humiliations that tyranny often inflicts? Étienne believed no state could survive without the tacit consent of the majority of people. A government does not need to be popular or useful to survive it must merely ensure that people will not rebel. By not resisting, people slowly become voluntary slaves leading to the title of his essay a discourse on voluntary servitude. This habit of obedience becomes ingrained in people leading to a reflexive almost involuntary obedience to political authority despite it’s cruelty.
To set the record straight Etienne explains what he thinks human society ought to look like, a community of friendly equals. Étienne in line with ancient stoic thinkers believed that we ought to live in accordance with nature which guides us towards virtue. So what does nature tell us exactly? Firstly, all human beings are equal. We are all created in the same likeness in Etienne’s words “so that each of us may find himself reflected in another.” Any inequalities between us in strength, intelligence or thrift only exist so that we may promote fraternity in helping our fellow man. These inequalities in our abilities or talents does not give one person the right to dominate another. Etienne explains that “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 anyone to be the master of another. This makes any form of 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.” We have even been given the gifts of speech and rationality so that we may work our differences out between each other. What room does this leave for political authority? The answer is basically none. 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.”Equality is the natural order of things while subordination is wholly perverse. The only legitimate authority is parental and even that authority eventually wanes as a child grows. If we followed nature, we would respect one another’s inherent dignity and freedom. There is little room for kings, commissars or presidents in Etienne’s utopia.
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. Domesticated animals even lament their slavery, Etienne says “Even the oxen under the weight of the yoke.” Every animal resists captivity, except or us, humans. Étienne believes humans are the only animals in the world who will willingly subject themselves to slavery, misery, and torment which is even more shocking when we factor in our faculties such as reason and speech. Despite our preeminence over animals, we have forgotten our fundamental nature. If you were asked at point‐blank if you would rather be free or not you would obviously say free it’s not even much of an argument. Etienne believes if you asked every person “there can be no doubt that they would rather follow reason than serve another man.” Freedom is dignifying while servility is humiliating.
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 custom,trickery, and patronage.
Custom or habit causes people to be “born and bred as serfs.” As Etienne has stressed few would voluntarily give themselves up to servitude, the first generation that is tyrannized resist the yoke of oppression. But as time passes the following generations come to believe in Etienne’s words that their “fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil.” It never crosses later generations minds that they are meant to be free. Étienne 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 concludes that “anything comes to be natural to a man if he accustoms himself to it.”
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. Like the child in the dark, since we have never experienced this natural and idyllic liberty, we do not long for it.
The second method that tyrants use to solidify their rule is trickery. The Roman emperors constantly held lavish games at the colosseum and distributed bread to the public. Etienne believes that in ancient times “Plays, 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.” These magnificent displays convince the people to believe that without their rulers they would not have these amazing events. In reality these were all funded through taxation, people are merely receiving some of their stolen wealth back in the form of entertainment.
Constant propaganda is also employed to make rulers seem like they are divine beings. 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 he explains that “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 ways.”
Another method of trickery tyrants employ is an attempt to align their actions with the so called “people”. No matter what they do it is always supposedly for the people “they never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good.” Tyrants attempt to build a cult of personality as defenders of the people, “in order to strengthen their power” tyrants “train their people not only in obedience and servility toward themselves, but also in adoration.”
Tyrants’ ability to employ custom and the trickery to their advantage are potent methods of convincing people to 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 tyrants give to a select few through state power. Every tyrant has a close cabal of cronies and lackeys who carry out their dirty work. For their subservient loyalty, they are handsomely rewarded with money, status or their own sliver of power. In turn, each of these cronies then hires their own underlings to carry out their bidding, creating a complicated network of patronage. For some, the status quo of tyranny is far better than freedom because tyrants give them what they want while freedom makes them like everyone else. It becomes so bad that Etienne describes a situation where “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 current standards of living. Upholding tyranny becomes the profitable and logical curse of action for those who rely upon the state. This mass of soldiers, bureaucrats, and servants fiercely defend the status quo because without it they have nothing.
By far this is Etienne’s most novel and incisive critique of state power. By making freedom seem unattractive to half the population tyrants can perpetuate their rule with the backing of a large entrenched group of people who rely upon their continued reign.
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.
However, Étienne did not advocate for killing tyrants. If one tyrant was killed, another more ruthless might take their place perpetuating the cycle further and maybe even making it worse. The solution is not to political leaders but instead to do away with them altogether. Étienne’s solution to tyranny is much more radical as it strikes at the very root of political power. Instead of fighting against the forces of the state, we should withdraw our consent in an act of mass civil disobedience.
Étienne reasons that the state is upheld by our tacit consent and habituated reflexive obedience. However, the state is not a magical and transcendent force. As the later classical liberal thinker Frederic Bastiat would argue “the state is a great fiction.” The state is an artificial body not some colossal beast, in reality, it is composed of people, people who have no right to demand our unquestioning obedience. The state is supported not by our genuine consent but by the more nefarious tacit consent. If we simply learn to say no we are on the way to disassembling the most tyrannical regimes. 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. He 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.”
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 authority and it is for this reason Etienne never published his amazing Discourse on voluntary Servitude, instead it was distributed among intellectual circles but was not published. Montaigne while writing his essays was contemplating including Etienne’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude in his own collection of essays. Montaigne was shocked and appalled when in 1574 Etienne’s Discourse was published in a Huguenot pamphlet. The Huguenots were a group of French protestants at a time when France’s official religion was Catholicism and its doctrine was staunchly enforced by the state. It was then published again two years later in yet another Huguenot pamphlet. To save the reputation of his deceased friend Montaigne doubled down on stressing Etienne’s conservatism and how the essay was really just the musings of a radical college student not to be taken seriously.
In some ways it is hard to tell what Etienne truly believed. In his own life he never did anything in particular to challenge the French monarchy and was even employed by royalty. Etienne accidentally proved his own point that benefitting from tyranny would dull ones love of freedom. Etienne’s life is in some ways a cautionary tale, it is very easy to describe yourself as a radical but to be one is another matter altogether.
I have chatted to a few people I know about Etienne and most of them enjoy his arguments but ultimately think he is a starry eyed idealist who would have no real impact on the world at large. But 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.
Etienne’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and for this alone he deserves recognition within the cannon of libertarian thought. But as we have seen Etienne is not just for libertarians, he has had a broad appeal on seemingly disparate and incongruous ideologies. I believe why Etienne has such a variety of fans is because of the fundamental importance he stresses on the dignity of freedom. Today civil disobedience is legitimate and increasingly effective tactic for political change, in this light it is never a bad time to rediscover Etienne De La Boetie.