Étienne de La Boétie was a French political theorist and author of the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. He received his law degree from the University of Orléans in 1553, and the heady atmosphere of free inquiry that persisted there provided an inspiring milieu for La Boétie, who wrote this essay there at the age of 21. The Discourse so impressed essayist Michel de Montaigne that he sought out La Boétie in 1559; they remained good friends until La Boétie’s untimely death. Although La Boétie never penned another comparable political piece, he wrote poetry and was a distinguished judge and diplomatic negotiator. Like Montaigne, he did not apply the principles of the essay to his personal life, instead remaining a loyal subject of the French monarchy. When radical Huguenots published an incomplete version in 1574, Montaigne, who hated them, was incensed and tried to salvage La Boétie’s reputation as a conservative. One scholar even claimed that it was Montaigne who really wrote the essay because of the similarity of style, but the evidence, according to the intellectual historian Nannerl Keohane, is not convincing.
The Discourse was unlike any existing political essay. A call for mass civil disobedience and defense of liberty, it not only questioned the legitimacy of authority over others, including elected rulers, but dared to ask why people consent to their own enslavement by political authority. Terror and force were not enough to enforce obedience, La Boétie argued. He called for people to resist oppression not through bloodshed, but by withdrawing their consent. “Resolve to serve no more and you are at once freed.” The tyrant “has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you.… How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?”
Foreshadowing modern research in the social psychology of obedience, La Boétie asserted that people do not simply obey out of fear. Rather, people obey out of habit, short‐sighted self‐interest, greed, and love of privilege or through the influence of state tricks, propaganda, and symbols. “Let us therefore admit that all those things to which he is trained and accustomed seem natural to man.” Stanley Milgram, author of the classic Obedience to Authority, concurs, considering La Boétie’s thoughts on the psychological foundations of authority to be highly insightful.
La Boétie, the libertarian Murray Rothbard has argued, “was the first theorist of the strategy of mass, non‐violent civil disobedience of State edicts and extractions.” Although the Discourse is not an anarchist document, it was an important intellectual precursor to anarchism and civil disobedience, inspiring Tolstoy, German anarchist Gustav Landauer, and the writers of the French Revolution. Although Rothbard considers his tone pessimistic—La Boétie believed people have come to love their servitude—he sees a note of hope in the essay. People become used to servitude; once it is thrown off and the bulwark of habit removed, tyranny may be difficult to reestablish. The masses may not be willing, but a few clear thinking individuals may save it: “Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.”
Keohane, Nannerl O. “The Radical Humanism of Étienne de La Boétie.” Journal of the History of Ideas 38 no. 1 (January–March 1977): 119–130.
La Boétie, Étienne de. The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Introduction by Murray Rothbard. New York: Free Lifte Editions, 1975.