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The Politics of Obedience: Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

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  • The Politics of Obedience: Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

    The Politics of Obedience: Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

    Again a classic, well worth the read

    Brief Biography of Éttiene de la Boétie
    (The modern French pronunciation of "La Boétie" is "La Bo-ay-see." However, in the local dialect of the area where La Boétie lived his name was pronounced "La Bwettie.")

    Éttiene de la Boétie was born in the southwest of France in Sarlat (near Bordeaux) on November 1, 1530. He died in 1563 at the age of thirty-two (probably from dysentery). La Boétie was orphaned at an early age, and raised by his uncle and namesake, the curate of Bouillonnas. La Boétie wrote Discours de la Servitude Volontaire while a law student at the University of Orléans, probably in 1552 or 1553, at the age of 22. His main teacher at the university was Anne du Bourg, who later became a Huguenot (French Protestant) martyr, burned at the stake in 1559 for "heresy."

    La Boétie's Discourse of Voluntary Servitude is particularly remarkable in that he was born into a family of terrocrats (coercive government agents or terrorist bureaucrats), and he himself - after graduating with a law degree in 1553 at the University of Orléans - received a royal appointment to the Bordeaux Parliament, where he pursued a career as a judge, a censor, and a diplomatic negotiator, until his death in 1563. In 1562 La Boétie reputedly wrote an unpublished manuscript (discovered in 1913), in which he recommended that Catholicism be enforced upon France, and that Protestant leaders (Huguenots) be persecuted as rebels. (I have no idea why La Boétie, after having written - in my opinion - the most advanced essay on politics, became such a depraved terrocrat.)

    The Discourse was originally circulated in manuscript form and was never published by La Boétie. Nevertheless its influence became widespread. La Boétie was a close friend of the famous essayist, Montaigne (Michel Eyquem), whom he met around 1557. La Boétie undoubtedly had a considerable influence on Montaigne, who was born in 1533. In a letter to Henri de Mesmes in 1570, Montaigne wrote:

    "So that having loved monsieur de la Boétie more than anything in this world, the greatest man in my opinion of this age, I thought I should grossly fail in my duty, if, knowingly, I should suffer so great a name, and a memory so worthy of esteem, to vanish and be lost, if I did not endeavor, by these pieces [later to become known as the Mesmes Copy of the Discourse] of his, to raise him up and bring him to life."

    Many Huguenot pamphleteers were strongly influenced by the Discourse, and some even claimed it as their own. It was first published in 1574 (anonymously and incompletely) in a Huguenot pamphlet. In 1576 the first complete version of the Discourse was published by Simon Goulart in Holland and Switzerland in a collection of radical Huguenot essays. La Boétie may have indirectly influenced Shakespeare (born around the time of La Boétie's death) via Montaigne. Some critics have identified Hamlet with Montaigne and Horatio with La Boétie. Francis Bacon was influenced by Montaigne. Bacon's elder brother spent twelve years near Bordeaux and later corresponded with Montaigne.

    Between 1700 and 1939 several editions of the Discourse were published in France, sometimes as supplements to Montaigne's Essays. It was reprinted twice during the French Revolution. In 1735 an English translation of the Discourse, probably translated by "T[homas?]. Smith" was published in London. Around 1833 Emerson wrote his poem, Étienne de la Boèce. Between 1906 and 1908 Tolstoy used extracts from the Discourse in three of his books. In 1907 Gustave Landauer made the Discourse central to his German anarchist book, Die Revolution. In 1933 a Dutch translation by Barthelemy de Ligt was published in The Hague under the title Vrijwillige Slavernij ("Voluntary Slavery"). In 1942 an English translation by Harry Kurz was published in New York under the title Anti-Dictator. In 1947 an edition in modern French was published in Brussels by Hem Day. In 1952 a Russian translation was published in Moscow. In 1974 an edition of the Discourse was published in Colorado Springs under the title The Will to Bondage (Ralph Myles Publisher, Colorado Springs; 1974), containing both the original French text, and the 1735 English translation, with an Introduction by James J. Martin. In 1975 the Harry Kurz translation was republished with an Introduction by Murray N. Rothbard, under the title The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Free Life Editions, NY; 1975). In addition, several books have been written about La Boétie.

    Éttiene de la Boétie can certainly be regarded as the father of non-violent (or pacifist) anarchism and civil disobedience. The central question he addresses is: Why do people consent to their own enslavement? One of his central insights is that, to topple a tyranny, the victims only need to withdraw their consent and support. Directly and indirectly La Boétie had a profound influence on the Huguenots, the French Revolutionists, and such notable pacifist anarchists as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Tucker.
    What is so remarkable is that La Boétie did this in 1552 or 1553 - four-hundred-and-forty years ago! It is also interesting that modern tyrants use the same formula today to subjugate and dominate their victims. Here are the main elements of the La Boétie analysis as I see it:

    * The only power tyrants have is the power relinquished to them by their victims.
    * The tyrant is often a weak little man. He has no special qualities that set him apart from anyone else - yet the gullible idolize him.
    * The victims bring about their own subjection - they "win their enslavement."
    * If without violence the tyrant is simply not obeyed, he becomes "naked and undone and as nothing."
    * Once you resolve to serve no more, you are free.
    * We are all born free and naturally free.
    * Grown-up adults should adopt reason as their guide and never become slaves of anybody.
    * People can be enslaved through either force or deception.
    * When people lose their freedom through deceit, it is because they mislead themselves.
    * People born into slavery regard it as a natural condition.
    * In general, people are shaped more by their environment than by their natural capacities - if they allow it.
    * Habit and custom are powerful forces that keep people enslaved.
    * There are always some people who cannot be tamed, subjected, or enslaved. Even if freedom were to be entirely extinguished, these people would re-invent it.
    * Lovers of freedom tend to be ineffective because they are not known to one another.
    * People who lose their freedom also lose their valor (strength of mind, bravery).
    * Among free people there is competition to do good for humanity.
    * People seem to be most gullible towards those who deliberately set out to fool them. It is as if people have a need to be deceived.
    * Tyrants stupefy their victims with "pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes."
    * Tyrants parade like "workers of magic."
    * Tyrants can only give back part of what they first took from their victims.
    * Tyrants attain their positions through: (a) Force; (b) Birth; or (c) Election.
    * Tyrants create a power structure, consisting of a multi-layered hierarchy, staffed by a conspiracy of accomplices. Accomplices receive their positions as a favor from the tyrant.
    * The worst dregs of society gather around the tyrant - they are people of weak character who trade servility for unearned wealth.
    * Accomplices can profit greatly from their positions in the hierarchy.
    * If people withdraw their support, the tyrant topples over from his own corrupted weight.

    Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

    by Éttiene de la Boétie.
    (abridged and edited from the Harry Kurz translation)

    Part I

    For the present 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, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of humankind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger. Therefore, when a nation is constrained by the fortune of war to serve as a clique, as happened when the city of Athens served the thirty Tyrants, one should not be amazed that the nation obeys, but simply be grieved by the situation; or rather, instead of being amazed or saddened, consider patiently the evil and look forward hopefully toward a happier future.