Mises Daily

The Politics of Étienne de La Boétie

[Introduction to The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de La Boétie, written 1552–53.]


Étienne de La 1 Boétie has been best remembered as the great and close friend of the eminent essayist Michel de Montaigne, in one of history’s most notable friendships. But he would be better remembered, as some historians have come to recognize, as one of the seminal political philosophers, not only as a founder of modern political philosophy in France but also for the timeless relevance of many of his theoretical insights.

Étienne de la Boétie was born in Sarlat, in the Périgord region of southwest France, in 1530, to an aristocratic family. His father was a royal official of the Périgord region, and his mother was the sister of the president of the Bordeaux Parlement (assembly of lawyers). Orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by his uncle and namesake, the curate of Bouilbonnas, and received his law degree from the Université d’Orléans in 1553.

His great and precocious ability earned La Boétie a royal appointment to the Bordeaux Parlement the following year, despite his being under the minimum age. There he pursued a distinguished career as judge and diplomatic negotiator until his untimely death in 1563, at the age of 32. La Boétie was also a distinguished poet and humanist, translating Xenophon and Plutarch, and being closely connected with the leading young Pléiade group of poets, including Pierre de Ronsard, Jean Dorat, and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.

La Boétie’s great contribution to political thought was written while he was a law student at the Université d’Orléans, where he imbibed the spirit of free inquiry that prevailed there. In this period of questing and religious ferment, the Université d’Orléans was a noted center of free and untrammeled discussion.

La Boétie’s main teacher there was the fiery Anne du Bourg, later to become a Huguenot martyr and be burned at the stake for heresy in 1559. Du Bourg was not yet a Protestant but was already tending in that direction, and it was no accident that this University was later to become a center of Calvinism, nor that some of La Boétie’s fellow students were to become Huguenot leaders. One of these was La Boétie’s best friend at the University, and du Bourg’s favorite student, Lambert Daneau.

The study of law in those days was an exciting enterprise, a philosophical search for truth and fundamental principles. In the 16th century, writes Paul Bonnefon, “The teaching of the law was a preaching rather than an institution, a sort of search for truth, carried on by teacher and student in common, and which they feverishly undertook together, opening up an endless field for philosophic speculation.”2

It was this kind of atmosphere in the law schools of Orléans and other leading French universities in which Calvin himself, two decades earlier, had begun to develop his ideas of Protestant Reform.3   And it was in that kind of atmosphere, as well, that lawyers were to form one of the most important centers of Calvinist strength in France.

In the ferment of his law school days at Orléans, Étienne de La Boétie composed his brief but scintillating, profound, and deeply radical, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la Servitude Volontaire).4 The Discourse was circulated in manuscript form and never published by La Boétie. One can speculate that its radical views were an important reason for the author’s withholding it from publication. It achieved a considerable fame in local Perigordian intellectual circles, however. This can be seen by the fact that Montaigne had read the essay long before he first met La Boétie as a fellow member of the Bordeaux Parlement in 1559.

“Every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance.”

The first striking thing about the Discourse is the form: La Boétie’s method was speculative, abstract, deductive. This contrasts with the rather narrowly legal and historical argument of the Huguenot monarchomach writers (those sectarian writers who argued for the right of subjects to resist unjust rulers) of the 1570s and 1580s, whom La Boétie resembled in his opposition to tyranny. While the Huguenot monarchomachs, best exemplified by François Hotman’s Franco-Gallia (1573), concentrated on grounding their arguments on real or presumed historical precedents in French laws and institutions, La Boétie’s only historical examples were numerous illustrations of his general principles from classical antiquity, the very remoteness of which added to the timeless quality of his discourse.

The later Huguenot arguments against tyranny tended to be specific and concrete, rooted in actual French institutions, and therefore their conclusions and implications were limited to promoting the specific liberties against the State of various privileged orders in French society. In contrast, the very abstraction and universality of La Boétie’s thought led inexorably to radical and sweeping conclusions on the nature of tyranny, the liberty of the people, and what needed to be done to overthrow the former and secure the latter.

In his abstract, universal reasoning, his development of a true political philosophy, and his frequent references to classical antiquity, La Boétie followed the method of Renaissance writers, notably Niccolò Machiavelli. There was, however, a crucial difference: whereas Machiavelli attempted to instruct the Prince on ways of cementing his rule, La Boétie was dedicated to discussing ways to overthrow him and thus to secure the liberty of the individual. Thus, Émile Bréhier makes a point of contrasting the cynical realism of Machiavelli with the “juridical idealism” of Étienne de La Boétie.5

In fact, however, La Boétie’s concentration on abstract reasoning and on the universal rights of the individual might better be characterized as foreshadowing the political thinking of the 18th century. As J.W. Allen writes, the Discourse was an “essay on the natural liberty, equality and fraternity of man.” The essay “gave a general support to the Huguenot pamphleteers by its insistence that natural law and natural rights justified forcible resistance to tyrannous government.”

But the language of universal natural rights itself, Allen correctly adds, “served no Huguenot purpose. It served, in truth, no purpose at all at the time, though, one day, it might come to do so.”6   Or, as Harold Laski trenchantly put it, “A sense of popular right such as the friend of Montaigne depicts is, indeed, as remote from the spirit of the time as the anarchy of Herbert Spencer in an age committed to government interference.”7

The contrast between the proto-18th-century, speculative, natural-rights approach of La Boétie and the narrowly legalistic and concrete-historical emphasis of the Huguenot writers who reprinted and used the Discourse has been stressed by W.F. Church. In contrast to the “legal approach” that dominated political thought in 16th-century France, Church writes, “purely speculative treatises, so characteristic of the eighteenth century, were all but non-existent and at their rare appearances seem oddly out of place.” Church then mentions as an example of the latter La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.8

“La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience.”

The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude is lucidly and coherently structured around a single axiom, a single percipient insight into the nature not only of tyranny but implicitly of the State apparatus itself. Many medieval writers had attacked tyranny, but La Boétie delves especially deeply into its nature and into the nature of State rule itself. This fundamental insight was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance.

In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent.9

This, then, becomes for La Boétie the central problem of political theory: why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement? La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. Why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling:

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.10

And this mass submission must be out of consent rather than simply out of fear:

Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice?… If a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice? When not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that? Is it cowardice?… When a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth.… What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough?11

It is evident from the above passages that La Boétie is bitterly opposed to tyranny and to the public’s consent to its own subjection. He makes clear also that this opposition is grounded on a theory of natural law and a natural right to liberty. In childhood, presumably because the rational faculties are not yet developed, we obey our parents; but when grown, we should follow our own reason, as free individuals. As La Boétie puts it: “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.”12

Reason is our guide to the facts and laws of nature and to humanity’s proper path, and each of us has “in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue, but which, on the other hand, if unable to resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted.”13 And reason, La Boétie adds, teaches us the justice of equal liberty for all. For reason shows us that nature has, among other things, granted us the common gift of voice and speech. Therefore, “there can be no further doubt that we are all naturally free,” and hence it cannot be asserted that “nature has placed some of us in slavery.”14

Even animals, he points out, display a natural instinct to be free. But then, what in the world “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?”15

La Boétie’s celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience, for mass nonviolent resistance as a method for the overthrow of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a nonviolent revolution. (The Tory David Hume did not, unsurprisingly, draw similar conclusions from his theory of mass consent as the basis of all governmental rule.)

Thus, after concluding that all tyranny rests on popular consent, La Boétie eloquently concludes that “obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement.” Tyrants need not be expropriated by force; they need only be deprived of the public’s continuing supply of funds and resources. The more one yields to tyrants, La Boétie points out, the stronger and mightier they become. But if the tyrants “are simply not obeyed,” they become “undone and as nothing.”

La Boétie then exhorts the “poor, wretched, and stupid peoples” to cast off their chains by refusing to supply the tyrant any further with the instruments of their own oppression. The tyrant, indeed, has

nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?

La Boétie concludes his exhortation by assuring the masses that to overthrow the tyrant they need not act, nor shed their blood. They can do so “merely by willing to be free.” In short,

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that 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 into pieces.16

It was a medieval tradition to justify tyrannicide of unjust rulers who break the divine law, but La Boétie’s doctrine, though nonviolent, was in the deepest sense far more radical. For while the assassination of a tyrant is simply an isolated individual act within an existing political system, mass civil disobedience, being a direct act on the part of large masses of people, is far more revolutionary in launching a transformation of the system itself. It is also more elegant and profound in theoretical terms, flowing immediately as it does from La Boétie’s insight about power necessarily resting on popular consent; for then the remedy to power is simply to withdraw that consent.”17

The call for mass civil disobedience was picked up by one of the more radical of the later Huguenot pamphlets, La France Turquie (1575), which advocated an association of towns and provinces for the purpose of refusing to pay all taxes to the State.18 But it is not surprising that among the most enthusiastic advocates of mass civil disobedience have been the anarchist thinkers who simply extend both La Boétie’s analysis and his conclusion from tyrannical rule to all governmental rule whatsoever.

Prominent among the anarchist advocates of nonviolent resistance have been Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Benjamin R. Tucker, all of them 19th century, and all, unsurprisingly, associated with the nonviolent, pacifist branch of anarchism. Tolstoy, indeed, in setting forth his doctrine of nonviolent anarchism, used a lengthy passage from the Discourse as the focal point for the development of his argument.19 In addition, Gustav Landauer, the leading German anarchist of the early 20th century, after becoming converted to a pacifist approach, made a rousing summary of La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude the central core of his anarchist work, Die Revolution (1919). A leading Dutch pacifist anarchist of the 20th century Bartholomeus de Ligt not only devoted several pages of his Conquest of Violence to discussion and praise of La Boétie’s Discourse; he also translated it into Dutch in 1933.20

Several historians of anarchism have gone so far as to classify La Boétie’s treatise itself as anarchist, which is incorrect since La Boétie never extended his analysis from tyrannical government to government per se.21 But while La Boétie cannot be considered an anarchist, his sweeping strictures on tyranny and the universality of his political philosophy lend themselves easily to such an expansion. All this considerably disturbed La Boétie’s biographer, Paul Bonnefon, who wrote of the Discourse,

After having failed to distinguish legitimate from illicit authority, and having imprudently attacked even the principle of authority, La Boétie put forth a naive illusion. He seems to believe that man could live in a state of nature, without society and without government, and discovered that this situation would be filled with happiness for humanity. This dream is puerile.22

To the acute analyst Pierre Mesnard, Bonnefon’s alarm is wide of the mark; Mesnard believes that La Boétie defined tyranny as simply any exercise of personal power.23 In doing so, La Boétie went beyond the traditional twofold definition of tyranny as either usurpation of power or government against the “laws” (which were either defined as customary law, divine law, or the natural law for the “common good” of the people).24

Whereas the traditional theory thus focused only on the means of the ruler’s acquiring power and the use made of that power, Mesnard points out that La Boétie’s definition of tyranny went straight to the nature of power itself. Tyranny does not depend, as many of the older theorists had supposed, on illicit means of acquiring power; the tyrant need not be a usurper. As La Boétie declares, “There are three kinds of tyrants: some receive their proud position through elections by the people, others by force of arms, others by inheritance.”25

Usurpers or conquerors always act as if they are ruling a conquered country, and those born to kingship “are scarcely any better because they are nourished on the breast of tyranny, suck in with their milk the instincts of the tyrant, and consider the people under them as their inherited serfs.” As for those elected, they would seem to be “more bearable,” but they are always intriguing to convert the election into a hereditary despotism and hence “surpass other tyrants … in cruelty because they find no other means to impose this new tyranny than by tightening control and removing their subjects so far from any notion of liberty that even if the memory of it is fresh, it will soon be eradicated.” In sum, La Boétie can find no choice between these three kinds of tyrants.

For although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.26

“Those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.”

Yet Mesnard’s neat conclusion — that La Boétie meant simply to indict all personal power, all forms of monarchy, as being tyrannical — is inadequate.27   In the first place, in the passage quoted above, La Boétie indicts elected as well as other rulers. Moreover, he states that, “having several masters, according to the number one has, it amounts to being that many times unfortunate.”28 These are not precisely indictments of the concept of a republic, but they leave the definition of tyranny in La Boétie sufficiently vague that one can easily press on the anarchist conclusions.

Why do people continue to give their consent to despotism? Why do they permit tyranny to continue? This is especially puzzling if tyranny (defined at least as all personal power) must rest on mass consent and if the way to overthrow tyranny is therefore for the people to withdraw that consent. The remainder of La Boétie’s treatise is devoted to this crucial problem, and his discussion here is as seminal and profound as it is in the earlier part of the work.

The establishment of tyranny, La Boétie points out, is most difficult at the outset, when it is first imposed. For generally, if given a free choice, people will vote to be free rather than to be slaves: “There can be no doubt that they would much prefer to be guided by reason itself than to be ordered about by the whims of a single man.”29   A possible exception was the voluntary choice by the Israelites to imitate other nations in choosing a king (Saul).

Apart from that, tyranny can only be initially imposed by conquest or by deception. The conquest may be either by foreign armies or by an internal factional coup. The deception occurs in cases where the people, during wartime emergencies, select certain persons as dictators, thus providing the occasion for these individuals to fasten their power permanently upon the public. Once begun, however, the maintenance of tyranny is permitted and bolstered by the insidious throes of habit, which quickly accustom the people to enslavement.

It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born … the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.…30

Thus, humanity’s natural drive for liberty is finally overpowered by the force of custom,

for the reason that native endowment, no matter how good, is dissipated unless encouraged, whereas environment always shapes us in its own way, whatever that may be, in spite of nature’s gifts.31

Therefore, those who are born enslaved should be pitied and forgiven, “since they have not seen even the shadow of liberty, and being quite unaware of it, cannot perceive the evil endured through their own slavery.” While, in short, “it is truly the nature of man to be free and to wish to be so,” yet a person’s character “instinctively follows the tendencies that his training gives him.” La Boétie concludes that “custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude.” People will

grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.32 ,33

Consent is also actively encouraged and engineered by the rulers; and this is another major reason for the persistence of civil obedience. Various devices are used by rulers to induce such consent. One method is by providing the masses with circuses, with entertaining diversions:

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. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.34

Another method of inducing consent is purely ideological: duping the masses into believing that the tyrannical ruler is wise, just, and benevolent. Thus, La Boétie points out, the Roman emperors assumed the ancient title of Tribune of the People because the concept had gained favor among the public as representing a guardian of their liberties. Hence, the assumption of despotism under the cloak of the old liberal form.

In modern times, La Boétie adds, rulers present a more sophisticated version of such propaganda, for “they never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good.”35 Reinforcing ideological propaganda is deliberate mystification: “The kings of the Assyrians and … the Medes showed themselves in public as seldom as possible in order to set up a doubt in the minds of the rabble as to whether they were not in some way more than man.”

Symbols of mystery and magic were woven around the Crown, so that “by doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration.… It is pitiful to review the list of devices that early despots used to establish their tyranny; to discover how many little tricks they employed, always finding the populace conveniently gullible.”36

“Many of the errors of American foreign policy have stemmed from the idea that the majority of the population of a country can never accept and believe in Communist ideas.”

At times, tyrants have gone to the length of imputing themselves to the very status of divinity: “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.”37 Thus, “tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility toward themselves, but also in adoration.”38

At this point, La Boétie inserts his one and only reference to contemporary France. It is on its face extremely damaging, for he asserts that “our own leaders have employed in France certain similar [quasi-divine] devices, such as toads, fleurs-de-lys, sacred vessels, and standards with flames of gold [oriflammes].”39 He quickly adds that in this case he does not “wish, for my part, to be incredulous,” for French kings “have always been so generous in times of peace and so valiant in time of war, that from birth they seem not to have been created by nature like many others, but even before birth to have been designated by Almighty God for the government and preservation of this kingdom.”40

In the light of the context of the work, it is impossible not to believe that the intent of this passage is satirical, and this interpretation is particularly confirmed by the passage immediately following, which asserts that “even if this were not so,” he would not question the truth of these French traditions because they have provided such a fine field for the flowering of French poetry. “Certainly I should be presumptuous,” he concludes, surely ironically, “if I tried to cast slurs on our records and thus invade the realm of our poets.”41

Specious ideology, mystery, circuses — in addition to these purely propagandistic devices, another device is used by rulers to gain the consent of their subjects: purchase by material benefits, bread as well as circuses. The distribution of this largesse to the people is also a method, and a particularly cunning one, of duping them into believing that they benefit from tyrannical rule. They do not realize that they are in fact only receiving a small proportion of the wealth already filched from them by their rulers. Thus,

Roman tyrants … provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble.… Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.

A man might one day be presented with a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be forced to abandon his property to their avarice, his children to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these magnificent emperors, without offering any more resistance than a stone or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way — eagerly open to bribes.42

And La Boétie goes on to cite the cases of the monstrous tyrannies of Nero and Julius Caesar, each of whose deaths was deeply mourned by the people because of his supposed liberality.

Here La Boétie proceeds to supplement this analysis of the purchase of consent by the public with another truly original contribution, one which Professor Lewis considers to be the most novel and important feature of his theory.43 This is the establishment, as it were the permanent and continuing purchase, of a hierarchy of subordinate allies, a loyal band of retainers, praetorians, and bureaucrats. La Boétie himself considers this factor “the mainspring and the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny.”44

Here is a large sector of society that is not merely duped with occasional and negligible handouts from the State; here are individuals who make a handsome and permanent living out of the proceeds of despotism. Hence, their stake in despotism does not depend on illusion or habit or mystery; their stake is all too great and all too real.

A hierarchy of patronage from the fruits of plunder is thus created and maintained: five or six individuals are the chief advisors and beneficiaries of the favors of the king. These half-dozen in a similar manner maintain six hundred “who profit under them,” and the six hundred in their turn “maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred.”45

In this way does the fatal hierarchy pyramid and permeate down through the ranks of society, until “a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.” In short,

when the point is reached, through big favors or little ones, that large profits or small are obtained under a tyrant, there are found almost as many people to whom tyranny seems advantageous as those to whom liberty would seem desirable.… Whenever a ruler makes himself a dictator, all the wicked dregs of the nation … all those who are corrupted by burning ambition or extraordinary avarice, these gather around him and support him in order to have a share in the booty and to constitute themselves petty chiefs under the big tyrant.

Thus, the hierarchy of privilege descends from the large gainers from despotism, to the middling and small gainers, and finally down to the mass of the people who falsely think they gain from the receipt of petty favors. In this way the subjects are divided and a great portion of them induced to cleave to the ruler “just as, in order to split wood, one has to use a wedge of the wood itself.” Of course, the train of the tyrant’s retinue and soldiers suffer at their leader’s hands, but they “can be led to endure evil if permitted to commit it, not against him who exploits them, but against those who, like themselves, submit but are helpless.” In short, in return for its own subjection, this order of subordinates is permitted to oppress the rest of the public.47

How is tyranny concretely to be overthrown if it is cemented upon society by habit, privilege, and propaganda? How are the people to be brought to the point where they will decide to withdraw their consent? In the first place, affirms La Boétie, not all the people will be deluded or sunk into habitual submission. There is always a more percipient elite who will understand the reality of the situation: “there are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off.” These are the people who, in contrast to “the brutish mass,” possess clear and farsighted minds and “have further trained them by study and learning.” Such people never quite disappear from the world: “Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.”48

Because of the danger these educated people represent, tyrants often attempt to suppress education in their realms, and in that way those who “have preserved their love of freedom, still remain ineffective because, however numerous they may be, they are not known to one another; under the tyrant they have lost freedom of action, of speech, and almost of thought; they are alone in their aspiration.”49   Here La Boétie anticipates such modern analysts of totalitarianism as Hannah Arendt.

But there is hope; for still the elite exists, and, culling examples once again from antiquity, La Boétie maintains that heroic leaders can arise who will not fail “to deliver their country from evil hands when they set about their task with a firm, whole-hearted, and sincere intention.”50 The evident task, then, of this valiant and knowledgeable elite is to form the vanguard of the revolutionary resistance movement against the despot. Through a process of educating the public to the truth, they will give back to the people knowledge of the blessings of liberty and of the myths and illusions fostered by the State.

“It becomes, therefore, a prime libertarian task to discover, coalesce, nurture, and advance its cadre.”

In addition to rousing the people to the truth, the opposition movement has another vital string to its bow: the unnatural lives lived by the despots and their hierarchy of favorites. For their lives are miserable and fearful and not happy. Tyrants live in constant and perpetual fear of the well-deserved hatred they know is borne them by every one of their subjects.51 Courtiers and favorites live miserable, crawling, cringing lives, every moment of which is bent on servilely fawning upon the ruler on whom they depend.

Eventually, as enlightenment spreads among the public, the privileged favorites will begin to realize the true misery of their lot, for all their wealth can be seized from them at any moment should they fall out of step in the race for the favors of the king. When they “look at themselves as they really are.… They will realize clearly that the townspeople, the peasants whom they trample under foot and treat worse than convicts or slaves … are nevertheless, in comparison with themselves, better off and fairly free.”52

Although he does not explicitly say so, it seems to be La Boétie’s contention that the spread of enlightenment among the public will not only generate refusal of consent among the mass but will also aid its course immeasurably by splitting off, by driving a wedge inside, a portion of the disaffected, privileged bureaucracy.53

There is no better way to conclude a discussion of the content of La Boétie’s notable Discourse of Voluntary Servitude than to note Mesnard’s insight that “for La Boétie as for Machiavelli, authority can only be grounded on acceptance by the subjects: except that the one teaches the prince how to compel their acquiescence, while the other reveals to the people the power that would lie in their refusal.”54

After graduating from law school, Étienne de La Boétie took up an eminent career as a royal official in Bordeaux. He never published the Discourse, and as he pursued a career in faithful service of the monarch, never a hint did he express along the lines of his earlier treatise. Certainly one of the reasons for Montaigne’s stout insistence on his friend’s conservatism and monarchical loyalty is that La Boétie had changed his political views by the time they met around 1559.

Indeed, in late 1662, shortly before he died, La Boétie wrote, but did not publish, a manuscript, forgotten and lost until recent years, in which he, with moderate conservatism, advised the State to punish Protestant leaders as rebels, to enforce Catholicism upon France, but also to reform the abuses of the Church moderately and respectably by the agency of the king and his Parlements. Protestants would then be forced to convert back to Catholicism or leave the country.55

Certainly it is far from unusual for a young university student, eagerly caught up in a burst of free inquiry, to be a fiery radical, only to settle into a comfortable and respectable conservatism once well entrenched in a career bound to the emoluments of the status quo. But there seems to be more here than that. For the very abstractness of La Boétie’s argument in the Discourse, the very Renaissance-like remoteness of the discussion from the concrete problems of the France of his day, while universalizing and radicalizing the theory, also permitted La Boétie, even in his early days, to divorce theory from practice. It permitted him to be sincerely radical in the abstract while continuing to be conservative in the concrete. His almost inevitable shift of interest from the abstract to concrete problems in his busy career thereby caused his early radicalism to drop swiftly from sight as if it had never existed.56

But if his abstract method permitted La Boétie to abandon his radical conclusions rapidly in the concrete realm, it had an opposite effect on later readers. Its very timelessness made the work ever available to be applied concretely in a radical manner to later problems and institutions. And this was precisely the historical fate of La Boétie’s Discourse.

It was first published, albeit anonymously and incompletely, in the radical Huguenot pamphlet, “Reveille-Matin des Francois” (1574), probably written by Nicholas Barnaud with the collaboration of Theodore Beza.57 The full text with the author’s name appeared for the first time two years later in a collection of radical Huguenot essays compiled by Simon Goulart, a Calvinist minister at Geneva.58

Montaigne was furious at the essay’s publication under revolutionary Huguenot auspices. He had intended to publish it himself. Now, however, not only did he refuse to do so, but he tried to refurbish La Boétie’s conservative reputation by successively averring that his friend had been 18 (and then 16) years old at the time of the essay’s writing. For their part, however, even the Huguenots used La Boétie in gingerly fashion. “Attractive as was the spirit of La Boétie’s essay,” writes Harold Laski, “avowed and academic republicanism was meat too strong for the digestion of the time. Not that La Boétie was entirely without influence; but he was used as cautiously as an Anglican bishop might, in the sixties, have an interest in Darwinism.”59

Almost completely forgotten in the more peaceful days of the first half of the 17th century in France, the Discourse became widely known again during the Enlightenment of the 18th century through being printed as a supplement to Montaigne’s essays, but it was not particularly influential. Finally, and unsurprisingly, the essay found its métier in the midst of the French Revolution when it was twice reprinted.

Later, the radical Abbé de Lammenais reprinted the Discourse with a “violent” preface of his own, and the same was done by another writer in 1852 to strike back at the coup d’état of Napoleon III. And we have seen how the Discourse inspired the nonviolent wing of the anarchist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As the centuries went on, the abstract argument of the Discourse continued to exert a fascination for radicals and revolutionaries. The speculative thought of the young law student was taking posthumous revenge upon the respectable and eminent official of the Bordeaux Parlement.

La Boétie’s Discourse has a vital importance for the modern reader — an importance that goes beyond the sheer pleasure of reading a great and seminal work on political philosophy or, for the libertarian, of reading the first libertarian political philosopher in the Western world. For La Boétie speaks most sharply to the problem that all libertarians — indeed, all opponents of despotism — find particularly difficult: the problem of strategy. Facing the devastating and seemingly overwhelming power of the modern State, how can a free and very different world be brought about? How in the world can we get from here to there, from a world of tyranny to a world of freedom? Precisely because of his abstract and timeless methodology, La Boétie offers vital insights into this eternal problem.

In the first place, La Boétie’s insight that any State, no matter how ruthless and despotic, rests in the long run on the consent of the majority of the public has not yet been absorbed into the consciousness of intellectuals opposed to State despotism. Notice, for example, how many anti-Communists write about Communist rule as if it were solely terror imposed from above on the angry and discontented masses.

Many of the errors of American foreign policy have stemmed from the idea that the majority of the population of a country can never accept and believe in Communist ideas, which must therefore be imposed by either a small clique or by outside agents from existing Communist countries. In modern political thought, only the free-market economist Ludwig von Mises has sufficiently stressed the fact that all governments must rest on majority consent.

Since despotic rule is against the interests of the bulk of the population, how then does this consent come about? Again, La Boétie highlights the point that this consent is engineered, largely by propaganda beamed at the populace by the rulers and their intellectual apologists. The devices (of bread and circuses, of ideological mystification) that rulers today use to gull the masses and gain their consent remain the same as in La Boétie’s days. The only difference is the enormous increase in the use of specialized intellectuals in the service of the rulers. But in this case, the primary task of opponents of modern tyranny is an educational one: to awaken the public to this process, to demystify and desanctify the State apparatus.

Furthermore, La Boétie’s analysis, both of the engineering of consent and of the role played by bureaucrats and other economic interests that benefit from the State, highlights another critical problem that many modern opponents of statism have failed to recognize: that the problem of strategy is not simply one of educating the public about the “errors” committed by the government. For much of what the State does is not an error at all from its own point of view but a means of maximizing its power, influence, and income.

We have to realize that we are facing a mighty engine of power and economic exploitation, and therefore that, at the very least, libertarian education of the public must include an exposé of this exploitation and of the economic interests and intellectual apologists who benefit from State rule. By confining themselves to analysis of alleged intellectual “errors,” opponents of government intervention have rendered themselves ineffective. For one thing, they have been beaming their counterpropaganda at a public which does not have the equipment or the interest to follow the complex analyses of error and which can therefore easily be rebamboozled by the experts in the employ of the State. Those experts, too, must be desanctified, and again La Boétie strengthens us in the necessity of such desanctification.

The libertarian theorist Lysander Spooner, writing over four hundred years after La Boétie, propounded the similar view that the supporters of government consisted largely of “dupes” and “knaves”:

The ostensible supporters of the Constitution, like the ostensible supporters of most other governments, are made up of three classes, viz.: (1) Knaves, a numerous and active class, who see in the government an instrument which they can use for their own aggrandizement or wealth. (2) Dupes — a large class, no doubt — each of whom, because he is allowed one voice out of millions in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself, is stupid enough to imagine that he is a “free man,” a “sovereign”; that this is a “free government”; “a government of equal rights,” “the best government on earth,” and such like absurdities.… (3) A class who have some appreciation of the evils of government, but either do not see how to get rid of them, or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to the work of making a change.60

The prime task of education, then, is not simply abstract insight into governmental “errors” in advancing the general welfare but debamboozling the public on the entire nature and procedures of the despotic State. In that task, La Boétie also speaks to us in his stress on the importance of a perceptive, vanguard elite of libertarian and antistatist intellectuals. The role of this “cadre” — to grasp the essence of statism and to desanctify the State in the eyes and minds of the rest of the population — is crucial to the potential success of any movement to bring about a free society.

It becomes, therefore, a prime libertarian task to discover, coalesce, nurture, and advance its cadre — a task of which all too many libertarians remain completely ignorant. For no amount of oppression or misery will lead to a successful movement for freedom unless such a cadre exists and is able to educate and rally the intellectuals and the general public.

There is also the hint in La Boétie of the importance of finding and encouraging disaffected portions of the ruling apparatus and of stimulating them to break away and support the opposition to despotism. While this can hardly play a central role in a libertarian movement, all successful movements against State tyranny in the past have made use of such disaffection and inner conflicts, especially in their later stages of development.

La Boétie was also the first theorist to move from the emphasis on the importance of consent to one on the strategic importance of toppling tyranny by leading the public to withdraw that consent. Hence, La Boétie was the first theorist of the strategy of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience of State edicts and exactions.

How practical such a tactic might be is difficult to say, especially since it has rarely been used. But the tactic of mass refusal to pay taxes, for example, is increasingly being employed in the United States today, albeit in a sporadic form. In December 1974 the residents of the city of Willimantic, Connecticut, assembled in a town meeting and rejected the entire city budget three times, finally forcing a tax cut of 9 percent. This is but one example of growing public revulsion against crippling taxation throughout the country.

“La Boétie was the first theorist of the strategy of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience.”

On a different theme, La Boétie provides us with a hopeful note on the future of a free society. He points out that once the public experiences tyranny for a long time, it becomes inured and heedless of the possibility of an alternative society. But this means that should State despotism ever be removed, it would be extremely difficult to reimpose statism. The bulwark of habit would be gone, and statism would be seen by all for the tyranny that it is. If a free society were ever to be established, then, the chances for its maintaining itself would be excellent.

More and more, if inarticulately, the public is rebelling, not only against onerous taxation but — in the age of Watergate — against the whole, carefully nurtured mystique of government. Twenty years ago, the historian, Cecilia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the US Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” — little faith, that is, in a strong central government.61   It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today. In such an age as ours, thinkers like Étienne de La Boétie have become far more relevant, far more genuinely modern, than they have been for over a century.

This article was first published as the introduction to The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de La Boétie, written 1552–53.

  • 1Properly pronounced not, as might be thought, La Bo -ay- see, but rather La Bwettie (with the hard t) as it was pronounced in the Perigord dialect of the region in which La Boétie lived. The definitive discussion of the proper pronunciation may be found in Paul Bonnefon, Oeuvres Complètes d’Etienne de La Boétie (Bordeaux: C. Gounouilhou, and Paris: J. Rouam et Cie., 1892), pp. 385–86.
  • 2Bonnefon, Oeuvres Complètes, p. xlvi.
  • 3Pierre Mesnard, L’Essor de la Philosophie Politique au XVle siècle (Paris: Boivin et Cie., 1936), p. 391.
  • 4Having remained long in manuscript, the actual date of writing the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude remains a matter of dispute. It seems clear, however, and has been so accepted by recent authorities, that Montaigne’s published story that La Boétie wrote the Discourse at the age of 18 or even of 16 was incorrect. Montaigne’s statement, as we shall see further below, was probably part of his later campaign to guard his dead friend’s reputation by dissociating him from the revolutionary Huguenots who were claiming La Boétie’s pamphlet for their own. Extreme youth tended to cast the Discourse in the light of a work so youthful that the radical content was hardly to be taken seriously as the views of the author. Internal evidence as well as the erudition expressed in the work make it likely that the Discourse was written in 1552 or 1553, at the age of 22, while La Boétie was at the university. See Bonnefon, pp. xxxvi–xxxvii; Mesnard, L’Essor, pp. 390–91; and Donald Frame, Montaigne: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace, & World, 1965), p. 71. There is no biography of La Boétie. Closest to it is Bonnefon’s “Introduction” to his Oeuvres Complètes, pp. xi–xxxv, later reprinted as part of Paul Bonnefon, Montaigne et ses Amis (Paris: Armand Colin et Cie., 1898), I, pp. 103–224.
  • 5Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la Philosophie, Vol. I: Moyen Age et Renaissance, cited in Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 404n. Also see Joseph Banere, Étienne de La Boétie contre Nicholas Machiavel (Bordeaux, 1908), cited in Bréhier.
  • 6J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 314.
  • 7Harold J. Laski, “Introduction,” A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963), p. 11.
  • 8William Fan Church, Constitutional Thought in Sixteenth- Century France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941), p. 13 and 13n.
  • 9David Hume independently discovered this principle two centuries later, and phrased it with his usual succinctness and clarity:
    Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
    David Hume, “Of the First Principles of Government,” in Essays, Literary, Moral and Political.
  • 10See p. 46 below.
  • 11p. 48.
  • 12p. 55.
  • 13pp. 55–56.
  • 14p. 56.
  • 15p. 58.
  • 16pp. 50–53.
  • 17The historian Mesnard writes that this theory is “rigorous and profound,” that the critics have never fully grasped its point, and that “it is the humanist solution to the problem of authority.” Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 400.
  • 18See Laski, Defense of Liberty, p. 29; Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 308
  • 19Thus, Tolstoy writes:
    The situation of the oppressed should not be compared to the constraint used directly by the stronger on the weaker, or by a greater number on a smaller. Here, indeed it is the minority who oppress the majority, thanks to a lie established ages ago by clever people, in virtue of which men despoil each other.
    Then, after a long quote from La Boétie, Tolstoy concludes,
    It would seem that the workers, not gaining any advantage from the restraint that is exercised on them, should at last realize the lie in which they are living and free themselves in the simplest and easiest way: by abstaining from taking part in the violence that is only possible with their cooperation.
    Leo Tolstoy, The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (New York: Rudolph Field, 1948), pp. 42–45.
    Furthermore, Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Hindu,” which played a central role in shaping Gandhi’s thinking toward mass nonviolent action, was heavily influenced by La Boétie. See Bartholomeus de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1938), pp. 105–6.
  • 20Étienne de La Boétie, Vrijwillige Slavernij (The Hague, 1933, edited by Bart. de Ligt). Cited in Bart. de Ligt, Conquest, p. 289. Also see ibid., pp. 104-6. On Landauer, see ibid., p. 106, and George Woodcock, Anarchism (Cleveland, Ohio: World Pub. Co., 1962), p. 432.
  • 21Among those making this error was Max Nettlau, the outstanding historian of anarchism and himself an anarchist. Max Nettlau, Der Vorfrühling der Anarchie: ihre historischen Entwicklung von den Anfängen bis zum Jahre 1864 (Berlin, 1925). On this see Bert F. Hoselitz, “Publisher’s Preface,” in G.P. Maximoff, ed., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (Glencoe, Dl.: The Free Press, 1953), pp. 9–10.
    The first historian of anarchism, E. V. Zenker, a nonanarchist, made the same mistake. Thus, he wrote of La Boétie’s Discourse, that it contained: “A glowing defence of Freedom, which goes so far that the sense of the necessity of authority disappears entirely. The opinion of La Boétie is that mankind does not need government; it is only necessary that man should really wish it, and he would find himself happy and free again, as if by magic.” E.V. Zenker, Anarchism (London: Methuen & Co., 1898), pp. 15–16.
  • 22Bonnefon, Oeuvres Complètes, “Introduction,” p. xliii. In short, even Bonnefon, reacting gingerly to the radical nature and implications of La Boétie’s work, classified it as anarchist.
  • 23Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 395–96.
  • 24On the classical and medieval concepts of tyranny, see John D. Lewis, “The Development of the Theory of Tyrannicide to 1660” in Oscar Jászi and John D. Lewis, Against the Tyrant: The Tradition and Theory of Tyrannicide (Glencoe, Dl.: The Free Press, 1957), pp. 3–96, esp. pp. 3ff., 20ff.
  • 25p. 58.
  • 26pp. 58–59.
  • 27Mesnard writes: “If La Boétie does not distinguish between monarchy and tyranny (as he was charged by Bonnefon), it is precisely because the two are equally illegitimate in his eyes, the first being only a special case of the second.” Mesnard, L’Essor, pp. 395–96. La Boétie also levels a general attack on monarchy when he questions whether monarchy has any place among true commonwealths, “since it is hard to believe that there is anything of common wealth in a country where everything belongs to one master.” p. 46.
  • 28p. 46.
  • 29p. 59.
  • 30p. 60.
  • 31p. 61.
  • 32pp. 64–65.
  • 33David Hume was later to write in his essay “Of the Origin of Government”: “Habit soon consolidates what other principles of human nature had imperfectly founded; and men, once accustomed to obedience, never think of departing from that path, in which they and their ancestors have constantly trod.”
  • 34pp. 69–70.
  • 35p. 71.
  • 36p. 72.
  • 37p. 73.
  • 38p. 75.
  • 39p. 74.
  • 40Ibid.
  • 41pp. 74–75. Bonnefon seizes the occasion to claim his subject as, deep down and in spite of his radical deviations, a good conservative Frenchman at heart: “It was not the intention of the young man to attack the established order. He formally excepts the king of France from his argument, and in terms which are stamped by deference and respect.” Bonnefon, Oeuvres Complètes, p. xli. See also the critique of Bonnefon’s misinterpretation by Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 398.
  • 42p. 70.
  • 43Lewis, “The Theory of Tyrannicide,” pp. 56–57.
  • 44p. 77.
  • 45p. 78.
  • 47pp. 79–80.
  • 48p. 65.
  • 49p. 66.
  • 50Ibid.
  • 51pp. 67–68.
  • 52pp. 79–80. Also, pp. 79–86.
  • 53See the thoughtful conclusion in Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 404. Also see Oscar Jászi, “The Use and Abuse of Tyrannicide,” in Jászi and Lewis, Against the Tyrant, pp. 254–55.
  • 54Mesnard, L’Essor, p. 400.
  • 55This was La Boétie’s Memoir Concerning the Edict of January, 1562. See Frame, Montaigne, pp. 72–3, 345.
  • 56Mesnard, L’Essor, pp. 405–6.
  • 57See J.H.M. Salmon, The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 19n.
  • 58The third volume of the Mémoires de l’Estat de France (1576). See Bonnefon, “Introduction,” Oeuvres Complètes, pp. xlix-l.
  • 59Laski, Defense of Liberty, p. 24.
  • 60Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (Colorado Springs, Co.: Ralph Myles Pub., 1973), p. 18.
  • 61Cecilia Kenyon, “Men of Little Faith: the Anti-Federalists on the Nature of Representative Government,” William and Mary Quarterly (1955), pp. 3–46.
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