On Voluntary Servitude

By Étienne de la Boétie.
It is amazing that something written so long ago in the 16th century can be so relevant today. Particularly when the message is political. In a world where political ideas and concepts seem to be fashionable for two minutes, and then are discarded, the enduring legacy of de la Boétie is quite astonishing. De la Boétie (it is said) was Montaigne’s mentor and much of the reason he is still known and read today could be put down to Montaigne’s championing of him after his death. On Voluntary Servitude is de la Boétie’s most known work and it has been proposed that he wrote this when he was eighteen. If this is true then he really had a precocious genius. The basic idea of the the tract, which has been taken up by an array of democrats, anarchists, protestant reformists and even Tolstoy and Gandi over the years, is as follows:

“If a tyrant is one man and his subjects are many, why do they consent to their own enslavement?”

“ . . . 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.”

So, basically, he states that those tyrants in power are there by virtue of the support of the people. If this support is withdrawn non-violently then they will be defeated. The Discourse On Voluntary Servitude is an interesting and thought provoking read as de la Boétie ponders the vagaries of the central premise. You can find it in the public domain – take a look.

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How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

By Sarah Bakewell.

This was an entertaining read which may encourage people to read Montaigne. It is, however, very different to other biographies I have read over the last few years. The most notable being Joseph Frank’s multiple volume biography of Dostoevsky which fuses his life with detailed literary criticism as Frank believes that they should not be separated. Compared with Frank, Mirsky’s Pushkin or Kelly’s Lermontov this seemed a little light. It was enjoyable but I didn’t really feel that I got to the substance of the Montaigne. Admittedly, part of the reason for this could be that the biographies I mentioned above were based on 19th century writers rather than a Montaigne of the 16th century with less biographical information available.

The stucture  was interesting, with each chapter’s theme being a question that could have been posed by Montaigne and the answer then given via biographical details with a nod to his writings. So, to sum up, worth reading and not too challenging. To get more flesh on the bones the reader will just have to read Montaigne.

Soundtrack: Calling Zero – ‘Lifetime for the Mavericks’.

 

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