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 If this support is withdrawn non-violently then they will be defeated.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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