Boétie did not live a long life. He was only
thirty-two when he died. Born in the Périgord
region of southwestern France, he received a classical
education and studied law at the University of Orléans,
receiving his degree in 1553. He served in the Parlement
of Bourdeaux (more of an appeals court than a "parliament"
in the modern sense), beginning in 1559.
Orléans, law was taught as a search for
the truth a contrast, perhaps, with modern
law schools. This was a period of violent conflict
over religion in the state and La Boétie, who
was leaning towards Protestantism at the time, wrote
his famous essay in a spirit of rediscovering fundamental
truths. This was a time when Catholic and Protestant
theorists were arguing for the people’s right to depose
an unjust ruler – "unjust" being partly
defined as making the wrong choice of religion.
historian Pierre Mesnard states that La Boétie’s
essay represents "the humanist solution to the
problem of authority."2
After La Boétie’s death, radical Huguenot writers
claimed his argument as their own and published part
of his essay in 1574.
his introduction to the 1975 edition of the essay,
Murray N. Rothbard stressed the rationalist and axiomatic
quality of La Boétie’s treatment of politics
and tyranny. Some writers, including Leo Tolstoy,
have seen La Boétie as a full-fledged anarchist.
Rothbard doubted this but wrote that "one can
easily press on [from La Boétie’s discussion]
to anarchist conclusions."3
essay is rather brief. Part I deals with what Murray
Rothbard used to call "the mystery of civil obedience."
La Boétie writes: "For the present I should
like 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…." (p.
46) This might happen in wartime, he admits, but why
people might incline to obey "some great personage"
who has helped them meet a great emergency. But why
do the millions obey "a single little man,"
who is often enough not especially forceful or personally
brave? Whatever the explanation, it must be "a
monstrous vice" going well beyond simple cowardice
on the part of the many.
and literature record that men will make great sacrifices
when their liberty is clearly threatened by a foreign
enemy. In actual battle, those fighting for liberty
and independence have fought harder than would-be
conquerors and have often prevailed. How to explain
their "self-enslavement" to a homegrown
tyranny when it would not take much violence or hardship
to be free: "I do not ask that you place hands
upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that
you support him no longer…."(p. 53).
MYSTERY FURTHER PURSUED
Boétie now discusses man and society from the
standpoint of natural law. People differ in many ways;
a degree of inequality is natural. Yet people have
inborn reason, are similar, and have sympathy with
one another, making society possible. Thus society
is not inevitably "a field of battle" (pp.
Boétie notes that tyrants may be of three kinds
– those chosen by election, military conquerors,
and hereditary rulers. I have underscored the first
category because of its possible contemporary relevance.
He sees no reason to prefer one type of tyrant to
another: "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"
enough to make one swear off election reform, although
it does provide Senator McCain with a fairly harmless
MYSTIFICATION, AND CORRUPTION
Boétie begins closing in on his target. He
notes that "force and deception" might account
for the initial successes of a tyrant, adding that
people sometimes wish to be deceived. What is crucial
for La Boétie is that obedience to tyrants
becomes a habit: "as soon as a people becomes
subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness
of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the
point of regaining it…. [it] has not so much lost
its liberty as won its enslavement" (p. 60).
direct threat of force recedes as the people, "unaware
of any other state or right," become content
to live with what now seems to them normal and inevitable.
Still, "there is no heir so spendthrift or indifferent
that he does not sometimes scan the account books
of his father in order to see if he is enjoying all
the privileges of his legacy or whether, perchance,
his rights and those of his predecessor have not been
encroached upon" (ibid.). This might explain
the recent growing interest, in some circles, in the
real American Constitution as opposed to various New
Models based on repeated usurpations by officials
and textual deconstructions by the Nine Delphic Oracles
("the soo-preme court," as Senator Dirksen
used to say).
few there are who cannot abide tyranny, La Boétie
notes, but they are not numerous enough to decide
the matter. One imagines that special "rules
of engagement" and really good gun-sights are
indicated for such hard cases. But to get back to
the majority – the "sheeple" as certain
writers call them: "the essential reason why
men take orders willingly is that they are born serfs
and reared as such" (p. 67).
liberty perishes, valor vanishes as well. Here La
Boétie echoes republican theory, but the point
seems clear enough, with or without Polybius, Machiavelli,
and the rest. Tyrants may also achieve by corruption
what they would hesitate to achieve by force. La Boétie
writes of how Cyrus pacified the rebellious Lydian
city of Sardis: "He established in it brothels,
taverns, and public games, and issued the proclamation
that the inhabitants were to enjoy them. He found
this type of garrison so effective that he never again
had to draw the sword against the Lydians" (69).
will be a brief intermission while left-libertarians
try to assimilate the connection between cultural
corruption, state policy, and tyranny….
emperors would put on big feasts and games, with gifts
for the participants. La Boétie writes: "The
fools did not realize that they were merely recovering
a portion of their own property" already seized
from them (p. 70). The poor ancients, of course, didn’t
have the Republicans and Democrats competing at this
art form and thereby ratcheting up the costs.
gee, I wonder what Al Gore will give me that
Dubya won’t? Or the other way around.
WEALTH, OR MERCANTILISM AND CORPORATISM
time, La Boétie writes, a whole class arises,
the members of which owe their fortunes to the tyrant.
They are not especially secure in this property
after all, no one’s property is very secure – so they
must pray for the good health of their patron. Here
we have the Law and the Prophets of our modern neo-mercantilist
welfare-warfare state in a few paragraphs (pp. 80-81).
Such people, rather than the soldiers, are the real
backbone of the tyrant’s rule.
miseductated and trained to serfdom, the people seldom
blame the tyrant for the state of their affairs. His
advisors – Walter Heller or Alan Greenspan, I suppose
– have made "mistakes" and may have to go.
But the tyrant himself is beyond good and evil.
LA BOÉTIE FOR OUR TIMES
could use a clearheaded fellow like La Boétie
just now. Indeed, we could do with a battalion or
two. They are beginning to rise up. I can recommend
James Bovard as one, and there are others. Rothbard’s
introduction to The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
(1975) makes the essay’s timeless relevance plain,
just in case I haven’t in this short space. All in
all, La Boétie’s fifty or so pages are far
more useful and important than those seventy-some
volumes of Lenin (Progress Publishers, Moscow) or
the seemingly endless Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe
(MEGA). You can learn more and save time, too.