Etienne de La Boétie’s discourse on voluntary servitude
In his essay on the politics of obedience (Discours de la Servitude Volontaire), Etienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) asks the vital question of political rule: How come that the majority of a people let itself be ruled by a minority, and sometimes, in the case of an autocrat, falls into the hands of a single person? How is it possible that people permit a small group of men to torture, exploit, and abuse the majority? Is it not strange, wonders La Boétie, that this dictatorial ruler, as a human, is often physically weak, clownish, cowardly, and of a feeble mind?
Would it not be natural to be nobody’s servant and not the slave of someone else? La Boétie’s answer to this question is that the cause of human servitude cannot be coercion only. No tyrant has so many eyes that he could monitor a whole nation or have so many hands that he could hit the people with so many blows. The answer is obedience. It is not coercion that explains tyranny, but “voluntary servitude.”
Tyranny can come through elections, by force, or by inheritance. Although the methods differ about how the rulers come into power, the method of dominance is the same. All types of rules, including tyrannical ones, are based on voluntary submission of the people. How did this bondage come about?
One reason is that at some point in history human beings lost their freedom either by external conquest or by domestic corruption. Then followed one generation after the other that no longer knew about freedom and what it means. The submission has become a habit. Men had fallen into servitude and become complacent in their condition of captivity. Human nature falls victim to the circumstances, to custom, to upbringing, and state propaganda completes this process of subjection. Over time, the traces of the knowledge of freedom get lost and what has been left is only the experience of servitude as if it were the natural way of human existence.
The second reason for servitude is resignation and diversion. Although servitude makes people uneasy, it also makes people tranquil in their resignation when concerns other than freedom occupy the mind. The rulers know that and provide the diversions of bread and circus, of gluttony and playfulness. The exhilaration that comes with the diversions that the mass culture delivers extinguishes defiance and the emotional exhaustion holds the people at rest in their political resignation.
The third cause of submission is the tyrant’s abuse of religion. People like to believe in miracles and wonders and the rulers are often adept at appropriating to himself the ceremonies that celebrate divinity and holiness. The rulers create a web of taboos and sanctuaries of their own. Imitating the religious service, the State service takes over. This way, disobedience of the State becomes a sin, rebellion becomes an act of blasphemy, and the tyrannicide becomes a deicide.
As the fourth reason of voluntary servitude counts the role of a special class of persons who stand between the ruler and the people. These are the public employees, the state-financed intellectuals, and those wealthy persons who profit from privileges because of being close the State. These people accept the bribe of the tyrant because they do not know better or because they esteem the benefits that they receive higher than their freedom and righteousness.
Misery of Tyranny
In the monarchies of the 16the century, the courtiers and the nobility represented a special group of the privileged. La Boétie characterizes the members of this group as truly deplorable. These persons have abandoned God and humanity; they humiliate themselves before the king and do not oppose the debasing treatment that they receive from their master. While the rest of the population obeys because it must do what told, those who form part of the entourage of the king or of the tyrant “have to think what the king wants them to think.” These flatterers must anticipate the wishes of the autocrat and must please him. For them, to obey is not enough, they must adulate the tyrant. “Serving him destroys them, yet they are expected to share his joy, to abandon their tastes for his, to change their nature and constitution”. The common people sacrifice only a part of their existence to the tyrant, yet the sycophants owe all that they are and what they have to him.
Tyranny makes everyone suffer, including the tyrant himself. The autocrat can neither give nor receive love. He must not maintain a friendship. He is surrounded by cruelty, dishonesty, and injustice.
What to do against this tragedy? How can mankind overcome submission? How can we get out of this scam and leave behind this calamity where everybody must suffer, including the tyrant himself? Let’s forget the scholarly, convoluted answers, says La Boétie. The answer is plain. What needs to be done to avoid and to get rid of tyranny is the will and the desire of the individuals to remain free and to get free.
Pursuit of Freedom
The gift of freedom is humankind’s natural possession. It does not require justification or elaboration. All it takes is to reclaim one’s freedom. Liberty is not a right but a choice. If it were a right, it could be taken away the same way that it was given. Yet freedom is not a right but a part of human nature. It belongs naturally to the human being. In his youthful optimism, Etienne exclaims: “Be determined to no longer be servants and you will be free.” No other feat is required than to stop supporting the tyranny. Remove your support, and the colossus loses its stand and will tumble. Passive resistance will do the job.
The pursuit of anarchy must not come by fire and rage. The tyrant needs not to be toppled from his throne by another man who thereafter will become the new oppressor after his victory over the former despot. Throughout history, the consequence of the violent assault against tyranny has been that the leaders of the insurrection emptied the throne only to occupy it themselves. Conspiracies to do away with tyrants tend to backfire and make matters worse. Insurgence is not the path to freedom.
In order to end the tyranny of the State, people must stop accepting servitude. They need not take anything away from the tyrant, but they must stop yielding to the power. To get out of tyranny, human beings do not need to change the essence of their nature. They have to shed off what hinders individual advancement. When the tyrant does no longer receive obedience and people do no longer obey his orders, the ruler stands naked, without power and is disarmed of the instruments of his dominance.
Rule of Opinion
Without the support of the people, the tyrant is nothing. He shares the fate of a root that is left without water and nourishment: it turns into a dry, dead piece of wood. Says La Boétie:
Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place your 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 to pieces.
Learn anarchy, one may add.
Two centuries after La Boétie, in 1841, David Hume (“Of the First Principles of Government ”) put forth the same principle of servitude by consent with clarity and distinction:
“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 military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
It is not necessary to confront the tyrant. What needs to be done is removing the foundation of tyranny. Tyranny does not rest on force but on submission. To get rid of the tyranny, people must stop their voluntary servitude. It is not the tyrant who puts himself into his position and stays in it but the people who submit to him. It is the people who feed the monster. People must stop to offer sacrifices, devotion, and idolatry, and the tyrant will fall on his own.
The story does not end here. While submission and voluntary servitude have been the rule, there will always be a few who feel the yoke of bondage and who will try to shake it off. Such people never will disappear completely from this earth, La Boétie claims: “Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.” The desire for freedom cannot be extinguished.
Some extraordinary persons will always rekindle the light of freedom. Even if these suppressed should not know freedom as a reality, they can imagine it and feel the spirit of liberty. These human beings, although robbed of their freedom, know that it does exist. Isolated from each other, each of them is lost in his own spiritual world, yet when he or she gets the means to communicate with one another, the end of tyranny has come.
This article appeared first on October 30, 2018, at the Ludwig von Mises Institute under the title “ Voluntary Servitude — Not Coercion — Fuels the State’s Power”