Discours de la servitude volontaire by La Boétie


La Boétie (1530-1563) lived when France was governed by François 1er. Despite being the most populous (16 million) and richest nation in Europe, 16th. century France experienced famine, illiteracy and rampant diseases such as the Plague. For the peasant class survival was a struggle under a State regime which taxed up to a third of income and the Church taking one-tenth of the remainder. Boétie's Discours responded to the Bordeaux revolt against the hated salt tax, a government monopoly.

France, ruled by an absolute monarchy, was involved in building a colonial empire. In Europe the French King continued the Valois vs. Hapsburg power conflict which opposed France against the Holy Roman Empire with Spain. When his rival Charles V inherited the Netherlands France was effectively surrounded by the Hapsburg monarchy. To raise money for wars François sold titles to the 'nouveaux riches', the new aristocracy, and obedience to the State became a survival strategy.

The Huguenot Protestants were on the rise in France and they did not recognise the divine authority of the king. Provincial France varied in customs, religion, and language. Their loyalties were to the province rather than to the king. It was logical that François feared that foreign nations could divide the kingdom by encouraging rebellion, especially among Protestants. 

Dissenting was also encouraged by the invention of the printing press which spread different opinions among the populace. In a counter fight to suppress the anti-establishment narratives censorship tried to smother disfavourable opinions. The first list of prohibited books was published by the papal authorities in 1559.

Boétie graduated as a lawyer from Orléans University in 1553 and took up a post as magistrate in the Bordeaux Parlement, the superior provincial law court. Members were part of the nobility and the institutions had a certain independence from the throne. They represented the only place for political debate outside the royal court. It was at the Parlement that la Boétie met and struck up a friendship with Montaigne who was also a member.

The author's Discourse (c. 1553) circulated privately in France due to the twin backgrounds of foreign war and national conflict. Nation States led by Abolute rulers were on the rise and this led to armed conflict. Demands on their populations were for money and obedience. 

La Boétie wrote his essay to analyse why the population had succumbed to the enslavement of the State in what he termed "voluntary servitude".


In his essay La Boétie asks why this voluntary servitude is a vice rather than a virtue and answers that it is because it contradicts nature. As becomes an Enlightenement thinker La Boétie believes that all humans have the capacity to reason and that virtue means concentrating on personal freedom.

In order to reach liberty the author considers that tyranny must be defeated, but through non-violent means. This does not mean killing a tyrant, but tyranny itself, by refusing to cooperate with and consent to it. La Boétie refers to the peasants:

"You yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he [the tyrant or the state] may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold you in check."

In an effort to comprehend the reasons why people accepted their own enslavement the author analysed the tyrant's psychology. It was traditional to base rulers' power on their right to inherit it or on divine sanction. In this way the king was thought to rule justly, even though he ruled badly. In contrast La Boétie reasoned that the origin of power was irrelevant to the definition of tyranny. He insisted that if a ruler administered justly then he was legitimate; if he ruled badly then he was a tyrant.

He divided tyrants into three categories:

- those elected to rule

- those who inherited power

- those who claimed it by force.

It seemed to the author that those leaders whose power radicated in the people would normally recognise dependency on the will of the population. However, he added that once the ruler tastes power he starts planning to extend it. He thought that the oppressor's ploy was to establish the future consent of the people and so he investigated the principal ways that rulers engineered consent.

He concluded that the beginning of a tyrant's rule was a difficult time because those who disapproved of the ruler might revolt and brute power would be needed to quell the populace. This was only a short-term solution. Those killed in the repression became martyrs, general resistance increased and the true face of power became obvious. However with the passage of time the tyrant had an easier time since conditioning and training would lead the next generations to acceptance of authority and passive obedience.

"It is incredible how 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, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement."

Boétie believed that habit was the primary explanation of voluntary servitude since people thought that life had always been this way. (Montaigne reinforced this analysis by dramatising the power of tradition.) Despite this he maintains that some people will always try to shake off the impositions of a tyrant because they are conscious of history and compare the past to the present in the hope of a better future.

Once the majority had became accustomed to following obediently, the task of the tyrant would be to weaken dissent. La Boétie argued that there were two means of achieving this:

- control the press

- monopolise education 

“books and teaching more than anything else give men the sense to comprehend their own nature and to detest tyranny.”

This was the way in which the tyrant stopped people comparing the past and present and also controlled their beliefs about the future. Through the control of information the tyrant could send the message that he only aimed at the welfare of the population and that his governance adhered strictly to justice, tradition, law and order. This implied that to oppose the tyrant was to dispute these legitimate concepts.

The tyrant augmented this vision through mystification by appearing superhuman, not a fallible man. To achieve this he used religion, the law or the Constitucion. He instituted acts of pomp, surrounded himself with uniformed agents, built grandiose monuments for his administrations and took part in elaborate rituals. 

However some people might not be constantly tricked by awe and splendour and for these the tyrant used bribery. The author pointed out the sponsored the ways ancient peoples were distracted by slavery baits:

“plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates” 

Food was also used to gain the population's support. By first taxing his people then returning it in the form of bread and circuses, state welfare state and distractions, they tyrannical leader bribed them into giving up their freedom.

The author also indicates another style of indirect bribery which he described as:

“the mainspring and the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny.” 

This institionalised method consisted in employing millions in State jobs, thus ensuring loyalty. For example the police became the arms of the State, implementing its orders. Intellectuals such as receivers of government grants and university professors became the voice of the State and defended its legitimacy. Clerks and others were cogs in the State machinery making sure it worked. This new class was Civil servants who enjoyed salaries funded by taxes. The force of custom had them believe that things were always this way and would continue to be so.

La Boétie then offered a practical solution to tyranny:

"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."



La Boétie's essay on voluntary servitude adds a new approach to the republican concept of liberty: not being dominated. This freedom is to be achieved partly through the law but also through movements such as civil disobedience. This implies that change is brought about not so much through institutions, but by personal relationships like friendship and solidarity.

The novelty in La Boétie's insight is that submission is not necessarily coerced, but might be voluntary. His basic question, then is why would people be voluntarily obedient to tyrannical power. He concludes that this is a form of psychic illness or moral frailty, an outlook that fits with early republican views on moral corruption and weak civic virtue.


La Boétie's theory emphasises that voluntary servitude radicates in oneself rather than in the tyrant. The power of the tyrant really lies in those who are obedient to him, which means that his hold on power depends on people abandoning the will to live freely. This coincides with the republican tradition of Spinoza and Machiavelli and the loss of their will to be free through a wave of moral corruption. This implies that liberty from domination is actually a matter of willpower and the recognition that you have that power within yourself:

"But you can deliver yourselves if you make an effort – not an effort to deliver yourselves, but an effort to want to do so!"

Liberty is a prioritisation of the will and sn effort to be free. The narrative of voluntary servitude is the recall of how we loved liberty, then lost the will to be free and how we could become free again.

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