Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, by La Boétie, Étienne de


Unique Qualities of This Discourse

La Boétie’s essay against dictators1 makes stirring reading. A clear analysis of how tyrants get power and maintain it, its simple assumption is that real power always lies in the hands of the people and that they can free themselves from a despot by an act of will unaccompanied by any gesture of violence. The astounding fact about this tract is that in 1948 it will be four hundred years old. One would seek hard to find any writing of current times that strips the sham from dictators more vigorously. Better than many modern political thinkers, its author not only reveals the contemptible nature of dictatorships, but he goes on to show, as is aptly stated by the exiled Borgese 2 “that all servitude is voluntary and the slave is more despicable than the tyrant is hateful.” No outraged cry from the past or present points the moral more clearly that Rome was worthy of her Nero, and by inference, Europe of her present little strutters and the agony in which they have engulfed their world. So appropriate to our day is this courageous essay that one’s amazement is aroused by the fact that a youth of eighteen really wrote it four centuries ago, with such far-sighted wisdom that his words can resound today as an ever-echoing demand for what is still dearest to mankind.

Life of the Author

La Boétie 3 was born at Sarlat, southwestern France, on November 1, 1530. He came from the provincial nobility, his father being an assistant to the governor of Perigord. His uncle, a priest, gave him his early training and prepared him for entrance to the School of Law at the University of Toulouse, where in 1553 he received his degree with special honors. During these years of study he steeped himself also in the classics so that later he translated from the Greek and composed poetry in Latin. Early in this period he wrote his immortal essay, presumably in 1548. His reputation as a scholar procured for him at graduation, although he was under age, appointment as a judge attached to the court of Bordeaux. He was named to a post vacated by an illustrious predecessor, Longa,4 who was summoned as justice to Paris. During the next ten years we find La Boétie’s name on the official records of the court in connection with a number of difficult cases.

A justice of that day had to perform a wide variety of duties. La Boétie was called in as literary critic and censor when the Collège de Guyenne wanted official sanction for the presentation of some plays. A little later he was entrusted with the delicate mission of traveling to Paris to petition the king, Henry II, for special financial arrangements for the regular payment of the salaries of the court. He was successful in this quest and brought back also a personal message from the great Chancellor of France, Michel de l’Hospital, who was trying to pacify Catholics and Protestants and prevent fratricidal bloodshed. By the age of thirty our magistrate had achieved considerable renown as a specialist in arranging compromise between these religious factions, with a scrupulous fairness that inspired confidence. For the next three years, till 1563, he was extremely active at Agen, a hotbed of angry dispute where churches were violently entered and images destroyed. La Boétie was himself a devout Catholic with a liberal point of view. His sense of fairness generally led him to assign to the disputants different churches, and, in towns with only one place of worship, different hours for religious services. He wrote an approving Mémoire when the great Chancellor in 1562 issued an edict conferring greater freedom of worship upon the Huguenots.

La Boétie’s efforts might have borne fruit, but at one of his trips to Agen while some form of dysentery was raging in that region, he caught the germ, as his great friend Montaigne believes. This was in the spring of 1563. By August of that year our judge was far from well and decided to go for a rest to Médoc. Despite his illness he set out from Bordeaux but he was able to travel only a few kilometers. At Germignan, in the home of a fellow magistrate, he took to bed and grew rapidly worse. A week later, on August 14, he made his will, leaving all his papers and books to Montaigne, who courageously stood by him to the moment of his death. These deeply moving final hours are related by Montaigne in a touching letter written to his own father. A superb testimony to a Christian death, it is worthy to take its place beside other great documents of supreme farewell to life. In the early morning of Wednesday, August 18, 1563, La Boétie left this world at the very youthful age of less than thirty-three years.

Friendship of Two Men

The relationship between Montaigne and La Boétie is so impressive that their coming together seems, according to the former, to have been predestined. So irresistibly were they drawn to each other that, when they met, their earlier careers appeared as paths converging toward their union.

Michel de Montaigne succeeded his father at the court of Périgueux just before this court was merged with the one at Bordeaux. When in September, 1561, Montaigne began his judicial functions in Bordeaux, La Boétie had already served the tribunal there for eight years. It was natural for Montaigne, who was two years younger, to look up to the colleague whose tract on Voluntary Servitude he had already read in manuscript. In his essay on Friendship 5 he tells us of his feeling: “If I am urged to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be put into words; there is beyond any observation of mine a mysterious, inexplicable and predestined force in this union. We sought each other before we had met through reports each had heard about the other, which attracted our affections more singularly than the nature of the situation can suggest. I believe it was some dispensation from Heaven. When we met we embraced each other as soon as we heard the other’s name. . . . We found we were so captivated, so revealed to each other, so drawn together, that nothing ever since has been closer than one to the other.”

In various Latin epistles addressed to his friend, La Boétie pays similar tribute. And even in the essay on Voluntary Servitude, written before they met, we get a glimpse of what friendship could mean to a man whose spirit habitually dwelt on a high plane of integrity. Thereafter, these two made a perfect exchange of exalted love in a relationship for which their joined names have become a symbol. It is small wonder then that Montaigne will add to his immortal essay, some twenty-five years after the death of his friend, his sad but beautiful conclusion to the ineffable nature of their friendship: “We loved each other because it was he, because it was I.” There is nothing left to say.

We can begin to understand what the loss of such a friend meant to Montaigne. During the earlier years of mourning he languishes. Pleasure revives his pain for he wants his friend to share it at his side. His work at the court of Bordeaux becomes distasteful and he finally gives up his post to dedicate himself to his departed friend and to perpetuate his memory. First he prepares for publication all the manuscripts left him by La Boétie.6 Very gradually he welcomes solitude and gives himself to the slow elaboration of his own sagacious essays.

It is to the honor of Montaigne that all his life he showed his gratitude for this unique friend bestowed upon him; and it is to the glory of La Boétie that he fully deserved the immortality into which their two names are forever fused by love.

Curious History of the Essay

Between 1560 and 1598 there were many outbreaks of religious war in France. Three brothers were crowned kings of France during this time, Francis II (1559-1560), Charles IX (1560-1574), and Henry III (1574-1589). That all three were ineffective rulers is largely due to the machinations of their mother, Catherine de Medici, who finally contrived the infamous massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. It was only after the Bourbon Henry IV abjured his Protestant faith a second time and entered Paris that some semblance of order was gradually restored, eventuating in the famous Edict of Nantes, 1598, that granted freedom of worship in the realm. Such was the period during which the Servitude volontaire was to play an extraordinary role.

Montaigne tells us it was composed in 1548, a date he later changed to 1546. In all likelihood La Boétie wrote it as a literary essay inspired by his Greek and Latin studies and conceived in the nature of a tribute to the classical spirit. There was no immediate event which drove the young author to this cry for freedom. It was circulated among friends at the University of Toulouse and copies of it were presumably made. When in 1563 Montaigne inherited the original among other books and papers, he placed these precious reliques in his own library. These memorabilia must have spoken to him, he must have fingered them as he composed his own essay on Friendship in the years just before 1580. He had already in 1571 published most of these manuscripts, but it occurred to him that the Servitude volontaire would make a fitting pendant to his chapter on Friendship and reveal to the world the heart and mind of his friend. He says at the beginning of his Chapter XXVIII: “It is a treatise which he entitled Voluntary Servitude, but those who did not know this have neatly renamed it Anti-One. He wrote it in his early youth, before reaching his eighteenth year, as a sort of discourse in honor of liberty opposed to tyranny. It has for some time been circulated among people of culture and not without great and deserved appreciation, for it is as pleasing and spirited as possible. . . . But of his writing there remained only this discourse (and even that by accident, for I believe he never saw it after it got away from his hands) and certain remarks on the Edict of January, famous during our civil wars, which will find their place elsewhere.7 That is all I could find in the papers he left except the volume of his works that I have already published. I am myself especially indebted to the essay on Servitude, for it became the means of our first acquaintance. It was shown to me before I met him and gave me my first knowledge of his name. . . . ” Montaigne then goes on to celebrate the virtues of friendship, cites examples of it, and after speaking touchingly of his own attachment to his departed friend, he summons the young author of eighteen to speak. Then, suddenly, he adds: “Because I have discovered that this work has since been published, and with an evil purpose, by those who seek to disturb and change the form of our government without caring whether they better it, and who mixed it in with other grist from their own mills, I have decided not to print it here.’ Instead he substitutes a sequence of twenty-nine sonnets already printed in the earlier volume of La Boétie’s works, sonnets in honor of a lady.8

The essay was thus suppressed by the man who had the original in his hands and was therefore most capable of giving an authoritative version. This is to be regretted, as pirated editions had appeared. We must concede that Montaigne had ample justification for a decision taken merely to keep the good name of La Boétie out of civil strife. The fact is that the Servitude volontaire had appeared anonymously in print five times between 1574 and 1578,9 largely as an instrument in the hands of Protestants to foment rebellion after the massacre of St. Bartholomew. No wonder then that Montaigne decided to withhold this document and the observations on the Edict of January, 1562, because, as he said, of the “brutal unpleasant atmosphere of this most disagreeable season.” These writings officially included by Montaigne in his own pages might have added fuel to the flame and wronged the reputation of his friend, whose inmost nature was opposed to violence. La Boétie was very far from imagining when he composed his classical discourse that it would transform its author ten years after his death into a champion of Huguenot resistance.

After Henry IV succeeded in quieting the realm by granting freedom of worship, the Servitude volontaire seemed to have ended its unexpected role. It was still mentioned in connection with Montaigne’s chapter on Friendship but readers were forgetting why the essayist had decided not to print it. Richelieu, in the early seventeenth century, was curious enough to want to read it but he had great difficulty in procuring a copy. A book dealer finally detached it from the Protestant Mémoires into which it had been set, and bound it separately for the Cardinal. We have no record of Richelieu’s impressions, but we can surmise that he must have smiled at the impetuous eloquence against tyranny. Throughout the century nothing further is heard of the essay. But in 1727, in Geneva, when the publisher Coste was getting out a five volume edition of Montaigne, he had the bright idea of adding La Boétie’s discourse as a tailpiece in the last volume. His example has since been followed in all the better editions of the Essais. The Servitude volontaire thus became again generally available to readers. An English translation, the only one before the rendering contained in this book, appeared in London in 1735. The editor has discovered only one copy of this in the United States.10 It is not without emotion that one picks up this early tribute to liberty, which antedates our Revolution. Since this London edition, the Servitude volontaire has appeared twice in Italian and in French many times at peculiar dates, 1789, 1835, 1845, 1863 — in periods marked by agitation preceding popular revolt. In this way, it would seem that the mildest and most just of men has become through one inspired essay an instigator of revolution, a role that has been the historic mission of other humble spirits dedicated to peace.

The translation given here is not based upon the rather inaccurate printings of the essay in the sixteenth century but upon the manuscript once possessed by Henri de Mesmes (1532-1596), Privy Counsellor to Henry II. De Mesmes, then active in behalf of conciliation between Christian sects, had read this copy of the Servitude and had written comments in the margin. The manuscript 11 may well be the original once owned by Montaigne and lent to his friend Henri de Mesmes, to whom he also dedicated one of the fragments of La Boétie’s works in the volume he published. The previous English translation was based upon the Protestant version printed in 1577. The differences are matters of detail rather than of spirit.

Interpretation of the Essay

This manifesto from a free spirit fits very well into its century, a period of geographical exploration, mental inquiry, political dispute, and religious warfare. The turbulent second half of the sixteenth century, with its growing Protestantism and its spreading Renaissance, can be viewed as a gathering effort at emergence from the intellectual trammels of the Middle Ages. We can discern in France not only authors like Rabelais, Ronsard, and Montaigne, who all present a new vitality in thought, but also politcal protesters, pleading for a larger measure of individual freedom in the state. There were tracts like the Franco-Gallia (1573) of François Hotman, who tries to show that in becoming hereditary the French monarchy deviated from the principles of its founding; the Republique (1576) of Jean Bodin, who proposes an enlightened Catholic government; the Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1578) of Hubert Languet, wherein royal policies are vigorously attacked; the Discours politiques et militaires (1587) of the one-armed sea captain François de la Noue, who found time between campaigns for Henry IV to preach tolerance. A little later Milton and Hobbes in England will be discussing similar political questions, Milton with devastating effect in his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649). La Boétie would appear as an inspired ancestor to this distinguished line of political pamphleteers.

Most scholars are agreed that the Servitude volontaire is not to be considered a transitory political document written to fit some particular emergency. It seems to be instead a serious contemplation of man’s relation to government, which fact makes it indeed the living document it is today and ever will be. Just as Machiavelli’s system may be termed autocratic, and Calvin’s theocratic, La Boétie’s is obviously one of the earliest Christian demonstrations of a new ideal in government, the democratic, for the author clearly states that men are born free and equal. The title he chose for his tract, Voluntary Servitude, proves that he considers the people responsible for their enslavement to a despot. He feels scorn for the tyrant but also contempt for the nation submitting to him. La Boétie’s genius consists in realizing and stating succinctly to his times the idea of the inalienable rights of the people, the very rights claimed for us in the Preamble to our American Constitution. The entire discourse breathes with this sentiment of the dignity and intrinsic independence of the individual.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider La Boétie a firebrand intentionally inciting to revolt against oppression. He has taken every precaution to prevent the application of his thinking to the government of France. His terms of deference are too sincere to permit any notion of hypocritical subservience. The truth is he was not a rebel. We know not only from his words but also from his judicial record that he was the declared enemy of violence. His method of redress against dictators is much more subtle and effective than violence, and might be substantially described as “passive resistance.” He sought political reform not by overt deeds involving bloodshed, but by a refusal of obedience to the orders of tyrants. Pastor Niemöller of Germany would be the perfect modern exponent of the doctrine of the discourse, which teaches essentially a peaceful method of obtaining liberty by the use of a moral weapon against which no dictator can prevail. La Boétie paints in lurid and clownish colors the complexion of tyranny, explains its unstable and contemptible basis, and then shows serenely the way to its overthrow by patience, passive resistance, and faith in God.

It is not too much to assert that, if this four hundred-year-old essay could be placed in the hands of the oppressed peoples of our day, they would find a sure way to a rebirth of freedom, a manifestation of a new spirit that would almost automatically obliterate the obscurantist strutters who today throttle their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

1 The title now generally given is Discours sur la servitude volontaire ou Contr’un. See p. xv, below.

2 G. A. Borgese, Goliath, or the March of Fascism, Viking, New York, 1937.

3 The name of the author should be pronounced with the “t” sounding like “ss” and riming with “poesy” accented on the last syllable.

4 William de Sur, known as Longa among his associates at Bordeaux. Mention is made here of this judge because La Boétie revered him and refers to him by name twice in the course of his essay.

5 Book I of the Essays, Chapter XXVIII.

6 In 1571, eight years after La Boétie’s death, Montaigne published these manuscripts with dedicatory epistles at the head of each, inscribed to those who had known his friend and could appreciate his rare qualities. He kept out only two of these documents, the Mémoire on the Edict of 1562, and the Voluntary Servitude.

7 They did indeed, for they disappeared entirely from all ken till they turned up in 1917 and were then published by Paul Bonnefon, the greatest of La Boétie scholars.

8 Available in a beautiful English rendering by Louis How, Twenty-nine Sonnets of La Boétie, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1915.

9 The first time in Latin, a fragment incorporated into the Dialogues of Eusebio Philadelpho Cosmopolito, Edimburgi (Basel?), 1574; the second, almost complete, in French, Le Réveille-Matin des François, Paris, 1574; the third, fourth, and fifth, in three successive editions of the Mémoires de I’estat de France sous Charles neufiesme, Meidlebourg, 1577-78. All but the second edition were put out under Protestant auspices as an incitement to revolt.

10 Listed as x 27.20.56 in the rare bookroom of the Widener Library of Harvard University.

11 Available in the Bibliothèque Nationale as Number 839 in the Department of Manuscripts.


Last updated Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 13:30