It Is Your Choice Or Our Chains…

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A discussion of the works of Etienne de la Boetie, November 1, 1530 – August 18, 1563, a French judge, writer, political philosopher, friend of Montaigne, and author of the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.

Murray Rothbard recognized that for La Boétie the central problem of political theory was why is it that people consent to their own enslavement? La Boétie cuts to the heart of the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience.

Why do people, in all times and most places, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is quite puzzling and utterly appalling:

I should like merely 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; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they . . .

And this mass submission must be out of consent rather than simply out of fear:

Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice? . . . [I]f a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against im, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice? When not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a million men, refuse to assail a single man rom whom the kindest treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that? Is it cowardice? . . . [W]hen a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth. . . . What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough . . . ?

La Boétie’s celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience, for mass nonviolent resistance as a method for the overthrow of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses, and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a nonviolent revolution.

Thus, after concluding that all tyranny rests on popular consent, La Boétie eloquently concludes that “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.” Tyrants need not be expropriated by force; they need only be deprived of the public’s continuing supply of funds and resources. The more one yields to tyrants, La Boétie points out, the stronger and mightier they become. But if the tyrants “are simply not obeyed,” they become “undone and as nothing.” La Boétie then exhorts the “poor, wretched, and stupid peoples” to cast off their chains by refusing to supply the tyrant any further with the instruments of their own oppression.

The tyrant, indeed, has:

nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?

La Boétie concludes his exhortation by assuring the masses that to overthrow the tyrant they need not act, nor shed their blood. They can do so “merely by willing to be free.” In short,

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. 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 in pieces.

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