An elegant English version of La Boetie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude , which is both a key to understanding much of Montaigne and a major piece of early modern political thought. --Timothy Hampton, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley
"Too frequently this same little man is the most cowardly and effeminate in the nation, a stranger to the powder of battle and hesitant on the sands of
Boetie says that while it might be reasonable to put ourselves under the protection of a wise, benevolent and virtuous ruler too often those very same rulers become tyrants and why then do we put up with it. Boetie says it is not cowardice so much as indifference, an indifference to the loss of our liberty. It seems to be that men are quite happy to allow themselves to be subjugated, because we do not place a value on our freedom. We deserve our slavery.
What should we do to regain our freedom? Boetie says that violence is not the answer instead we should resist passively. We should refuse to serve and in that way we shall regain our liberty. He warns against complacency saying that men can become used to slavery:
"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”
He quotes many examples from the classical world before going on to examine how a tyrant/dictator is able to continue to rule over his fellow men. He concludes that it becomes easy for a tyrant to get others to do the work for him with promises of favours. A tyrant will use peoples greed and fear to perpetuate his tyranny so that it becomes a matter of course:
"Such men must not only obey orders; they must anticipate his wishes; to satisfy him they must foresee his desires; they must wear themselves out, torment themselves, kill themselves with work in his interest, and accept his pleasure as their own, neglecting their preferences for his, distorting their character and corrupting their nature; they must pay heed to his words, to his intonation, to his gestures, and to his glance. Let them have no eye, nor foot, nor hand that is not alert to respond to his wishes or to seek out his thoughts.”
He concludes that a tyrannical rule is contrary to brotherly love and that there is nothing so contrary to a generous and loving God as dictatorship. He says that God has reserved a spot: a very special place in hell for tyrants and their accomplices.
Etienne Boetie was a young man of 18 when he wrote his essay but it was much admired by his friend and companion Montaigne. It was not aimed at any specific event or country, but was more one mans thoughts on politics and as such it is an early treatise on civil liberty. He was no firebrand (although in places his language is energetic and colourful) and he was clear that his favoured method of passive resistance should be used to defeat tyranny. I read the translation by Harry Kurz published by Columbia University press in 1942 and free on the net.