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Étienne de La Boétie

Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563), was a French writer, poet and lawyer. He became famous for his Discours de la servitude volontaire (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude). In 1558 he became a close friend of Michel de Montaigne, who paid him a posthumous tribute in his Essais. La Boétie died young, at the age of 33.


La Boétie was born on 1 November 1530, named Estienne (in Middle French, modern spelling Étienne), in Sarlat, a town in the southeastern part of the Périgord region of France. His father was Antoine de La Boétie, a private lieutenant under the Seneschal (a royal official) of the Périgord region. Étienne grew up in a family of magistrates, an enlightened environment composed mainly of educated middle class citizens. Not much is known about La Boétie's childhood. He was still very young when his father died. His uncle and godfather Estienne de La Boétie, curé (parish priest) of Bouilhonnac, then took care of his education. He was to his nephew a second father, which made Étienne say that he owed his uncle "all that he [was] and could be".1

Towards the end of his secondary education, La Boétie developed a strong interest for ancient philology which attracted him as did his own century. He composed French, Latin and Greek verses as a form of recreation. He wrote twenty-nine love sonnets and later became translator of the works of Plutarch, Virgil and Ariosto.

Afterwards, he began studying law at the University of Orléans where he passed his license exam in civil law on 23 September 1553. It was about that time that, according to Montaigne, he wrote his first and most famous work, the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. This short indictment against tyranny is remarkable for its erudition and depth. It questions the legitimacy of any authority over a population and tries to analyze the reasons for submission to such authority. The numerous examples drawn from antiquity which, as was customary at the time, illustrate the text, allowed him to criticize the contemporary political situation. The manuscript was published formally only in 1576, but Montaigne was aware of it and sought to meet the author when he took up duties at the Bordeaux Parlement (appellate court). From this meeting with La Boétie arose a friendship that would last until the latter's death. La Boétie also befriended Lambert Daneau, to whom he probably submitted the first drafts of the Discours, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, who revealed to him the secret motives of the members of La Pléiade (a group of French poets), and Jean Dorat.

After obtaining his law degree in 1553, thanks to the reputation obtained during his studies, by a letters patent of Henry II of France he was named to the office of court counselor on 13 October 1553. On 17 May 1554, he was admitted as counselor to the Parlement of Bordeaux, two years before the legal age. From 1560, La Boétie was asked by Michel de L'Hospital to intervene in various negotiations to achieve peace in the wars of religion between Catholics and Huguenots. In the meantime, La Boétie married Marguerite de Carle, daughter of Pierre de Carle, president of the Parlement, sister of Lancelot de Carle, bishop of Riez, and widow of Jean d'Arsac.

On 8 August 1563, a terrible illness struck down La Boétie: "it is a stomach flow with acute pains"2–it was undoubtedly tuberculosis, which was very common at the time. La Boétie then tried to return to the Médoc, where his wife's land was located, to rest. He hoped that the fresh air of the fields would hasten his recovery, but his condition worsened rapidly and he had to stop en route, in Taillan-Médoc, at the home of Richard de Lestonnac, his colleague at the Parlement and Montaigne's brother-in-law. Realizing the seriousness of his condition, La Boétie dictated his will on 14 August and awaited the outcome of the struggle with courage and conviction until his last hour and wanted to die in faith.

In a letter to his father, Montaigne described the details of the illness and the end of his friend. He started to reckon and concluded his letter in emotive terms: "he surrendered his soul, at three o'clock Wednesday morning, the 18th of August, in the year 1563, after having lived 32 years, 9 months and 17 days"3.

It was to his friend that Montaigne wrote the famous chapter on friendship in his Essays, in which he gave a poignant testimony of their friendship. He portrays La Boétie as a wise Stoic able to bear his death with equanimity. After developing at length the subject of the friendship which connected him to La Boétie, he writes: "For the rest, what we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other. In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was him, because it was I"4.

Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

When he wrote the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, around 1548—according to Montaigne—La Boétie was an 18 or 16 year-old law student at the University of Orléans, preparing for a career in the judiciary.

The text is a challenge to the legitimacy of rulers, whom La Boétie calls "masters" or "tyrants". No matter how a tyrant has risen to power (elected, by force or succession), it is not necessarily good government that explains his dominance or its endurance. Rather, for La Boétie, rulers tend to differentiate themselves by their ineptitude. More than the fear of punishment, it is primarily habit that explains why the dominance of the master persists. Then come religion and superstitions, but these two only allow domination of the ignorant. The "secret of all domination" is to make the victims participate in their subjugation. Thus, the tyrant throws crumbs to the courtiers. If the people are compelled to obey, the courtiers must not only obey but also anticipate the tyrant's wishes. So they are even less free than the people, and voluntarily choose servitude. This is how a pyramid of power is established: the tyrant dominates five, who dominate a hundred, who themselves dominate a thousand. This pyramid will collapse as soon as the courtiers stop devoting themselves body and soul to the tyrant. Then the tyrant loses all acquired power.

In this major political philosophy text, taken up through the ages by parties of various stripes, La Boétie contrasts the state of fear that is established between bandits, equal in their power and who share the spoils of robberies, to the friendship that allows one to live free. The tyrant, on the other hand, lives in permanent fear: having no equals, everyone fears him, and consequently, he risks assassination at every moment.

Although La Boétie had remained, due to his office, a faithful servant of public order, he is nevertheless considered by many as an intellectual precursor of anarchism and civil disobedience.

La Boétie endeavors to demonstrate that from small compromises and complacency, submission imposes itself as if a voluntary choice made from the very beginning. The question with which he challenges his readers touches the very essence of politics: "Why do we obey?" He highlights the mechanisms of the establishment of authority and questions on those of obedience. He observes that a man cannot enslave a population if the people do not enslave themselves first by a pyramidal imbrication.

Although violence is the state's specific means, the former alone is not sufficient to define the latter. It is because of the legitimacy that society grants the state that its crimes are committed. It would be enough for men to no longer wish to serve in order to become free; "Be resolved to not serve anymore, and hence you will be free". In this respect, La Boétie tries to understand why man has lost the desire to regain his freedom. The Discours aims to explain this submission.

La Boétie distinguishes three kinds of tyrants: "Some have the kingdom by election of the people, others by force of arms, others by succession of their lineage". Those who acquire power by war behave as if in a conquered country. Those who are born kings are, in general, not much better, since they have grown up in the midst of tyranny. It is this last case that interests La Boétie. How is it that the people continue to blindly obey the tyrant? It is possible that men have lost their freedom through coercion, but it is still surprising that they do not struggle to regain their freedom.

The first reason why men serve voluntarily is that there are those who have never known freedom and who are "accustomed to subjection". La Boétie explains in his Discours: "men born under the yoke, and then nourished and raised in serfdom, without looking further, are content to live as they were born, and thinking they have no other good nor other right than those which they have found, they take as natural the state of their birth".

The second reason is that under tyrants people become "pusillanimous and effeminate". Subjected people have no fervor nor determination to fight. They no longer fight for a cause, but out of obligation. The desire to win is taken away from them. The tyrants try to stimulate this pusillanimity and keep the men stupid by giving them "bread and games".

The last reason is undoubtedly the most important, because it reveals to us "the mainspring and the secret of domination, the prop and foundation of tyranny". The tyrant is supported by a few loyal men who subject the whole country to his authority. These men are called by the tyrant to be "the accomplices of his cruelties" or have in fact approached the tyrant in order to be able to manipulate him. These followers have in turn men who are obedient to them. The latter have at their dependence other men whom they elevate in rank. To the latter is given "the government of the provinces or the management of the monies". This management is assigned to these men "so that they hold off on their avarice and cruelty and that they execute it when the time comes, and do so much harm besides that they cannot last but under their shadow, nor exempt themselves but by their means from the laws and punishment".

Just about everyone is considered a tyrant. Those at the bottom of the pyramid, the farmers and workers, are in a sense "free": they do the bidding of their superiors and do with the rest of their free time as they please. But "to get close to the tyrant [is] to throw oneself further back in his liberty, and in a manner of saying to shake with both hands and embrace servitude?" In other words, those who are at the bottom of the ladder are much happier and somehow much "freer" than those who treat them as "forced labor convicts or slaves". "Is this living happily? is this called living?", asks La Boétie. The favorites of the tyrant should remember less those who have gained much from tyrants than those who, "having accumulated for some time, then afterwards lost that and the goods and the lives".

On the other hand, it is impossible to befriend a tyrant, because he is and always will be above oneself. "[W]hat friendship can one expect from one whose heart is so hard as to hate his kingdom, which does nothing but obey him ...?" But "the people, for the harm which they suffer, do not accuse the tyrant, but those who govern them". To conclude the Discours, La Boétie raises his "eyes to heaven" and thinks that an "all liberal and benevolent [God] reserves down there separately for tyrants and their accomplices some particular pain".

  1. "Will of Estienne de La Boétie", Paul Bonnefon, Œuvres complètes d’Estienne de La Boétie, Bordeaux: G. Gounouilhou, Paris: J. Rouam & Cie., 1892, p. 428. ↩︎

  2. Paul Bonnefon, op. cit., p. XXXIV. ↩︎

  3. "Extrait d'une lettre que Monsieur le conseiller de Montaigne écrit à Monseigneur de Montaigne, son père, concernant quelques particularités qu'il remarqua en la maladie et mort de feu Monsieur de La Boétie", Paul Bonnefon, op. cit., p. 321. ↩︎

  4. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Donald M. Frame (translator), Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958, p. 139. ↩︎

This article is derived from the French Wikipedia article "Étienne de La Boétie" as of 12 Apr 2022, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0, and the English Wikipedia article "Étienne de La Boétie" as of 30 May 2018, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.