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Essay attributed to Étienne de La Boétie, first published in 1576 (English translation by Freedom Circle)

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Having several masters, no good there I see,
  That one, no more, be the master, and that only one be the king,

thus said Ulysses in Homer1, speaking in public. If he had said nothing else, but

Having several masters, no good there I see,

that was as well said as saying nothing else; but, instead, to reason with him, one would have to say that the domination of several could not be good, since the power of one alone, as soon as he takes that title of master, is hard and unreasonable, instead he went on to add, everything backwards,

That one, no more, be the master, and that only one be the king.

It would be necessary, perchance, to excuse Ulysses, who possibly needed to use this language to appease the rebellion of the army; conforming, I believe, his argument more to the times than to the truth. But, speaking wisely, it is an extreme misfortune to be subject of a master, of whom one can never be sure that he is good, since it is always in his power to be bad whenever he wants; and having several masters is, as many as one has, that many times of being extremely unfortunate. If I do not want, at this time, to debate this much discussed question, whether the other forms of republic are better than the monarchy, I would still like to know, before casting doubt on what rank the monarchy should have among the republics, if it should have any, for it is difficult to believe that there is anything public in this government, where everything accrues to one. But this question is reserved for another time, and would demand a separate treatise, or rather would bring with it all the political disputes.

In this case, I would like but to understand how can it be that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations endure sometimes a lone tyrant, who has no power but that which they give him; who is not capable of harming them, except insofar as they want to endure him; who would not know how to cause them any harm, other than when they prefer to tolerate him rather than to contradict him. A great thing indeed, and yet so commonplace that it is all the more painful and less astonishing to see a million men serving miserably, with their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater force, but somehow (it seems) enchanted and charmed by the mere name of one, of whom they should neither fear the power, since he is alone, nor love the qualities, since to them he is inhuman and savage. The weakness among us men is such that we often need to obey by force, we need to compromise, we cannot always be the strongest. Thus, if a nation is compelled by the force of war to serve one, as the city of Athens under the Thirty Tyrants2, one need not be surprised that it serves, but to lament the accident; or rather neither be surprised nor lament, but to bear the evil patiently and to maintain oneself for the future with better fortune.

Our nature is such, that the common duties of friendship prevail for a good part of the course of our life; it is reasonable to love virtue, to appreciate good deeds, to recognize the good from whence one has received it, and to diminish often our ease in order to increase the honor and advantage of the one whom one loves and who deserves it. Hence, if the inhabitants of a country have found some great personage who has shown them by trial a great foresight to look after them, a great boldness to defend them, a great attention to govern them; if, from then on, they subdue themselves to obey him and trust him so much as to give him some advantages, I do not know if that would be wisdom, as long as he is taken from where he was doing good, to advance him instead to where he could do wrong; but certainly if he could not fail to have kindness, no need to fear any wrong from whom one has only received good.

But, oh good God! what can this be? what shall we say it is called? what misfortune is this one? what vice, or rather what unfortunate vice? To see an infinite number of people not obeying, but serving; not being governed, but tyrannized; having neither goods nor parents, neither women nor children, nor the very life that is theirs! to suffer the plundering, the bawdiness, the cruelties, not from an army, not from a barbaric camp against which one would have to shed his blood and his life ahead, but from one alone; not from a Hercules3 nor a Samson4, but from a single little man, and most often the most pusillanimous and effeminate in the nation; not accustomed to the gunpowder of battles, but still with great difficulty in the arena of tourneys; not who can by force command men, but totally incapable of serving vilely the slightest woman! Shall we call this pusillanimity? Shall we say that those who serve are cowards and craven? If two, if three, if four do not defend themselves from one, that is strange, but nevertheless possible; it may well be said then, with good reason, that is for a lack of spirit. But if a hundred, if a thousand endure one alone, will it not be said that they do not want to, not that they do not dare attack him, and that it is not cowardice, but rather contempt or disdain? If one sees not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred countries, a thousand cities, a million men, not assault a single one, from whom the best treated of all receives this wrong of being a serf and slave, how can we name that? is it pusillanimity? Now, in all vices there is naturally some milestone, beyond which they cannot pass: two can fear one, and possibly ten; but a thousand, but a million, but a thousand cities, if they do not defend themselves against one, that is not cowardice, it does not go that far; any more than bravery extends to one alone scaling a fortress, attacking an army, conquering a kingdom. So what monster of vice is this that does not even deserve the title of cowardice, that cannot find a vile enough name, that nature disavows having made and language refuses to name?

Let fifty thousand men in arms stand on one side, and as many on the other; let them be arrayed for battle; let them come together, the former free, fighting for their freedom5, the others to take it away: to whom shall victory be promised by conjecture? which ones will be thought to go more gallantly to combat, those who expect to maintain their liberty as a reward for their pains, or those who can expect no other reward for the blows they give or receive than the servitude of others? The former always have before their eyes the happiness of the past life, the expectation of similar ease in the future; it does not remind them so much of this little that they endure, the time that a battle lasts, as of that which will never be fitting for them, their children and all posterity to endure. The others have nothing to encourage them, except a small point of covetousness that suddenly dulls in the face of danger and cannot be so ardent that it should not, it seems, be extinguished by the least drop of blood that comes out of their wounds. In the so famous battles of Miltiades6, Leonidas7, Themistocles8, which have been waged two thousand years ago and which even today are still as fresh in the memory of books and men as if it had been the other day, which were waged in Greece for the sake of the Greeks and as example for the whole world, what does one think that gave so few people, as were the Greeks, not the power, but the heart to sustain the force of ships with which the sea itself was loaded9, to defeat so many nations, which were in such great numbers that the Greek squadron could not have supplied, had it been necessary, captains for the enemy armies, except it seems that in those glorious days it was not so much the battle of the Greeks against the Persians, as the victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over covetousness?

It is a strange thing to hear about the bravery that liberty puts in the hearts of those who defend it; but what happens in all countries, among all men, every day, that one man mistreats a hundred thousand and deprives them of their liberty, who would believe it, if they only heard it said and did not see it? and, if it only happened in foreign countries and distant lands, and as they say, who would not think that it is rather feigned and imagined than truthful? Again this one tyrant, there is no need to fight him, there is no need to destroy him, he is destroyed by himself, as long as the country does not consent to its servitude; there is no need to take anything from him, but to give him nothing; there is no need for the country to worry about doing anything for itself, as long as it does nothing against itself. It is then the people themselves who allow or, rather, make themselves be mistreated, since by ceasing to serve they would be free; it is the people who enslave themselves, who cut their throats, who, having the choice of being serfs or being free, abandon freedom and take up the yoke, who consent to their harm, or rather who pursue it. If it would cost him something to regain his freedom, I would not urge him, although what should a man consider dearer than to return to his natural right and, so to speak, for the beast to return as man; but still I do not wish for him such great boldness; I allow that he prefer I know not what guarantee of living miserably to a dubious hope of living at ease. What? if to have liberty you only have to desire it, if you only need a mere intention, will one find any nation in the world which considers it still too dear, being able to earn it with a single wish, and who complains to his will for recovering the good that he would have to redeem at the cost of his blood, and which lost, all the people of honor should deem life as unpleasant and death as salutary? Certainly, as the fire from a small spark grows large and always strengthens, and the more wood it finds, the more it is ready to burn and, without putting water on it to extinguish it, only by putting no more wood, having nothing else to consume, it consumes itself and ends without any force and neither fire: similarly the tyrants, the more they plunder, the more they demand, the more they ruin and destroy, the more one yields to them, the more one serves them, so much more they strengthen and become ever stronger and fresher to annihilate and destroy everything; and if one yields nothing to them, if one does not obey them, without fighting, without striking, they remain naked and undone and are no longer anything, but like the root, having no more water nor nutrients, the branch becomes dry and dead.

The bold, to acquire the good they demand, do not fear danger; the knowledgeable do not refuse sorrow: the pusillanimous and dull know not how to endure harm nor to regain the good; they stop at the point of wishing for it, and the virtue of claiming it is taken away from them by their pusillanimity; the desire to have it remains in them by nature. This desire, this will is common to the sensible and to the indiscreet, to the courageous and to the cowards, to wish for all things which, being acquired, would make them happy and contented: but one thing has to be said, in that I know not how nature fails men in desiring it; it is liberty, which, however, is a good so great and so pleasant, that if lost, all wrongs come in single file, and the goods even if they remain afterwards completely lose their taste and flavor, corrupted by the servitude: the only liberty, men do not desire it, not for any other reason, it seems, but that if they desired it, they would have it, as if they refused to make this nice acquisition, only because it is too easy.

Poor and miserable senseless peoples, nations obdurate in your harm and blind to your good, you allow yourselves to be deprived, in your presence, of the best and most distinct part of your revenue, to have your fields plundered, your houses robbed and stripped of old and family furniture! You live so that you cannot vaunt that anything is yours; and it would seem that from now on it would be great fortune for you to rent back your property, your families and your lives; and all this damage, this misfortune, this ruin, comes to you, not from enemies, but certainly yes from the enemy, and from the one you make so great as he is, for whom you go so courageously to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your persons to death. The one who masters you so much has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, and has nothing else than what the least man of the great and infinite number in our cities has, if not the advantage that you give him to destroy you. From where did he get so many eyes, with which to spy on you, if you do not give them to him? How does he have so many hands to hit you, if he does not take them from you? The feet with which he tramples on your cities, whence does he get them, if they are not yours? How does he have any power over you, except through you? How would he dare to persecute you, if he had no collusion with you? What could he do to you, if you were not fences for the thief who loots you, accomplices of the murderer who kills you and traitors to yourselves? You sow your fruits, so that he may damage them; you furnish and fill your houses, so as to supply his lootings; you feed your daughters so that he may have the means to satiate his lust; you feed your children, so that, the best he would do for them, is that he may guide them in his wars, that he may lead them to the butchery, that he may make them the ministers of his covetousness, and the executors of his revenges; you break your persons with toil, so that he may preen himself in his delights and wallow in filthy and vile pleasures; you weaken yourselves, in order to make him stronger and unbending to keep your reins shorter; and of so many indignities, that the very beasts would not feel them, or endure them, you can deliver yourselves from this, if you try, not by acting to deliver yourselves, but only by wanting to do it. Be resolved not to serve anymore, and hence you will be free. I do not want you to push him or shake him, but only not to sustain him anymore, and you will see him, like a large colossus whose base has been stolen, from its own weight it collapses and breaks.

But certainly the doctors advise well not to put the hand in incurable wounds, and I am not smart in wanting to preach about this to people who have lost, long ago, all knowledge, and of which, since they no longer feel their pain, it shows enough that their illness is fatal. So let us seek by conjecture, if we can find it, how is this obstinate will to serve became so ingrained, that now it seems that the very love of liberty is not so natural.

In the first place, it is, as I believe, beyond doubt that, if we lived with the rights that nature has given us and with the lessons it teaches us, we would be naturally obedient to parents, subject to reason and serfs of no one. Of the obedience that each one, with no other notice than his nature, has for his father and mother, all men have witnessed it, each for himself; of reason, whether it is born with us, or not, which is a question thoroughly debated by academics and dealt with by the entire school of philosophers. At this time I will not think to fail in saying this, that there is in our soul some natural seed of reason, which, sustained by good advice and custom, flourishes in virtue and, on the contrary, often not being able to last against the ensuing vices, being suffocated, it aborts. But certainly, if there is nothing clear or apparent in nature and where it is not allowed to go blind, it is that nature, the minister of God, the governess of men, has made us all of the same form and, as it seems, of the same mold, so that we all recognize each other as companions or rather as brothers; and if, in dividing up the gifts she made to us, she has made some advantage of her good, either in the body or in the spirit, to some more than to others, she has not intended however to put us in this world as in a closed camp, and has not sent down here the strongest nor the most knowledgeable, like armed brigands in a forest, to swallow up the weakest there; but rather we should believe that, by thus making the parts of some larger, of others smaller, she wanted to make room for fraternal affection, so that she would have where to apply herself, having some the power to give help, the others the need to receive it. Since this good mother has given us all the whole earth as a dwelling, has logdged us all in the same house, has represented us all using the same pattern, so that each one could look at oneself and almost recognize one in the other; if she has given us all this great gift of voice and speech so that we may acquaint ourselves and fraternize better, and to make, by the common and mutual declaration of our thoughts, a communion of our wills; and if she has tried by all means to tighten and squeeze so hard the knot of our alliance and society; if she has shown, in all things, that she did not want so much to make us all united as to make us all as one, there is no need to doubt that we are naturally free, since we are all companions, and it cannot enter anyone's understanding that nature has put any one in servitude, having put us all in company.

But, in truth, it is good for nothing to debate whether liberty is natural, since one cannot hold anyone in servitude without harming him, and that there is nothing in the world so contrary to nature, being all reasonable, than injury. It stands then that liberty is natural and by the same token, in my opinion, that we are born not only in possession of our freedom, but also with fondness to defend it. Now, if by chance we have any doubts about this, and are so bastardized that we cannot recognize our goods nor similarly our innate inclinations, it will be necessary for me to do the honor that belongs to you and to mount, so to speak, the brute beasts on the professor's chair, to teach you your nature and condition. The beasts, so help me God! if men do not act too deaf, shout at them: Long live liberty! There are many among them which die as soon as they are caught: just as the fish leaves life as soon as it leaves the water, likewise those leave the light and do not want to survive their natural freedom. If animals had any preeminences among them, they would make of those their nobility. The others, from the largest to the smallest, when one seizes them, make such great resistance with claws, horns, beaks and paws, that they declare enough how much they hold dear what they lose; then, being caught, they give us so many apparent signs of the knowledge they have of their misfortune, that it is beautiful to see that from then on for them it is more to languish than to live, and that they continue their lives more to lament their lost ease than to take pleasure in servitude. What else does the elephant mean which, having defended itself until it could no longer do so, not seeing any other means, being about to be caught, sinks its jaws and breaks its tusks against the trees, other than the great desire it has to remain free, as it was born, it does so with the spirit and hint of bargaining with the hunters if, for the price of its tusks, it will be set free, and whether it will be admitted to give up its ivory and pay this ransom for its liberty? We provision the horse from the moment it is born to train it to serve; and if we do not know how to gratify it so well that, when it comes to taming it, it does not bite the bit, it does not kick against the spur, as if (it seems) to show nature and attest at least by this that, if it serves, it is not of its own accord, but by our coercion. What then is there to say?

Even the oxen under the weight of the yoke groan, And the birds in the cage complain,

as I once said10, idling the time with our French rhymes; for I will not fear, writing to you, O Longa11, to mix in my verses, which I never read to you so that, by the semblance you make of being contented with them, you may not make me vainglorious. Hence, since everything that has feeling, as soon as they have it, feel the evil of subjection and run after liberty; since the beasts, which are still made for service to man, cannot get used to serve but with the protest of a contrary desire, what misfortune has it been that was able to so denature man, only born, in truth, to live freely, and make him lose the memory of his essence and the desire to reclaim it?

There are 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 have acquired it by the right of war, behave in such manner that one knows well that they are (as they say) on conquered land. Those who are born kings are not generally much better, as being born and nourished in the bosom of tyranny, they draw with the milk the nature of the tyrant, and consider the people who are under them as their hereditary serfs; and, according to the constitution to which they are more common inclined, miserly or prodigal, such as they are, they make of the kingdom as they do of their inheritance. The one to whom the people have given the state should be, it seems to me, more bearable, and he would be, as I believe, if it were not that when he sees himself elevated above the others, flattered by an indescribable one calls greatness, he decides not to budge from there; commonly this one considers turning over to his children the power that the people have ceded to him: and once these have taken this opinion, it is strange how much they surpass the other tyrants in all sorts of vices and even in cruelty, seeing no other means to ensure the new tyranny than to embrace servitude so strongly, and to alienate so much their subjects from liberty, that even if its memory be fresh, they may make them lose it. So, to tell the truth, I see well that there is some difference between them, but of choice, I do not see any; and the means of attaining the kingships being diverse, the manner of ruling always is quite similar: the elected, as if they had taken bulls to be tamed, so they treat them; the conquerors make them as of their prey; the successors think of making them as of their natural slaves.

[To be continued]

Bibliography

Bonnefon, Paul. Œuvres complètes d’Estienne de La Boétie, publiées avec notice biographique, variantes, notes et index par Paul Bonnefon, Bordeaux: G. Gounouilhou, Paris: J. Rouam & Cie., 1892.

Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500). Analyse et Traitement Informatique de la Langue Française, version dated 31 July 2019.

Goulart, Simon, editor. Mémoires de l'estat de France sous Charles IX, Volume III, 117-140. 1578.

La Boétie, Étienne de, Henri de Mesmes. Discours de la Servitude volontaire. Manuscript transcribed by de Mesmes, supposedly from the original in Michel de Montaigne's posession.


  1. Iliad, book II, lines 204-205. ↩︎

  2. Group of 30 oligarchs who ruled Athens for about eight months in 404 BCE, after the end of the Pelopponesian War. ↩︎

  3. Roman mythological hero, equivalent of the Greek Heracles, famous for his strength. ↩︎

  4. Last of the judges of Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, famous for his extraordinary strength. ↩︎

  5. Here and elsewhere in the essay, the Middle French word "franchise" is used, with a sense of opposite to being in servitude. This has been translated as "freedom", whereas the word "liberté" has been translated as "liberty". ↩︎

  6. Athenian general (550-488 BCE), one of the Greek commanders at the battle of Marathon (490 BCE), in which they defeated the Persian invaders of King Darius I. ↩︎

  7. King and military leader of Sparta (c. 540 BCE-480 BCE) who defended, with 300 Spartan soldiers, the narrow pass of Thermopylae against the Persian forces of Xerxes I, dying in the attempt. ↩︎

  8. Athenian general (c. 525 BCE-460 BCE) who, besides participating in the battle of Marathon, commanded the Greek ships in the battle of Salamis (480 BCE), managing to defeat the Persian fleet of Xerxes I. ↩︎

  9. At the battle of Salamis, according to Herodotus, the Persians had 1207 ships and the Greeks 378. ↩︎

  10. According to Bonnefon, these two verses have not been found among La Boétie's poems. ↩︎

  11. Guillaume de Lur de Longa, La Boétie's predecessor as counsel to the Bordeaux Parliament. ↩︎