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Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la servitude volontaire) is a 16th century French essay attributed to Étienne de La Boétie. It was first published in full after La Boétie's death (1563) in the third volume of Memoires de l'estat de France, sous Charles IX in 1576. It had appeared in part in 1574 in Latin and then translated to (middle) French in the Huguenot pamphlet Le Reveille-matin des François, et de leur voisins. According to La Boétie's friend Michel de Montaigne, who inherited his books and papers, the essay was written when La Boétie was 18-years old (c. 1548).

In the Discourse, the author wonders why people succumb so easily to tyranny or authority, when by refusing to serve they would become free and the despot would collapse like a large colossus missing its base. The author conjectures that tyranny is maintained because although only five or six persons support the ruler directly, these in turn are supported by hundreds and thousands more seeking favors.


Étienne de La Boétie, Part 1, by Wendy McElroy, Freedom Daily, Apr 2003
Provides biographical background on La Boétie and begins examination of his "Discourse"
A 16th-century essay entitled Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by the French jurist Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563) discusses a question that haunts those who love liberty: Why do people obey unjust laws? The Discourse offers insight. It examines the psychology of those who obey, those who command, and those who resist ... [It] first circulated privately in France (circa 1553) against a backdrop of foreign war and domestic conflict ... Discourse was most likely written while La Boétie was a law student at the University of Orléans, renowned for Huguenot activity.
Related Topics: France, Étienne de La Boétie
Étienne de La Boétie, Part 2, by Wendy McElroy, Freedom Daily, May 2003
Examines the major themes in La Boétie's "Discourse": custom (habit), control of information, buying off the people and withdrawal of consent
La Boétie advised the average man,
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 into pieces.
... Gene Sharp, author of the definitive work ... The Politics of Nonviolent Action, commented,
[La] Boétie's Discourse is a highly significant essay on the ultimate source of political power, the origins of dictatorship, and the means by which people can prevent political enslavement and liberate themselves.
La Boétie, Étienne de (1530-1563), by Sharon Presley, The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, 15 Aug 2008
Biographical essay, focusing on the message of La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude
The Discourse was unlike any existing political essay ... [I]t not only questioned the legitimacy of authority over others, including elected rulers, but dared to ask why people consent to their own enslavement by political authority. Terror and force were not enough to enforce obedience, La Boétie argued. He called for people to resist oppression not through bloodshed, but by withdrawing their consent ... La Boétie asserted that ... people obey out of habit, short-sighted self-interest, greed, and love of privilege or through the influence of state tricks, propaganda, and symbols.
The Political Thought of Étienne de La Boétie, by Murray N. Rothbard, 1975
Introduction to The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Free Life Editions, 1975), translated by Harry Kurz; summarizes the key insights of La Boétie's work
In the ferment of his law school days at Orléans, Étienne de La Boétie composed his brief but scintillating, profound, and deeply radical, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la Servitude Volontaire). The Discourse was circulated in manuscript form and never published by La Boétie ... It achieved a considerable fame in local Perigordian intellectual circles, however. This can be seen by the fact that Montaigne had read the essay long before he first met La Boétie as a fellow member of the Bordeaux Parlement in 1559.
Subjugating Ourselves, by Sheldon Richman, The Goal Is Freedom, 7 May 2010
Examines key passages from La Boetie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude and criticizes newspaper editorial writers (with a recent example) for preaching to the people to acquiesce and submit to government
In The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, the sixteenth-century French poet, judge, and political philosopher Étienne de La Boétie wondered
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!


Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, by Étienne de La Boétie, 1576
Electronic text of the 1942 English translation by Harry Kurz available at the Online Library of Liberty, in HTML, PDF and Kindle formats