“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.”

I recently reread Étienne de la Boétie’s The Politics of Obedience: A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. By far it is one of the greatest pieces of political theory ever written. It was composed in the 16th century but it speaks to the prevailing struggle in all eras of human civilization. It’s good Sunday reading to go with your coffee or your scotch.

How does the state, a tiny minority of people, achieve domination over the far more powerful majority? La Boétie argues that rulers depend upon the consent of the ruled — the tyrant has “nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you.” This consent can be withdrawn to end the oppression without violence.

Excerpt from Part I:

Poor, wretched, and stupid peoples, nations determined on your own misfortune and blind to your own good! You let yourselves be deprived before your own eyes of the best part of your revenues; your fields are plundered, your homes robbed, your family heirlooms taken away. You live in such a way that you cannot claim a single thing as your own; and it would seem that you consider yourselves lucky to be loaned your property, your families, and your very lives.

All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed 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 not cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves?

You sow your crops in order that he may ravage them; you install and furnish your homes to give him goods to pillage; you rear your daughters that he may gratify his lust; you bring up your children in order that he may confer upon them the greatest privilege he knows — to be led into his battles, to be delivered to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the instruments of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold you in check. From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free.

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 into pieces.

Once you grasp the power of la Boétie’s argument, there is a visceral moment of realization that has almost a mystical quality. Suddenly the world makes more sense, the same way it did when you really “got” how the free market works, or how you “got” why liberty is just.

— Read the rest of the book — 

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