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. La Boétie (pronounced La Bwettie) was particularly interested in why people obey. He asked, “If a tyrant is one man and his subjects are many, why do they consent to their own enslavement?”

La Boétie did not believe that the state ruled primarily through force. For one thing, there were many more slaves than agents of the state: if even a small percentage of the populace refused to obey a law, that law became unenforceable. Moreover, most people obeyed without being forced to do so. La Boétie evolved an alternate explanation that he called “voluntary servitude.”

La Boétie acquired his renown on the basis of one short essay that argued tyranny is “automatically defeated” when people refuse to consent to their own enslavement. His argument has led many to conclude that nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience are the best strategies with which to oppose state power.

La Boétie’s background

Discourse first circulated privately in France (circa 1553) against a backdrop of foreign war and domestic conflict. European nation states--governments that claimed sweeping powers within defined territories--were on the rise. Absolute monarchs clashed with each other and with their own citizens from whom they demanded money and obedience. The 16th century gave birth to the tyranny that would eventually lead to the French Revolution.

La Boétie was well placed to observe the society around him, which was governed by King Francis I. Born into an affluent and politically connected family, La Boétie escaped the illiteracy, misery, and disease that befell most of his countrymen. Famine was so common that men carved crosses on newly baked bread to symbolize the sacredness of food. Plague erupted repeatedly. As the peasant struggled to survive, state taxes consumed one-third or more of his income, with church tithes absorbing another one-tenth. Roving bands of soldiers stole food at will and kidnapped young sons to fill their ranks. Nevertheless, 16th-century France, with an estimated population of 16 million, was the richest, most civilized, most populous nation in Europe.

France was also an absolute monarchy, which meant that national power was not distributed between parliaments or local authorities but rested with the king alone. To raise money for war, Francis sold titles to the “nouveaux riche” who formed a new aristocracy. Meanwhile, the ranks of lawyers swelled as they administered the growing state.

What role did the common man play? His obedience was essential to state authority but there were several claims upon his loyalty. God demanded obedience but the absolute monarch was anointed by God and blessed by the Catholic Church. The rise of Protestants in France--called Huguenots--meant that a growing segment of society did not recognize the king’s divine authority. There were also provincial loyalties. Most Frenchmen gave primary fealty to the province of their birth rather than the nation or king, and the provinces varied widely in customs, religious practices, and language. The king feared that foreign powers would align with rebellious provinces, especially those with a tendency toward Protestantism.

Obedience became more difficult to procure with the invention of the printing press, which made dissenting opinions available to the common man. As publications spread, so did attempts at censorship. In 1559, the first papal list of prohibited books was published.

Discourse was most likely written while La Boétie was a law student at the University of Orléans, renowned for Huguenot activity. Indeed, one of his professors would be later burned at the stake for heresy. The essay was in response to a specific event--the Revolt de Gabelle in Bordeaux. The Gabelle was a much-hated tax on salt, which was not only a human necessity but also a government monopoly. Protesters killed the Gabelle’s director general along with two of his officers. In retaliation, 140 commoners were killed, many others were whipped, and exorbitant fines were imposed.

La Boétie was an acute observer of the competing demands on people’s obedience. When the people finally rebelled, he watched and wondered why the state seemed able to do anything it wanted, no matter how tyrannical. Why did the people not rise up again, this time en masse? As a result of such speculation, La Boétie wrote what the French historian Pierre Mesnard has called “the humanist solution to the problem of authority.”

Discourse on voluntary servitude

Why do people willingly consent to their own enslavement? For La Boétie, the collective obedience of society came from “a vice for which no term can be found vile enough, which nature herself disavows and our tongues refuse to name.” La Boétie called this monstrous vice “voluntary servitude.”

But why is voluntary servitude a vice rather than a virtue? Because it contradicts nature, La Boétie explained. Each man is given his own ability to reason, and virtue lies in cultivating his own innate independence. Even within the lower animals, there is a strong and natural urge to liberty. Animals who have tasted freedom resist entrapment, although it might cost them their lives. La Boétie exclaimed,

Since the very beasts, although made for the service of man, cannot become accustomed to control without protest, what evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?

Man’s liberty required the death of tyranny. Advocating tyrannicide against a ruler who had broken the laws of God was nothing new in European theory but La Boétie had a different slant: the way to “kill” a tyrant was to destroy his power through non-violent resistance. In that manner, the people killed not a man but the tyranny itself. Liberty required only that enough people withdraw their consent and cooperation.

After all,

he who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body...; 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?

Yet farmers continued to sow crops that were confiscated. People accumulated goods for soldiers to pillage and raised daughters for them to rape. They watched as sons were kidnapped into the military and died fighting someone else’s battles. La Boétie addressed the peasant,

You yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he [the tyrant or the state] 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.

To understand why people consented to their own enslavement, La Boétie first considered the flip side of the issue: the psychology of the tyrant.

The psychology of the tyrant

Traditional political theory defined tyranny with reference to the source of a ruler’s power. That is, did the ruler achieve his position through birth--the “sanction of God”--or in some other “legitimate” manner? If so, the king was deemed to justly rule even if he ruled badly.

In contrast, La Boétie declared the origin of power to be irrelevant to the definition of tyranny. If a man ruled justly he was legitimate; if he ruled badly, he was a tyrant.

Tyrants fell into three categories: those elected to power; those who inherited power; and those who claimed it by force. La Boétie refused to give importance to the means by which tyrants achieved power because their method of ruling seemed to be the same.

But the psychology of elected rulers particularly interested La Boétie because it seemed that a ruler whose power came from the people ought to be “more bearable” than the others. He ought to be grateful or at least acknowledge his dependency on the people’s will. Yet, when the elected ruler tastes power, “he plans never to relinquish his position.” The trick was to engineer the future consent of the people in order to ensure his continued power. But how?

La Boétie explored the major ways that a ruler engineered consent.

The beginning of a tyrant’s rule was the most difficult period because those who had not consented to his rule would obey reluctantly, and brute force might be necessary. Brute force could put down dissent in the short term but it was never a good option. Violence bred martyrs, it increased popular resistance against authority, and it showed the ugly face of power too clearly.

But as time passed, the tyrant’s task became easier. Through conditioning and training, future generations would accept authority passively and automatically obey. La Boétie observed,

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.

Generations that were born “under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery” accepted their condition as natural. Thus, La Boétie viewed “custom” as the first explanation of voluntary servitude. People believed life had always been this way, life will always be this way; and, so, it took great effort to introduce a new vision.

The French Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne, who was La Boétie’s best friend, dramatized the incredible power of tradition in his essay entitled “Of Custom.” It opens with the words

He seems to have had a right and true apprehension of the power of custom, who first invented the story of a country-woman who, having accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it grew up, obtained this by custom, that, when grown to be a great ox, she was still able to bear it.

But, La Boétie argues, a few will always try to shake off “the weight of the yoke,” perhaps because they “remember their ancestors and their former ways.” Aware of history, they compare the past to the present and dare to long for a better future:

These are the ones who, having good minds of their own, have further trained them by study and learning. Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it.

Control of information

After the majority had become accustomed to automatic obedience, the tyrant’s main challenge was to reduce dissent. There were two basic means of doing so: by controlling the press and by monopolizing education, because “books and teaching more than anything else give men the sense to comprehend their own nature and to detest tyranny.” In this manner, the tyrant prevented people from comparing the past with the present; and he controlled what people believed was possible in the future.

Moreover, with control of information, the tyrant could “educate” people in the belief that he acted only to further public welfare. He could inculcate the belief that his administration was a living embodiment of such concepts as justice, tradition, patriotism, law and order, or the public good. Thus, to oppose the tyrant became tantamount to opposing such concepts.

The tyrant reenforced this larger-than-life image through a process of mystification: that is, he tried to appear greater than a mere human being. Thus, the ruler aligned with religion, swore to uphold the law of the land, fell back on the authority of a constitution or founding document, and so forth. He presided over displays of pomp, clothed his agents in uniforms, constructed monuments, participated in rituals of office, and housed the authority of his courts and other institutions in expensive, awe-inspiring buildings.

This was a second reason why people rendered automatic obedience--a regulated press and school system had convinced them that the ruler’s authority was legitimate. The mystification of his power led them one step further: they became awed by it and viewed him as something more than a mere human being as fallible as themselves.


The people who could not be awed might well be bought off. And, so, the ruler also engaged in largesse.

La Boétie pointed to the state-sponsored “plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates” used by “ancient peoples.” These distractions were “the bait toward slavery.” The people became so fascinated by their pleasures that they did not notice their enslavement. At other times, rulers literally fed the people by distributing stocks of food. “And then everybody would shamelessly cry, ‘Long live the King!’” La Boétie remarked scornfully. “The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.” By providing bread and circuses--state welfare and popular distractions--the people were bribed into surrendering their liberty.

This direct bribery paled in significance, however, beside an indirect form that La Boétie called “the mainspring and the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny.” This was institutionalized bribery by which millions of people were employed at state jobs and received tax funds in order to pay their bills. These state employees “cling to the tyrant” and offer him their loyalty. Some state employees, such as police officers, became the hands of the state, reaching throughout society to implement laws and policies. Tax-supported intellectuals, such as university professors and recipients of government grants, became the voice of the state, defending its legitimacy. Still others, working as clerks or minor agents, made the daily machinery of the state grind on.

Over generations, a vast new class of people emerged within society: people who served the state in exchange for a tax-funded salary. These state employees willingly destroyed their own liberty and that of their neighbors. And they did so without thinking because the force of custom led them to believe that things had always been this way and always would be.

La Boétie’s solution to voluntary servitude

Withdraw your consent, withdraw your cooperation. 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.

For rendering this advice, Gene Sharp, author of the definitive work on nonviolence, The Politics of Nonviolence, 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.

This was the legacy of Discourse. But what of the real man? At the young age of 33, La Boétie died in the arms of his friend Montaigne, who was moved by the event to write his famous essay “On Friendship.” The essay portrayed their relationship as a “union of souls.” And it is mainly through this essay that the larger world knows of Étienne de La Boétie.

It is only in political circles that La Boétie’s insights on the psychology of tyranny and obedience are celebrated. There he is recognized as one of the earliest voices for civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance against authority.

If La Boétie is right, if freedom is a natural human urge, then nature itself argues the logic of not cooperating with tyranny. There is something within man and beast that resists the tension of a leash. Rather than break the tension by attacking those who hold the reigns, La Boétie told people to let the tension go slack. People should refuse either violence or submission. They should simply say No.

In that word, lies their freedom.