Discourse On Voluntary Servitude

That’s the best-known work of French judge and philosopher Étienne de la Boétie, a passionate and uncompromising advocate for human liberty and against tyranny. As y’all reprobates and nogoodniks may or may not have noticed, I have been stealthily expanding the “Notable quotes” section with some more good stuff lately, and ran across a memorable one from de la Boétie via a WRSA link to yet another excellent Robert Gore piece, which I will get to excerpting anon in its own post. But seeing the one I plonked into the sidebar mentioned in a comment at SLL inspired me to revisit some of de la Boétie’s work myself, which I admit to having all but forgotten about after his having been glancingly mentioned back in my college French class back in the Pleistocene or thereabouts.

So without further ado, enjoy (if that’s the right word; it makes for pretty uncomfortable reading, actually) these bits from his seminal Discourse On Voluntary Servitude, also known as “The Against-One.” It’s somewhat lengthy, but quite rewarding; you should bookmark it and read it all when you get the time. Written in around 1548 when de la Boétie was only 18 years of age (!), the central thrust is that tyrants hold power only because and for as long as the people concede it to them. Its relevance to current-day America’s self-inflicted contretemps is self-evident.

To achieve the good that they desire, the bold do not fear danger; the intelligent do not refuse to undergo suffering. It is the stupid and cowardly who are neither able to endure hardship nor to vindicate their rights; they stop at merely longing for them, and lose through timidity the valor roused by the effort to claim their rights, although the desire to enjoy them still remains as part of their nature. A longing common to both the wise and the foolish, to brave men and to cowards, is this longing for all those things which, when acquired, would make them happy and contented. Yet one element appears to be lacking. I do not know how it happens that nature fails to place within the hearts of men a burning desire for liberty, a blessing so great and so desirable that when it is lost all evils follow thereafter, and even the blessings that remain lose taste and savor because of their corruption by servitude. Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired.

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 no 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? 

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. It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born…Nevertheless it is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection. It is said that Mithridates trained himself to drink poison. Like him we learn to swallow, and not to find bitter, the venom of servitude. 

By this time it should be evident that liberty once lost, valor also perishes.

Like I said, uncomfortable reading—not least for how thoroughly it reinforces the truth behind the hoary old saw which claims that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite how desperately the Left would like to believe otherwise, some verities really ARE eternal.

2 thoughts on “Discourse On Voluntary Servitude

  1. Something the old boy misses: It doesn’t matter if I want and demand liberty if the majority of my neighbors do not.

    How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you?

    My neighbors will lend a hand, I expect.

    1. 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.

      I don’t think he missed it.

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