Jan. 27, 2014
Etienne de la Boetie (1530-1563)
Text on abusive rulers and very harsh critique of the rules. The text seeks to make us feel
ashamed of ourselves – hyperbole and insults directed at the reader
I. An attack on Kings? The ambiguity of the Contra’Un
*The puzzle: voluntary servitude
• La Boetie doesn’t like kings very much
• His university was a place of dissent and protest – influence on his writing
• Students were angry because the king was tyrannical and abusing power
• First publication of his text organized and paid for by Huguenot radicals that
wanted to decapitate the king
• State should continue with persecution and Catholicism
• Stop obeying tyrants
• Tyrant – leader who obtained power in an illegitimate way and rules selfishly
• He wants to use this to score points against kings
• When he uses the word tyrants, he wants you to think of kings
• Will not deal with the question of best regime – so he doesn’t lose his head
• The ambiguity of the Contra’Un (against 1)
• 1 man rule makes no sense – truth and reason speak against it
• Even a good master will eventually become abusive
• The problem at the base of politics is always rulers – anarchic text?
• The ruled, the slaves – why do we accept to be bossed around and enslaved?
Accept to suffer from the rule of a single man? Obey tyrants?
• Premise: people make the decision to submit to servitude (obedience entails
consent) • He wants to shock his readers – be disturbed by the fact that a million people are
willingly obeying 1 single human being abusing their power
• 1 man-rule is not natural (it’s artificial)
• Goal: Denaturalize the regime and the institutions many people take for granted
• Tone change around page 8 – cursing at the reader
• Rulers tend to be cowards
• Non-violent response – just stop obeying – avoid tyranny by withdrawing consent
• 2 claims – 1) liberty is never truly taken away from us – it’s we who give it away
• 2) Servitude is a completely unacceptable phenomenon, and a puzzling one.
Figure out why this phenomenon occurs so frequently.
• Question p. 6 – could all this just be the consequence of fear? NO. The cause of
our servitude cannot be fear – we are more numerous. It must have more to do
with a generalized indifference of a weak to inexistent desire for freedom.
• Is the desire for freedom natural, or not?
• P. 10 – nature – for La Boetie, what is natural is necessarily good.
• Nature made us all in the same mold – we are companions/brothers – nature made
us equal so that we could recognize/know one another (natural equality)
• We are not all identical – people have certain strengths. But nature set up us thus
so that we could help each other.
• Nature has made us free (servitude is not natural or good)
II. Liberty: national? (3 arguments/proofs)
• P. 10-13 – 1) Greatest gift we were given by nature – this ability to live together
as companions – SPEECH – allows us to communicate, share our thoughts, get to
know one another, achieve a communion of our wills (political animals). It can’t
be that one is meant to rule and the majority of people are meant to serve.
• 2) The behavior of animals – the way they die soon after capture, how unhappy
they are when you put them in a cage. Demonstrates how confinement is not
natural. Rational beings (man) are the same. We are by nature equipped with the