- ‘De la servitude volontaire’: rhétorique et politique en France sous les derniers Valois par Déborah Knop et Jean Balsamo
The presence of Étienne de La Boétie’s brief treatise on the recent programme for the agrégation was, as the joint authors of this useful study suggest, ‘une chance’ (p. 7): an opportunity for a critical reassessment of the editorial history and the richly contested fortunes of this fascinating text. Déborah Knop and Jean Balsamo’s Introduction and opening chapter accordingly offer an excellent guide to recent research on De la servitude volontaire’s genesis and its reception history. Composed in the early 1550s, first pirated into print by Protestant polemicists in the 1570s, and self-consciously not published as the centre-piece of Montaigne’s Essais a decade later, De la servitude volontaire was, for several centuries, available only as an appendix to the works of its author’s (by then) more famous friend. Appropriated by early modern monarchomachs on both sides of the English Channel before being reinvented by successive generations of revolutionaries and revisionists, it might be thought to represent a foundational moment in the history of modern political thought. But this is not Knop and Balsamo’s theme; there has, they imply, been quite enough of that sort of talk in recent decades (and they are distinctly grumpy about the edition set on the programme, De la servitude volontaire, ou, Contr’un, ed. [End Page 592] by Nadia Gontarbert (Paris: Gallimard, 1993)). Nor are they really interested in the other enduringly compelling story about La Boétie: his relation to the history of poetry, of (same-sex) friendship . . . and of (editions of) Montaigne. Rather, as the three elements in their subtitle make plain, and as rhetoric, politics, and history are explored across three different chapters, what is especially distinctive about this study is its insistent claim that De la servitude volontaire makes best sense not in relation to its fortunes in print, but rather in respect of ideologically determined éloquence oratoire. Taking their methodological cue from the work of Marc Fumaroli, and drawing on a wealth of new evidence about the text’s manuscript diffusion, Knop and Balsamo stress that De la servitude volontaire matters not because it fostered the transmission of potentially revolutionary ideas, but because it bears witness to the declining fortunes of a very particular, indeed radically distinctive caste: the parlementaires sénatoriales of (south-west) France ‘sous les derniers Valois’. The authors’ meticulous, paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the rhetorical figures, tones, and genres deployed in by La Boétie caters, as it must, to the pedagogical needs of students preparing for the concours. But it also serves the argument that De la servitude volontaire is both defence and illustration of ancient, civic, and specifically Roman oratory, redeployed to a distinctively French political end: the awakening of members of La Boétie’s own caste from the servile torpor into which they had lately fallen under increasingly absolutist Valois rule. This argument, most fully set out in the final chapter, is compelling and commands, within its tightly constrained frame of reference, assent. But at least some of the agrégé(e)s for whom this book was initially conceived might yet glimpse in La Boétie’s text something besides a nostalgic fable addressed to a small group of highly educated men complicit in the decline of their own authority, influence, and power.