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Reviewed by:
  • Discourse on Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de La Boétie
  • Timothy A. Turner
Étienne de La Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, trans. James B. Atkinson and David Sices, intro. and notes James B. Atkinson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing 2012) xlix +46 pp.

This useful edition of Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude succeeds in bringing both the author and his treatise out of the shadows of history and of his more famous contemporary and friend Montaigne. Although today he is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the subject of Montaigne’s celebrated essay “Of Friendship,” in his unfortunately short life (b. 1530, d. 1563), La Boétie himself achieved some renown as a jurist, poet, and prose writer. (Indeed, his poetry earned him a solid reputation among the Pléiade, that famous and influential group of Renaissance poets that included Du Bellay and Ronsard.) The prose treatise presented in this edition, De la Servitude Volontaire, ou Contr’un, is, as its subtitle “Against One” suggests, an anti-tyrannical, indeed anti-monarchical, exercise in reformist political philosophy. It is organized around the examination of a single problem: “how it happens that so many men, so many towns, so many cities, so many nations at times tolerate a single tyrant who has no other power than what they grant him, who has no other ability to harm them inasmuch as they are willing to tolerate it, who could do ill to them only insofar as they would rather suffer it than oppose him” (2). Although he claims only to be excoriating tyrants, in an interesting passage at the very beginning of the work, La Boétie makes a telling rhetorical move: “before questioning what rank the monarchy should have among republics, I should like to know whether it should have any, since it is hard to believe that there is anything ‘public’ in this government, where everything belongs to one man [the monarch]” (2). This line of thought he disclaims as “reserved for another time”; yet this not-so-subtle act of preterition indicates that in fact all monarchies are in his sights (2). Indeed, when he goes on to define the “three kinds of tyrants,” he seems to make no distinction between tyranny and regular kingship: “the first hold royal power through election by the people, the next by force of arms, and the last by family succession” (11). Of this last category, he writes that they “are usually no better; rather, since they were born and raised in the bosom of tyranny ... and regard the people who are under them as their hereditary slaves” (11). For La Boétie, the most effective solution to tyranny is in the hands of the people themselves, whom he addresses directly in the treatise’s most rousing and famous line, “Resolve no longer to be slaves and you are free!” (8). Although this call, and indeed the treatise itself, is more circumspect than those of later revolutionaries, at the same time, the central implicit claim of the essay anticipates the political upheavals of the following two centuries, including, for example, Rousseau’s advocacy of popular sovereignty and the general will in The Social Contract. It is an interesting fact of the history of the Discourse that it was circulated and reprinted by anti-monarchical Huguenot reformers in the years after La Boétie’s death. Montaigne himself, when he collected his friend’s writings for publication, chose not to include the treatise, [End Page 292] fearing that it would be interpreted in the wrong way by the powers that be—or by the adversaries of those powers.

For all these reasons, the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude merits a more prominent place in scholarly accounts of the development of political philosophy in this period, and in intellectual-historical accounts of the genealogy of sovereignty through the medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods. The scholars responsible for this separate, annotated edition, James B. Atkinson and David Sices, have done a service not only to the author himself and his work, but also to anyone in the present interested in these vitally important topics. In particular, Atkinson’s introduction to...


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