Étienne de La Boétie

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Étienne de La Boétie
Born 1 November 1530
Died 18 August 1563
Era Renaissance philosophy
Region Western Philosophy

Étienne or Estienne de La Boétie (French: [etjɛn də la bɔesi]; [bwati] or [bɔeti] in local Périgord dialect;[2] 1 November 1530 – 18 August 1563) was a French judge, writer, and "a founder of modern political philosophy in France."[3] He is best remembered as the great and close friend of the eminent essayist Michel de Montaigne, in one of history's most notable friendships."[3]


La Boétie was born in Sarlat, in the Périgord region of southwest France, in 1530, to an aristocratic family. His father was a royal official of the Périgord region and his mother was the sister of the president of the Bordeaux Parlement (assembly of lawyers). Orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by his uncle and namesake, the curate of Bouilbonnas, and received his law degree from the University of Orléans in 1553. His great and precocious ability earned La Boétie a royal appointment to the Bordeaux Parlement the following year, despite his being under the minimum age. There he pursued a distinguished career as judge and diplomatic negotiator until his untimely death in 1563, at the age of thirty-two. La Boétie was also a distinguished poet and humanist, translating Xenophon and Plutarch, and being closely connected with the leading young Pleiade group of poets, including Pierre Ronsard, Jean Dorat, and Jean-Antoine de Baif."[3] La Boétie opposed religious toleration, arguing that allowing Protestants and Catholics to both conduct worship services would undermine the crown.[citation needed]

He served with Montaigne in the Bordeaux parlement and is immortalized in Montaigne's essay on friendship.


La Boétie’s writings include a few sonnets, translations from the classics, and an essay attacking absolute monarchy and tyranny in general, Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr'un (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator).

The essay asserts that tyrants have power because the people give it to them. Liberty has been abandoned once by society, which afterward stayed corrupted and prefers the slavery of the courtesan to the freedom of one who refuses to dominate as he refuses to obey. Thus, La Boétie linked together obedience and domination, a relationship which would be later theorised by latter anarchist thinkers. By advocating a solution of simply refusing to support the tyrant, he became one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Lew Rockwell summarizes La Boétie’s political philosophy as follows:

To him, the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear, Boetie explains in “The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.[4]

It was once thought, following Montaigne's claims, that La Boétie wrote the essay in 1549 at the age of eighteen, but recent authorities argue that it is "likely that the Discourse was written in 1552 or 1553, at the age of twenty-two, while La Boétie was at the university."[5] Some Montaigne scholars have argued that the essay was in fact the work of Montaigne himself. The essay was circulated privately and not published until 1576 after La Boétie's death. He died at Germignan near Bordeaux in 1563. His last days are described in a long letter from Montaigne to his own father.


In the twentieth century, many European anarchists began to cite La Boétie as an influence, including Gustav Landauer, Bart de Ligt, and Simone Weil.[6] Also autonomist marxist thinker John Holloway cites him in his book Crack Capitalism in order to explain his idea of "breaking with capitalism".[7] Gene Sharp the leading theorist of nonviolent struggle cites his work frequently in both The Politics of Nonviolent Action and From Dictatorship to Democracy.



  • Œuvres complètes, Editions William Blake & Co., 1991. ISBN 2-905810-60-2
  • Discours de la servitude volontaire, Editions Mille et une nuits, 1997. ISBN 2-910233-94-4
  • Discours de la servitude volontaire, Editions Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-070394-3
  • The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, translated by Harry Kurz and with an introduction by Murray Rothbard, Montrèal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 1997. ISBN 1-55164-089-9
  • The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, translated by Harry Kurz and with an introduction by Murray Rothbard, Free Life Editions, 1975. ISBN 0-914156-11-X


  1. Saul Newman. "Voluntary Servitude Reconsidered: Radical Politics and the Problem of Self-Domination"
  2. Paul Bonnefon (1892). Œuvres complètes d'Estienne de La Boétie (Bordeaux: C. Gounouilhou, and Paris: J. Rouam et Cie.), pp. 385–6 (available online in pdf format at Gallica).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rothbard, Murray, Ending Tyranny Without Violence
  4. Rockwell, Lew (11 February 2011), Étienne de la Boetie and Egypt, LewRockwell.com
  5. Rockwell, Lew (11 February 2011), p. 38. n. 2. "Having remained long in manuscript, the actual date of writing the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude remains a matter of dispute. It seems clear, however, and has been so accepted by recent authorities, that Montaigne's published story that La Boétie wrote the Discourse at the age of eighteen or even of sixteen was incorrect. Montaigne's statement, as we shall see further below, was probably part of his later campaign to guard his dead friend's reputation by dissociating him from the revolutionary Huguenots who were claiming La Boétie's pamphlet for their own. Extreme youth tended to cast the Discourse in the light of a work so youthful that the radical content was hardly to be taken seriously as the views of the author. Internal evidence as well as the erudition expressed in the work make it likely that the Discourse was written in 1552 or 1553, at the age of twenty-two, while La Boétie was at the university." See Paul Bonnefon (1892), pp. 390–1; and Donald Frame, Montaigne: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace, & World, 1965), p. 71 (37–38 n. 2).
  6. Roland Bleiker, Popular Dissent. Human Agency and Global Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2000 ISBN 0521778298 (pp. 86–87).
  7. John Holloway. Crack Capitalism. Pluto Press (2010). Pg. 6. ISBN 0-7453-3008-8, ISBN 978-0745330082.

Further reading

External links