Wish for one‘s own Freedom

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Against voluntary slavery was Étienne de La Boétie. It is supposed that he was sixteen years old boy/man when he wrote this little discourse. He died when he was thirty-three.

The question arises if he passed away so early, although it seems he died from plague, because he was forced to the slavery of the established life? For the reason that he could not stand his own choice to the conventionality? That he did not dare to act according to his youth attitude? Is not the critique of Michel de Montagne’s relation towards his friend’s work La Servitude Volontaire, result of one‘s own contemporary lack of courage to confront oneself with not having audacity and will not to support the tyranny either in public or in private life? Or, just petit bourgeois.

This amazingly liberating and youthfully free, insightful text of almost digested stile, which with an openness overcomes always politically cautious, although celebrated psychoanalysts of the second and the third millennium, is unpleasantly reflecting from the past one’s own present-day conformity, of avoiding confrontation of oneself with the consent to agree to one’s own slavery… What is the nature of this misfortune? What vice is it, or, rather, what degradation? To see an endless multitude of people not merely obeying, but driven to servility? Not ruled, but tyrannized over? These wretches have no wealth, no kin, nor wife nor children, not even life itself that they can call their own. They suffer plundering, wantonness, cruelty, not from an army, not from a barbarian horde, on account of whom they must shed their blood and sacrifice their lives,

but from a single man; not from a Hercules nor from a Samson, but from a single little man. Trying to comprehend the reason for that La Boétie encourages disobedience:

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces. Persistence of will to serve, voluntary slavery, so that it seems that even love for freedom is not natural any more, leads him to conclusion that the first reason for voluntary freedom is habit. 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 amazing, not only this unbelievable synchronicity of La Boétie’s perception of mind-numb- ing conformity in 16th century with the contemporary one, which has advanced with the help of misuse of media into the powerful means of political manipulation, but that in spite of this insights it is not often that one rebels against it. In the ruling life emptiness it is not even noticed as slavery, or thought as important: At the very beginning of his translation in 1942, Harry Kurz writes: »This call to freedom ringing down the corridors of four centuries is sounded again here for the sake of peoples in all totalitarian countries today who dare not freely declare their thought. Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books. Roman tyrants invented a further refinement. They often provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble, always more readily tempted by the pleasure of eating than by anything else. The most intelligent and understanding amongst them would not have quit his soup bowl to recover the liberty of the Republic of Plato. Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, »Long live the King!« The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. It is not historical secret that philosophers have often supported tyrants, and some of them even the famous Fürer. Even the professional connoisseurs of man’s soul have not believed in realization of his perverted fantasy. With the misuse of their knowledge, even today, the justify delusions of their own petit bourgeois interpretations and their arrogant self-confidence.

… It is not the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that defend the tyrant. This does not seem credible on first thought, but it is nevertheless true that there are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs. The six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. …

Thus the despot subdues his subjects, some of them by means of others, and thus is he protected by those from whom, if they were decent men, he would have to guard himself; just as, in order to split wood, one has to use a wedge of the wood itself.

The embrace of power, and dependence on it, as a part of an exchange for family authority, or ego ideal, is not unknown. Hannah Arendt congratulating »Heidegger is eighty« justifies »the mistake« of his teacher in a way that striving to the tyrant is possible to prove almost to all the big thinkers except Kant.

Und wenn diese Neigung in dem, was sie taten, nicht nachweisbar ist, so nur, weil sehr Wenige selbst unter ihnen über, das Vermögen, vor dem Einfachen zu erstaunen, hinaus bereit waren, dieses Erstaunen als Wohnsitz anzunehmen.

Denn der Sturm, der durch das Denken Heideggers zieht – wie der, welcher uns nach Jahr- tausenden noch aus dem Werk Platons entgegenweht – kommt nicht aus dem Jahrhundert. Er kommt aus dem Uralten, und was er hinterläßt, ist ein Vollendetes, das, wie alles Vollendete, heimfällt zum Uralten.

Étienne de La Boétie was born in 1530 in Sarlat in southwest of France in Périgord in aristo- cratic family. He loses parents early and uncle raises him. At the university of Orlén he finishes law in 1553. His talent and diligence very quickly bring him into the Parliament of Bordeaux. His successful career of judge and diplomat was stopped by early death in 1563. His name was connected with hundred powerful families in Bordeauxa that were connected by work, friendship and marriage. In his case it was a marriage with a widow Marguerite de Carle in 1554, sister of the president of Parliament of Bordeaux whose other brother was a bishop. Étienne de La Boétie translated Plutarh and was connected with a group Pléiade whose members were Pierre Ronsard, Jean-Antoine de Baïf etc. At that time University of Orlén was famous by liberated discussions, and the teacher of Étienne de La Boétie was Anne du Bourg who was inclined to the open crit- icism. As a counsellor in Parisian Parliament he accused Henry II. for expulsion of Hugenots. He was hanged and burned in 1559 because of blasphemy. It is considered that it is not coincidence that this university, and at that time studying, not just the law, was a search for truth, became the center of Calvinism, while some of the friends of La Boétie became Huguenots‘ leaders.

Étienne de La Boétie never published his radical text La Servitude Volontaire, however he was celebrated in intellectual circles of Périgord. Late publishing of his text still arises disputes about when it was actually written. It is considered that Michel de Montaigne was the one who invented the story that La Boétie had written a text when he was eighteen or sixteen years old wishing to protect his friend, who died too early, trying to separate him from Hugenots, who it seems, “adopted” him. Early text of La Boétie in that way politically amnesties him in that not very peaceful historical period. However, many authors deem that his erudition shows that Dis- course was probably written between 1552 or 1553 when he was twenty-two, and already at the university. There is neither factual biography, nor his portrait.

Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is lucidly and coherently structured around the statement that each tyranny should be founded on general consent, as it is noticed by Murray Rothbard, so for La Boétie the main problem of political theory and philosophy, is the secret of civil obedience to the ruling minority as well as why people agree to their own slavery?

The solution appears to be simple. If tyranny is really based on mass consent, it is obvious that to overthrow it this agreement should be withdrawn. The invitation to the general mass civil disobedience was used by Huguenot’s pamphlet La France Turquie (1575) which represent an idea of merging of cities and regions in order not to pay taxes to the State. Rothbard writes about similar case when in December in 1974 the inhabitants of Willimantic in Connecticut refused municipal calculation and in that way diminished taxes for nine percent.12 However, this is a sporadic case. Everyday questioning of the legitimacy of the actions of political power, has turned this text into almost manifesto of all the righteous minds, and thus Lav Tolstoy quoted him, as well as Gustav Landauer in his work Die Revolution, while the leading Dutch anarchist Barthelemy de Ligt translated it in 1933.

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The publishing of his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude Étienne de La Boétie has delegated to his friend Michel de Montaigne. When they met, when they were introduced to each other, Étienne de La Boétie’s political view was already more conservative. Whatever the case may be, calmer. Quieter. The Discourse, it seems so, was for the first time published in radical Hu- guenot’s pamphlet in 1574 Reveille-Matin des François, anonymously and unfinished. La Boétie was already professionally established when in 1557 he met Michel de Montaigne who was three years younger then him. They have even lived for some time In the same neighbourhood. The last dying days of Étienne de La Boétie, Michel de Montaigne described in his letter to his father. In his essay On Friendship Montaigne wrote that if in that more mature age, wherein I had the happiness to know him, he (Étienne de La Boétie) had taken a design like this of mine, to commit his thoughts to writing, we should have seen a great many rare things, and such as would have gone very near to have rivalled the best writings of antiquity: for in natural parts especially, I know no man comparable to him. But he has left nothing behind him, save this treatise only (and that too by chance, for I believe he never saw it after it first went out of his hands)

Upon his death-bed, writes Michel de Montaigne, Étienne de La Boétie by his last will bequeathed his library and papers to him, the little book of his works only excepted, which I committed to the press. And this particular obligation I have to this treatise of his, that it was the occasion of my first coming acquainted with him; for it was showed to me long before I had the good fortune to know him; and the first knowledge of his name, proving the first cause and foundation of a friendship, which we afterwards improved and maintained, so long as God was pleased to continue us together, so perfect, inviolate, and entire, that certainly the like is hardly to be found in story, and amongst the men of this age, there is no sign nor trace of any such thing in use; so much concurrence is required to the building of such a one, that ‘tis much, if fortune bring it but once to pass in three ages.

We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think ‘twas by some secret appointment of heaven. We embraced in our names; and at our first meeting, which was accidentally at a great city entertainment, we found ourselves so mutually taken with one another, so acquainted, and so endeared betwixt ourselves, that from thence forward nothing was so near to us as one another.

This almost mythical friendship later aroused special interests with rather different interpretations and answers to the question why Michel de Montaigne did not immediately publish the text that he had inherited. As well as Montaigne’s interpretations of La Boétie’s Discourse. However, how easy is to be an executor of someone’s will? The chosen one for that function has responsibility not only towards the deceased, in this case author, but also with regard to history. Very often the person responsible for it is not even aware of her/his duty. The dead one gets hold of the alive one, concludes Jean-Michel Delacomptée investigating relation between Michel de Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie. This writer, essayist and professor of literature who has literally portrayed numerous literary figures, deems that Étienne de La Boétie, with his booklet an his work, also has left to his friend, as inheritance, the writing.

Portrait of the absent one is critique of Michel de Montaigne. Because of the political reasons or just due to the inclination to secrecy, notices Jean-Michel Delacomptée, he considered necessary to hide certain events. For example, Bartholomean night…Letter that he sends to his father exposes him. This letter was published in Paris seven years after La Boettie’s death in August 1563. – When was this letter written? – asks Delacomptée. Immediately after his friend was gone? Or, he wrote it just before it was published? However, one thing is sure: on July 23rd in 1570, Montaigne, thirty three years old officially renounces his position as counsellor in Bordeaux. Epoch has a taste of blood, reminds us Delacomptée. And maybe in that way justifies why Montaigne postpones publishing of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.

For Pierre Clastres, whose work was revision of anthropological orthodoxy in seventies, known by theory of the society without state, and who was also a participant of May ‘68, but unfortunately also died early when he was 43 in car accident, Étienne de La Boétie is Rimbaud of thought. In La Société contre l’État from 1974, he investigates the question of power and the reason for the subordination to authorities. Admiring La Boétie’s work, Clasters asserts that more then any other visionary, he is sure that transition from freedom to the slavery was not necessary.

Writer and Levinas’ student, Pascal Quignard, created form which is difficult to define, between essay, fragment, poem and the story in his book Unsaddled, published in 2012, wrote the critique of subordination. He develops metaphor of wild deer in contrast to the domesticated horse. He was following the trace of many writers, as he said to Vincent Landel for Magazine Littéraire who, like Michel de Montaignea, fell from the horse, and went through some kind of mortal ecstasy, and then through writing experienced rebirth. He reproaches Michel de Montaigne that he lost courage when he had to publish the work of his friend. Montaigne lacked even the friendship. Why was I, as a little child, asks Pascal Quignard, refusing the to eat, or talk, or answering the question, thus refusing to take part in ordering? He encourages: Think out the reasons to hope! Motivate your death, justify your sacrifice! He finds solution to the declaration of Étiennea de La Boétiea that he does not know why people do not have strength to wish their own freedom, with an explanation that apparition of death besiege subject from her/his birth.

When, around 1548 Étienne de La Boétie had shown the wish for freedom, not agreeing to be subordinated and theorized the civil disobedience, he did not know that soon afterwards, in 1572 on St. Bartholomew’s day 30000 Huguenots will be killed in one day, and that in 1600 Giordano Bruno was going to be burnt because he stood for Copernican’s theory.

The reasons for self-destruction is easier, as history shows, to research then to support La Boétie’s recommendation. It is easier to reproach Montaigne for his not publishing text in his sixteenth century, then oneself in twenty first century. Despite insights, from – one might say the concept of akrasia from Plato’s Protagora, the choice of morally bad action, in spite the knowl- edge of ill doing, as a lack o will – to the great representatives of civil disobedience as Thoreau and others, as well as psychoanalytic interpretations only the theory profited. Sigmund Freud’s works undoubtedly help the understanding of the concept of voluntary servitude, the unconscious action of subtle man’s structure, but it is necessary to remind oneself that Freud himself did not believe that it is even possible to imagine holocaust.

Travelling through the south of France in autumn around 1800, the character from Edgar Allan Poe’s story »The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether « was passing by private asylum, Maison de Santé that he heard about from his colleagues doctors. The man he was travelling with, who refused to enter Clinic, knew the manger Mr. Maillard and that enabled young doctor to visit the hospital. He has described the manager as a member of old school: pleasant and serious. It was said in Paris that the mental asylum was run in calming way, without any kind of punishment and that patients were permitted to walk around freely. When visitor started to ask about that method, manger told him that it was abolished some weeks ago and that they had to return to the old ways because the system has shown itself to be overrated and dangerous and that now they apply method of Dr. Tarr and famous professor Fether. Maillard explained that although it might be that the lunatic seems to be calm, nevertheless he is prone to be hostile. He is cunning and if he has some plan he hides it with incredible wisdom until he succeeds to establish it. When he acts in the most reasonable way, it is time to restrain him with straitjacket. He explained that anyone in right mind could conclude that they had some awful idea on their mind when they behave well. So one morning, the hospital staff has found themselves in the cellar. They were confined by lunatics who occupied their offices. And all this happened because of one stupid man, who, clarified the manager, had an idea that he invented the better system that ever existed – the crazy government. He wanted to try it, so he talked into it the other patients to join him in conspiracy to overthrow governing forces. While he was talking, suddenly started some commotion during which entered into the room the patients who were not there before. It came out that manager was retelling his own life story. The truth is that at one time he was manager of that hospital but he lost his mind and was hospitalized in the same institution. He organized the rebellion and the staff was confined for more then one month. However, the visitor’s friend, who recommended him, did not know anything about this episode in manager’s life.

Funny story by Edgar Allan Poe is often tragic reality. Neron and Hitler are just the known representatives of megalomaniac narcissism that forms the whole system in order to be maintained. One cannot but ask oneself, how it is possible, one has overthrown the tyrant or someone has done that for her/him, and then suddenly from the chosen one erupts the man who was hiding behind fictional statements. Suddenly everything seems in vain: that you wanted to be free, respect yourself, deprive yourself of excuses, that you have been nourishing civil disobedience as a form of freedom, that you have asked yourself to accept disobedience. The democracy successfully proved to you that disobedience of not paying taxes is inspiration only to the one who are doing this without any fear of being processed and confined into jail. There are reasons why there is tendency to make education expensive and eventually ruin it, accentuating the mediocre, giving the power to the incapable one and the manipulation of the crisis. However, even the most progressive democratic intellectuals will, finding excuse for themselves that they want to be heard and seen, happily run to every media invitation that without scrupulous delete their employees. One has maybe liberated oneself concerning question of gender, but not politically. The subtle instrumentality that is offered as a cheap play of media spectacle, which for us has anticipated already La Boétie, permit to you private freedom depriving you form the public one. Satisfied, you do not even notice your own slavery. By agreeing to the pathology of normality.

However, the traitor never forgives to the betrayed one her/his own betrayal. Even when it is about herself or himself. Betrayal of oneself. The ignoring of the wish for freedom.

Author Profile
Ljiljana Filipović

Ljiljana Filipović (born 21 January 1951 in Zagreb) is a Croatian author and philosopher.

Filipović received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Zagreb. Her first published work in literature was a radio play produced by Radio Zagreb in 1973. Besides writing radio plays (for which she got several prizes from Radio Zagreb). For innovation in the radio program, she received the annual prize in 2002 from Croatian radio. She taught Philosophical and psychoanalytic critique of drama text at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb from 1998 until 2013 when she acquired the position of associate professor.

Filipović is the author of several philosophical books and novels as well as numerous radio plays. She has contributed regularly to a variety of Croatian and foreign cultural magazines. Her essays and articles cover topics on cultural and political phenomena that are explained through a conjunction of philosophy and psychoanalysis. She has also translated it into Croatian books.