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Brief Lives

Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563)

Martin Jenkins looks at the life of an influential early political philosopher.

Etienne de la Boétie is probably best known in the English-speaking world through a footnote in his friend Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’ [see last issue for Montaigne’s Brief Life, Ed]. Even in France, La Boétie is a shadowy figure. No portrait of him survives, though Montaigne compares him to Socrates as a beautiful soul behind an ugly face. His life is poorly documented. Yet he is arguably the most influential French political theorist of the sixteenth century.

La Boétie was born in 1530 at Sarlat-la-Canéda in Guienne in south-west France. Orphaned at the age of ten, he was then brought up by his uncle, a priest also named Etienne. Nothing is known of his schooling. We know he studied law at the University of Orléans, which was the most prestigious law school in France. On graduating in 1553 he secured a position as a magistrate in the Parlement of Bordeaux.

The Parlements were the superior law courts of France. Their members enjoyed all the privileges of nobility and were known as the noblesse de robe (as opposed to the noblesse d’épée, the warrior nobility). They considered themselves the repositories of the fundamental law of the realm – for instance, the Parlement of Paris claimed, and exercised, the right to ‘verify’ royal edicts, that is, to confirm their conformity with the law, and if they wished, to refuse to register them, making them ineffective. The Parlements were the only government institutions with any independence from the throne. As a group of educated men of independent means, the Parlements represented the sole focus of political debate outside the royal court.

About this time La Boétie married Marguerite de Carle, a widow with two young children whose brother was President of the Bordeaux Parlement. Then he became friends with Montaigne. The latter was also a member of the Parlement, and he claimed to have become interested in La Boétie after reading some of his unpublished works. La Boétie was a mildly prolific writer, but published nothing in his lifetime. He wrote poems in Latin and French (Montaigne included twenty-nine of his sonnets in his Essays); he translated from Plutarch, Xenophon, and the Italian poet Ariosto; but his most important work of this period was the Discours de la Servitude Volontaire (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude), published in 1574.

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre
St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 by François Dubois

La Boétie Considers Voluntary Servitude

There is uncertainty as to the date of writing and the nature of this work. Montaigne originally claimed that La Boétie was eighteen when he wrote it, but in the final edition of the Essays he changed this to sixteen. However, some internal references in the Discourse seem to date the text to about 1552, making La Boétie twenty-two. Moreover, Montaigne hints that it may have been a rhetorical exercise, a defence of a hypothetical position; but he then undermines this idea by asserting that La Boétie would never assert a view in which he did not believe.

In this short work La Boétie addresses an important political puzzle: why do human beings submit to the rule of tyrants? He argues that freedom and the desire for it are the natural states of humanity, and that even under tyranny freedom is easily regained:

“Be resolved to serve no more, and there you are, free. I do not want you to push him or topple him, but merely no longer hold him up, and you will see him, like a huge colossus with the base taken away, collapse under his own weight and break up.”

So why do people submit voluntarily to a tyrant?

La Boétie distinguishes three kinds of kings: those elected by the people; those who rule by right of conquest; and hereditary monarchs, but in practice he only considers the last case. He says that hereditary monarchs consider their subjects to be hereditary slaves, and that their subjects often accept this status because it is customary. (This very much was the case in sixteenth century France.) However, he also recognises that self-interest can lead to collaboration with a tyrant. He describes how half a dozen self-interested cronies gather round a king, then six hundred more attach themselves to the cronies, and eventually, thousands of people exercise power on behalf of the dictator. But, he points out, none of these people are friends of the tyrant: the tyrant has no friends (he cites a number of Roman emperors who were assassinated by those closest to them). A tyrant, he says, ‘is neither loved nor loves.’

One might expect a work of this nature to end with a defence of liberty. Instead, La Boétie exalts friendship, writing “ L’amitié, c’est un nom sacré, c’est une chose sainte” – “Friendship is a sacred name, a holy thing”, and concludes by arguing that the effect of tyranny is to corrupt human relationships:

“There can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is disloyalty, where there is injustice; and among the wicked, when they come together, it is a conspiracy, not a company; they do not love each other, but they fear each other; they are not friends, but they are accomplices.”

La Boétie’s political thinking appears to have been republican in nature. He makes a positive comparison between the Republic of Venice (“a handful of people living so freely that the most wicked among them would not wish to be king of all”) and the Ottoman tyranny; and Montaigne remarked that he would rather have been born at Venice than at Sarlat.

Remembering a Mémoire

In 1560 La Boétie was sent to Paris by his Parlement. His official mission was to discuss his colleagues’ salaries; his real job was to raise the question of relations between Catholics and Protestants in south-western France. This was the major political issue of the day, confused by the weakness of the French monarchy. France was suffering from three ineffectual Valois kings, all under the thumb of their mother Catherine de Medici, despised by the nobility as an Italian bourgeoise, and lacking the skill in political manipulation which should have been her family inheritance. Three factions of the noblesse d’épée were jockeying for influence at the royal court when La Boétie arrived there. This surely confirmed him in his view about how tyranny operated.

La Boétie met and became the friend of Michel de l’Hôpital, the moderate Chancellor of France. L’Hôpital sought peace between Catholics and Protestants. Initially La Boétie supported him. But in January 1562 the government issued an edict granting limited toleration to Protestantism, which satisfied neither party. It did however provoke La Boétie’s second great work, the Mémoire touchant l’édit de janvier 1562Reflections on the Edict of January 1562.

There is some dispute as to whether the Mémoire contributed to the debate leading up to the Edict, or whether it was a later response to it. Whichever it is, the Mémoire has a poor reputation. Annie Prassoloff, a recent editor of the Mémoire (Gallimard, 1993), contrasts the ‘fireball’ of the Discours with the Mémoire’s ‘cold light of this burnt-out star’. However, this is to overlook the different natures of the texts. The Discours is a youthful private theoretical work: the Mémoire is a mature public document addressing a problem of practical politics. In it Le Boétie considers the question Machiavelli asked: How can the state secure the obedience of its members?

La Boétie effectively starts in the Mémoire where he left off in the Discours. He says that in a state with two religions (in this case meaning Catholic and Protestant), human relations are corrupted. The result “is almost universal hate and malevolence between the king’s subjects, which in some places feeds secretly, in others declares itself more openly, but everywhere produces sad results… It divides citizens, neighbours, friends, parents, brothers, fathers and children, husband and wife.” How, he asks, did we get to this state? He blames the corruption of the Church; Luther and Calvin, he says, would not have begun their reforming action if the Catholic church had not been corrupt. Although aware of the doctrinal differences between Catholic and Protestant, La Boétie considers them relatively unimportant; out of 100,000 Protestants, he says, only 200 actually understand them.

He considers three options to remedy the division in the country. The first, going over entirely to the new (Protestant) church, he rejects as impractical in France, although he acknowledges that it has worked in England. The second, religious toleration, is also rejected. He points out that it has not worked in Germany, where there was still conflict between the different forms of Christianity. Also, it leads to further division; for example, between Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and so forth. La Boétie recognises that different religions coexist successfully in the Ottoman Empire, which contains Muslims, Jews, and Christians among others, but he doubts that different forms of the same religion can live together peacefully in a single state. He also warns that the enemies of France will take advantage of her religious divisions. So his solution is to insist on adherence to the Catholic Church – but not as it currently existed. First, he says, order must be restored. By this he means those who have committed violence in the name of religion must be punished. This he proposes to entrust to the Parlements. The monarchy had attempted repression intermittently, through the noblesse d’épée. La Boétie observes that repression only works if combined with justice – in which, of course, the noblesse de robe is expert. He is in favour of severe exemplary justice, but for acts against the community, not for belief itself.

Then the Church must be reformed, so that it becomes so attractive to those repelled by its abuses that they return to it willingly. La Boétie sets out a programme of reform which would effectively have transformed the Catholic Church into what reformers such as Martin Luther (who had originally been a Catholic monk) had wanted. He echoes those reformers by continually citing the example of the early church.

But how will this reform come about? La Boétie has no confidence in the church to reform itself. Instead he looks to the King, ‘protector of the Gallican church’, to carry out this reform within France, supported by the Parlements, which will appoint a coadjutor for each bishop to ensure that it happens.

As a final nail in the coffin of corruption, the Church will lose its right to raise revenue directly. Instead the state will raise the money to fund its needs, and in the case of absentee priests that money will be administered by the public authorities.

In effect, La Boétie set out a programme for a national church, nominally Catholic but under state control. He acknowledged that some aspects of his programme would require the approval of the Pope, but was confident that the Pope would cooperate, as he did in Germany.

Etienne de la Boetie
Possible sketch of de la Boétie

Death & Afterlife

La Boétie died on August 18th 1563 from an intestinal illness, possibly a form of plague. Montaigne recorded his last days in an eloquent letter, and was at his death-bed. La Boétie bequeathed his library to Montaigne, who also acted as his executor.

Now begins La Boétie’s curious afterlife. Montaigne published La Boétie’s other works in 1571 but omitted the Discours and the Mémoire. By now the wars of religion had started and both texts were controversial.

If we only had Montaigne’s edition, we would probably regard La Boétie as a minor Renaissance humanist. However, the Discours was circulating in manuscript, and an extract was published in 1574, followed in 1577 by a complete text, under the title of Le Contr’un. Both these versions were published in the Protestant interest. It is one of the numerous ironies of La Boétie scholarship that the best manuscript of the Discours, on which all modern versions are based, was owned by Henri de Mesmes, who drafted a text called Against La Boétie.

La Boétie’s influence seems to have crossed the Channel. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius uses the image of the Colossus to describe the tyrant Caesar, and adds, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” This might have come straight out of the Discours.

Then La Boétie more or less disappears for over a century. There is an English translation in 1733, and in 1727 the Discours is reprinted in an edition of Montaigne’s Essays. It also reappears in a couple of editions in the 1790s; but the idea that the citizen might refuse the demands of the state was probably as obnoxious to Robespierre’s French Republic as it had been to the ancien régime. As the nineteenth century moved on, the thoughts which La Boétie had articulated became attractive to anarchists including Thoreau, the Christian anarchism of Tolstoy, and finally Gandhi.

The rediscovery of the Mémoire in 1917 should have brought about a reassessment of La Boétie. Instead, the Discours has been edited and reedited, while the text of the Mémoire is only readily available as an appendix to the Gontarbert edition of the Discours. I suggest that only in reading the two texts together is it possible to understand the idealistic thought of La Boétie. Both are based on the Renaissance humanist idea that man (excuse the anachronism) is master of his fate and of his institutions.

© Martin Jenkins 2020

Martin Jenkins is a Quaker and a retired community worker. He lives in London and Normandy.

A Note on Texts

The Discours is available in English in Atkinson and Sices’s edition (2012). The commentary is mostly good but contains a few errors, and the English version is often more of a paraphrase than a translation. The Mémoire is, to the best of my knowledge, only available in French.

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