Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne I: de La Boetie (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) was from Sarlat in the southwest of France. He developed strong interests in poetry, classics, and politics as a youth and was rather precocious. It has even been suggested that he wrote his great political essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (also known as ‘One against All’) at the age of sixteen, though there is no universally accepted date for its composition. He started a career as a judge in Bourdeaux at an unusual age, followed up by diplomatic work. He was also a translator of Greek classics and a poet who associated with a distinguished group that included the greatest French Renaissance poet Pierre Ronsard.

De La Boétie died at a sadly young age, but before that he wrote the great political essay under discussion here, and made friends with the Bordeaux judge and author of the Essays, one of the great works of French and European literature, philosophy, and self-examination. I have considered Montaigne as a thinker about liberty and though he did not directly express enthusiasm for liberty-oriented radicalism, he certainly had friends who did, including de La Boétie and an early feminist to be considered in the next post.

It has been claimed that Montaigne wrote ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ himself, which combined with the claim that de La Boétie wrote it at the age of sixteen suggests considerable uncertainty about the status of the text. I will just go with the more average assumptions, which are that de La Boétie was the author and wrote it later than the age of sixteen (or eighteen, as also been suggested).

Anyway, the friendship of Montaigne and de La Boétie was itself a major event in French and European culture, since de La Boétie’s death appears to have played a late part in Montaigne retiring from the judiciary and a melancholia, which led him to begin composing the Essays. One of the most famous essays, ‘On Friendship’, is in part a meditation on the friendship with de La Boétie and the sadness that Montaigne feels that his life is no longer shared with him.

The topic of friendship itself connects with ancient ideas of political liberty, so that the essay itself can be taken as part of the evidence that Montaigne sympathised with ancient republican liberty and wished for its revival. Montaigne’s essay is, as one would expect given Montaigne’s constant shifts in point of view and exploration of difficulties in ideas of some appeal, more open to difficult moments in the idea of friendship, such as the willingness of a friend to cooperate with the other friend’s lawless projects.

De La Boétie’s stye is to develop a thesis with great passion and rhetoric; skill, rather than obviously exploring all sides of a question, though he is certainly best understood with a critical approach to what he might mean and openness to different approaches. Attempts to fit de La Boétie too narrowly into any recent conception of liberty are unlikely to do him justice, as can be seen in the wide range of people who have sought inspiration from more individualistic and more collectivist understandings of both anarchism and republicanism.

‘The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ may be taken as anarchistic in that de La Boétie argues for resisting the authority of any individual or group over a nation, or group of people however defined. It may taken as republican in that de La Boétie uses the language and references of ancient republican tradition in Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, which gives all citizens some role on law-making and government actions through public assemblies. The theoretical work itself reflects on the experience of Ancient Greek city-states and Rome before the Emperor system.

What de La Boétie opposed to the unjust rule of one or a group is law and an idea of liberty, which he defines as natural, and in opposition to the unnatural tendency to those who rule without regard to law. His way of thinking looks connected to that of the tradition going back to Aristotle of ‘natural law’ as those laws shared by all communities and therefore to be seen as belonging to human communities by the nature of humans, or their communities, rather than those laws arising from specific localised customs and necessities. De La Boétie resists an exact account, suggesting he is concerned with the defence of liberty as natural against tyranny, defined as monstrous.

De La Boétie starts the Discourse with reference to Homer, making clear his classical points of reference. The idea comes from Odysseus (de La Boétie uses the`Latinate version of the name, Ulysses) in The Iliad that it is better to have one master than many. De La Boétie takes his starting point then the necessity of condemning one person rule, which must be tyranny whether that individual came to  power through inheritance, election, or usurpation (coup). In that respect, de La Boétie might be taken as an anarchist resisting all authority, as well as a pacifist, since he points to the power of one resisting on the obedience of many who could easily shake of the power of one, without force, if they ignored the claims if the one to sovereign power.

On the whole though, de La Boétie appears to be thinking of the antique republican tradition of sharing power between individuals and councils (and the human value of such participation), so that no one individual or council can have unchecked power. Both the Athenian and Spartan republics are mentioned favourably from this point of view, as is their armed resistance to the invasion of Greece by Persia, itself under the power of one. The ancient Greeks are associated with republican virtues in which liberty is more important than wealth or comfort. It is not so much anarchy, as sharing of political power that de La Boétie recommends, and war is accepted where necessary to resist domestic or foreign tyranny.

There is a justified anarchistic reading of de La Boétie, if we are willing to distinguish that from de La Boétie’s own view. He was an admirer of the sharing of power between citizens in ancient city-states, where there was close to no bureaucracy and administrative functions by modern standards, and what there was could be realistically managed by committees of citizens. This can come close to an anarchistic view of purely voluntary institutions substituting for the state, particularly if we accept a natural law view in which everyone is likely to favour the same basic laws as ‘natural’ or we have some other reason for thinking the same laws will be discerned and accepted as right by the whole body of citizens. I do not recommend such a view, but it is at least worth exploring.

The issue of friendship, which connects de La Boétie with Montaigne, comes into the republicanism of de La Boétie in that friendship is what a tyrant cannot have, while friendship between citizens is what unites them in struggle against tyranny. The tyrant can only have sycophants and enemies, no friends since they must be equals. A society based on friendship between citizens is not based on coercion and the privilege of one, or a few, who control the state. Friendship itself contains the idea of a good that benefits at least two people, so undermining the idea that we can only have a form of power seeking individualism unconcerned with the common good, and that it is possible to live as a human while ignoring common goods and rights.

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