Monday, September 29, 2008

On voluntary servitude

On August 25, I wrote in my blog that “it is easier to follow the stream that carries us along rather than take a moment for a break. It is easier to let other people think for us. It is easier not to oppose even if it might be wrong to give in”. Then I was thinking of our intellectual creativity and originality, our mental independence. However, one can give it also a political meaning. More than 400 years ago Étienne de La Boétie wrote a booklet with the title The discourse of voluntary servitude. In this treatise, which he wrote when he was still very young, he defended the thesis that we behave like the slaves of our rulers. La Boétie wondered how it is possible that so many people endure the whims and oppression of a tyrant and that hardly anybody opposes. La Boétie mentioned many reasons why people just do what the ruler desires, but in the end it is because of this: it is simply easier not to oppose and to behave oneself voluntarily like a slave. In short, the easiest way is to obey and to live in voluntary servitude.One can call this a naive idea, a too simple analysis of power, and in some respects it is, although one must see it in the context of his time (La Boétie implicitly criticised Machiavelli, for example). However, the idea is not as naive as one might think. Through the ages it has attracted many persons, and among them were not the most insignificant ones, like Rousseau. And since the rediscovery of the treatise in the 19th century, its central idea has been very influential and cannot be ignored any longer, unless one wants to say that leaders like Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have brought about nothing. For they have been demonstrably influenced by the idea of La Boétie, and they showed how important it can be to go against the stream and not to obey if the circumstances require.

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