Books can have much influence on life, culture and politics, and who knows what more. The influence of religious books is very well known. Or take the influence of the philosophical works by Plato, Aristotle and Descartes, works of science by Newton or Darwin. And so I can go on. The row is endless, and most people can mention a few, or when we mention a title they say “Oh yes, of course”. Yet sometimes a book has been very influential and hardly anybody has heard of it or of the author. Such a work is the Discourse on voluntary servitude by Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563). Only when you ask people in France, there will be a good chance that they know the man and his booklet. Especially since a few years, in France the interest in La Boétie is growing, and when I was in a bookshop in Lille not so long ago, I counted there even four different editions next to one another. But also in France many people do not know about the important influence of the Discourse on popular resistance everywhere in the world, especially on nonviolent resistance.
When exactly the booklet (it has only about 50 pages) has been written not sure. It must have been in or just before 1548, and later La Boétie seems to have made yet some changes in it. In essence it defends the thesis that a ruler can only rule, because his objects are prepared to obey him. Moreover, La Boétie describes the mechanisms how the ruler can make that the subjects are prepared to obey.
After his premature death at the age of only 32, the book was picked up by the Protestants during the religious civil wars in France, where they used it for justifying their struggle against the French roman-catholic kings. When these wars had come to an end and France had been pacified, the Discourse was almost forgotten, although now and then we see that it came back from the depth of obscurity. The influence on Rousseau’s thinking is striking, for example.
The first real reappearance took place in the French Revolution, when it was quoted by several revolutionaries. And since the publication of a new edition by Lamennais in the midst of the 19th century, the advance of the Discourse could not be stopped anymore. Since then every ten years at least one new French edition has seen the light, not counting the editions in other languages. And the book has not only been re-edited and translated again and again, it got also a clear influence on outstanding revolutionaries and activists. In America it has been read and used by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the author of the “On civil disobedience”. The most important line of influence starts with Lev N. Tolstoy, who has written not only great novels but who was also an important thinker in the field of nonviolence, especially in his later years. It was by him that Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi learned about the Discourse. Passages of LaBoétian thinking can be easily found back in his Hind Swaraj. And via Gandhi this thinking found its way in the world.
This blog is not the place to write an essay of the road of this influence, but I just want to mention the influence via Gandhi on American nonviolent activists, including Martin Luther King. Via the thought of the German revolutionary Landauer the Dutch peace activist Bart de Ligt came into touch with the Discourse, and then it influenced the peace movement in the Netherlands and other countries. Another road is the work of the American political scientist Gene Sharp, whose books have had an important influence on all major nonviolent resistance movements and uprisings of the present history, for example in Burma, Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine.
This is only one instance of a book that has become very influential. As said in the beginning, there have been many influential books, and there’ll also be many more in future. But the most surprising thing is how a book can be so influential and hardly anybody knows the book and its author.