The Politics of Obedience

Believers in absolute government like to pontificate that the citizenry is bound to obey everything agents of the State tell them to do. Those who prefer to live without rulers, whether in the form of a limited government or in a state of nature, inherently disagree with the very notion that they owe undue allegiance towards a predatory criminal syndicate. Needless to say, it becomes imperative for us to try and understand the psychosocial dynamics of tyranny itself.



Published in 1576, the author tries to understand in his essay why his fellow countrymen obey the government as easily as they do with virtually no resistance. As Boétie says:


“For the present I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!”


A striking situation indeed, but having briefly stated his goal, I must ask what led up to such a state of affairs? Boétie asserts:


“There are three kinds of tyrants; some receive their proud position through elections by the people, others by force of arms, others by inheritance…although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.”


So it would seem that if those positions of power weren’t perceived to be vacant, then there would be nothing for any tyrant to seize control of, thereby rendering his supposed “authority” null & void. Of course, if the people simple acquiescence to any of these three scenarios, they have tacitly consented to be dominated, subjugated, and terrorized. Perhaps Boétie can offer a explanation on this point:


“When they lose their liberty through deceit they are not so often betrayed by others as misled by themselves…the essential reason why men take orders willingly is that they are born serfs and are reared as such. From this cause there follows another result, namely that people easily become cowardly and submissive under tyrants…And now, since all beings, because they feel, suffer misery in subjection and long for liberty; since the very beasts, although made for the services of man, cannot become accustomed to control without protest, what evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?”


If anything, Boétie would appear to partially support George Mercier’s contention that it is the fault of the people themselves why they are suffering as they are under the government. I also appreciate how Boétie includes social engineering as the key factor as to why those who should be exercising their right of revolution are refusing to do so. He continues by saying:


“It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement. It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to…Nevertheless it is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection…We should exonerate and forgive them, since they have not seen even the shadow of liberty, and, being quite unaware of it, cannot perceive the evil endured through their own slavery.”


This is why social engineering is so damn dangerous – if it continues on long enough, the next generation will never have known freedom, and thus will not fight to regain it for their children, much less themselves. If there was ever a reason why any multi-generational project for achieving freedom possesses a key flaw, it lies in the assumption that children care more about the liberty their parents once enjoyed, but that they themselves never experienced. Misunderstanding incrementalization is quite deadly to the human soul, and I’m glad that Boétie considered kicking the can down the road to be rather, well, counter-productive. I must ask, though, what is the result of doing what can be done in our own lifetimes, instead of shouldering it upon the next several generations? Boétie said:


“By this time it should be evident that liberty once lost, valor also perishes. A subject people shows neither gladness nor eagerness in combat: its men march sullenly to danger almost as if in bonds, and stultified; they do not feel throbbing within them that eagerness for liberty which engenders scorn of peril and imparts readiness to acquire honor and glory by a brave death amidst one’s comrades. Among free men there is competition as to who will do most, each for the common good, each by himself, all expecting to share in the misfortunes of defeat, or in the benefits of victory; but an enslaved people loses in addition to this warlike courage, all signs of enthusiasm, for their hearts are degraded, submissive, and incapable of any great deed. Tyrants are well aware of this, and, in order to degrade their subjects further, encourage them to assume this attitude and make it instinctive.”


Make hay while the sun shines, so it would appear, lest your progeny devolve into a bunch of sniveling cowards. Again, why should any of us expect those who have never possessed something to be jealous of it?

Aiding tyrants in their seizure of coercive power, is the warfarewelfare state, because the rarely mentioned secret of these two halves is that they work in tandem. Boétie describes how after King Croesus of the Lydians was captured by Cyrus the Great following the fall of the capitol city, Sardis:


“He established in it brothels, taverns, and public games, and issued the proclamation that the inhabitants were to enjoy them. He found this type of garrison so effective that he never again had to draw the sword against the Lydians. These wretched people enjoyed themselves inventing all kinds of games, so that the Latins have derived the word from them, and what we call pastimes they call ludi, as if they meant to say Lydi. Not all tyrants have manifested so clearly their intention to effeminize their victims; but in fact, what the aforementioned despot publicly proclaimed and put into effect, most of the others have pursued secretly as an end. It is indeed the nature of the populace, whose density is always greater in the cities, to be suspicious toward one who has their welfare at heart, and gullible toward one who fools them.”


This is rather significant, because what these handouts were purposefully designed to do was pacify the captive population into not exercising their right of revolution. After describing some related aspects of this, Boétie comments that:


“Truly, it is a marvelous thing that they let themselves be caught so quickly at the slightest tickling of their fancy. 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 no so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books…It is pitiful to review the list of devices that early despots used to establish their tyranny; to discover how many little tricks they employed, always finding the populace conveniently gullible, readily caught in the net as soon as it was spread. Indeed they always fooled their victims so easily that while mocking them they enslaved them the more.”


In other words, the welfare state solidified the victory won by the warfare state so as to prevent the victims of statism from committing tyrannicide. Only the left-right paradigm believes that the welfare state and the warfare state are opposed to each other, with fascists licking the jackboots of the king’s mercenaries while the communists gorge themselves on the hanging chads from the king’s table. The truth of the matter is that both the fascists and the communists (who dishonestly label themselves as “conservatives” and “liberals,” respectively) are statists, that is, adoring cult members who worship the most dangerous superstition ever known throughout the whole history of mankind.

Revealingly, it is not only the tyrant himself that is the problem, but also his entourage. As Boétie puts it:


“It is not the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that defend the tyrant…In short, when the point is reached, through big favors or little ones, that large profits or small are obtained under a tyrant, there are found almost as many people to whom tyranny seems advantageous as those to whom liberty would seem desirable…Let such men lay aside briefly their ambition, or let them forget for a moment their avarice, and look at themselves as they really are. Then they will realize clearly that the townspeople, the peasants whom they trample under foot and treat worse than convicts or slaves, they will realize, I say, that these people, mistreated as they may be, are nevertheless, in comparison with themselves, better off and fairly free.”


Besides the simile that could be evocative of the idea that “only proles & animals are free,” Boétie is illustrating how tyranny is a team sport. Unfortunately, because tyranny creates a state of war between men, the degree of cooperation is always uneasy, even amongst those individuals who comprise the despot’s side:


“Stupidity in a tyrant always renders him incapable of benevolent action; but in some mysterious way by dint of acting cruelly even toward those who are his closest associates, he seems to manifest what little intelligence he may have…That is why the majority of the dictators of former days were commonly slain by their closest favorites who, observing the nature of tyranny, could not be so confident of the whim of the tyrant as they were distrustful of his power.”


Put another way, tyrants always eat their own. They have to, because they are incapable of trusting anyone, even though many times they try to invoke that noble concept when they attempt to inculcate loyalty in their subjects. Ironically, Boétie argues that the ostracism levied by the people is not laid at the feet of the tyrant, necessarily, but upon the shoulders of his cohorts:


“Actually the people never blame the tyrant for the evils they suffer, but they do place responsibility on those who influence him…This is the glory and honor heaped upon influential favorites for their services by people who, if they could tear apart their living bodies, would still clamor for more, only half satiated by the agony they might behold. For even when the favorites are dead those who live after are never too lazy to blacken the names of these man-eaters with the ink of a thousand pens, tear their reputations into bits in a thousand books, and drag, so to speak, their bones past posterity, forever punishing them after their death for their wicked lives.”


You would think that those who seek to benefit from the suffering of others, by way of government, would pause before they acted, given that they are at much greater risk of scorn and ridicule, but, alas, such would not seem to be the case.

Having sung his praises thus far, I will now attempt to judge whether Boétie should be admonished for lacking the courage of his convictions. He first says:


“Place on one side fifty thousand armed men, and on the other the same number; let them join in battle, one side fighting to retain its liberty, the other to take it away; to which would you, at a guess, promise victory? Which men do you think would march more gallantly to combat – those who anticipate as a reward for their suffering the maintenance of their freedom, or those who cannot expect any other prize for the blows exchanged than the enslavement of others?”


So far so good, right? This would be something that citizen soldiers, security teams, or monkey-wrenchers could get behind:


“One side will have before its eyes the blessings of the past and the hope of similar joy in the future; their thoughts dwell less on the comparatively brief pain of battle than on what they may have to endure forever, they, their children, and all their posterity. The other side has nothing to inspire it with courage except the weak urge of greed, which fades before danger and which can never been so keen, it seems to me, that it will not be dismayed by the least drop of blood from wounds.”


No problem thus far, especially with its accurate description of the Standing Army, especially with their “revenue generation” at the side of the road. Yet, Boétie says the following:


“Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude. A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.”


According to this line of reasoning, starving the State is sufficient for defeating it, thus rendering the need to smash the State as unnecessary, or so Boétie would have us believe. By invoking the right of revolution, yet downplaying the necessity for it, does indeed beg the question of whether Boétie is contradicting himself. Perhaps an answer to this question can be answered by what Boétie said next:


“If it cost the people anything to recover its freedom, I should not urge action to this end, although there is nothing a human should hold more dear than the restoration of his own natural right, to change himself from a beast of burden back to a man, so to speak. I do not demand of him so much boldness; let him prefer the doubtful security of living wretchedly to the uncertain hope of living as he pleases. What then? If in order to have liberty nothing more is needed than to long for it, if only a simple act of the will is necessary, is there any nation in the world that considers a single wish too high a price to pay in order to recover rights which it ought to be read to redeem at the cost of its blood, rights such that their loss must bring all men of honor to the point of feeling life too unendurable and death itself a deliverance?”


Ah, there you have it — Boétie’s method of non serviam is based on a matter of degree within the right of revolution, much like Henry Thoreau. In other words, for those individuals who are not yet hardened along the right side of the other (not so) thin line, this consolation Boétie gives them is their opportunity to participate in a resistance effort, albeit it in a rather limited manner. He further says:


“You sow your crops in order that he may ravage them, you install and furnish your homes to give him goods to pillage; you rear your daughters that he may gratify his lust; you bring up your children in order that they may confer upon them the greatest privilege he knows — to be led into his battles, to be delivered to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the instruments of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold you in check.”


Again, Boétie is trying to get it through the reader’s possibly thick skull that tyrants don’t understand the concept of limits; they will take, and take, and take from you until there is literally nothing left (and, quite possibly, they’ll try to take some more, anyway). Boétie’s diatribe comes to a crescendo when he says:


“From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. 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 into pieces?”


I don’t know about being freed once you’ve resolved to serve no more, but what I will say is that it is a good first step along the thin line, yet I feel compelled to add that starving Leviathan, most importantly, is a state of mind whereby you’ve made the commitment to stop acquiescing to it. Just as you would stop accepting the handouts and benefits from the welfare state, refusing to serve government is a necessary condition before you start resisting it as a way of life.

There are some other thoughts on my mind I would like to address here with regards to Boétie and his essay on obedience to government:


  • First, Boétie was not a contemporary of Frédéric Bastiat; Boétie died in 1563, 238 years before Bastiat’s birth in 1801.
  • Second, it is more than likely than Thoreau read Boétie, which would mean that the contemporary notion of “civil disobedience” did not begin in mid-19th century America, but rather in late 16th century France.
  • Third, Boétie’s constant references about “a single tyrant” are really only applicable to monarchical governments, and thus is not useful for those of us who are experiencing a subversion of republican government, for the very simple reason that there are many tyrants in our situation, not just one tyrant who comes prepackaged with his own entourage of suck-ups.
  • Fourth, Boétie’s method presumes that if you just starve Leviathan, then that is sufficient in fulfilling your duty to oppose it. I inherently disagree, because one must be willing and able to likewise smash Leviathan, thus, I think that if you really want to end tyranny, then it is your sworn duty to both starve and smash Leviathan.
  • Fifth, saying “no” to government agents or their statist sycophants is really only helpful on an individual, case-by-case basis. Even though I’m a big advocate of the power of non-compliance, I have no illusions about what it cannot do, and what it can’t do is topple tyrannical government, at least, not by itself.
  • Sixth, and more importantly, I fear that Boétie’s technique might very well be nothing more than a fallacious justification for the myth of the line in the sand. I say that because Boétie left it nebulous as to under what conditions men should begin resisting tyrants. Granted, I’m not asking for particulars, but I am asking for roadsigns, as John Locke provided.


Fundamentally, civil disobedience, which is what Boétie is really describing here, is ineffective as a strategy for achieving liberty because it relies upon the theory of critical mass, but as a tactic, it can be effective in some circumstances for particular individuals, provided they are able and willing to violate mala prohibita, of course.

Étienne de La Boétie’s The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude is a earlier literary piece on civil disobedience, with an emphasis on how social engineering curtails subjugated men from exercising their common right of revolution. As Boétie concludes his piece by saying:


“As for me, I truly believe I am right, since there is nothing so contrary to a generous and loving God as tyranny — I believe He as reserved, in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for tyrants and their accomplices.”


I certainty hope so, too, lest what we have been struggling for thus far has been all done in vain. Regardless, no amount of David Icke’s “non-comply-dance” is going to set us free, especially if you’re not even free inside your head first. If, however, you are ready for the next step in setting yourself free, then I would encourage you to read A Recent History of the Libertarian Position on Self-Defense for understanding why we all should take self-defense seriously.

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