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It should be Étienne de la Boétie's face on the T-shirts, not Che Guevara's (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
It should be Étienne de la Boétie's face on the T-shirts, not Che Guevara's (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Neil Reynolds

The incredible power of civil disobedience Add to ...

Martin Luther King learned civil disobedience from Mahatma Gandhi, who learned it from Leo Tolstoy - see Tolstoy's 1908 Letter to a Hindu: "It is not the English who have enslaved the Indians but the Indians who have enslaved themselves." Tolstoy learned it from Étienne de la Boétie - the young 16th-century French philosopher who was (according to one scholar) "the first person to advocate mass, non-violent civil disobedience." The world owes a huge debt to this forgotten revolutionary. If we knew what he looked like, it would be his face on the T-shirts, not Che Guevara's.

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La Boétie's user's guide to the overthrow of tyrants - The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude - has acquired profound relevance in our own time. Although the oldest manifesto, it's now also the most modern and, perhaps, the most relevant. Think of the revolutions that civil disobedience has nourished and sustained in the past 25 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the demise of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. La Boétie's handbook can't guarantee success. It failed in Tiananmen Square. It failed in Tehran. It could fail in Libya. But its failures are all qualified: so far.

La Boétie's life was brief. Born to an aristocratic French family in 1530, he was orphaned at an early age. A precocious child, he was raised by an uncle. He obtained a law degree at 22 and began a career as a judge and diplomat, a writer and poet. He died in 1563, at 32.

No one knows for sure when, inspired by a peasant uprising, he wrote his reflections on tyrants. His best friend, the essayist Michel de Montaigne, in whose arms he died, said in later years that La Boétie wrote it when he was 18, or perhaps 16. Historians think he was 22. But it was read only as a manuscript, as samizdat, in his lifetime and wasn't published until years after his death - by French Protestants, who themselves had much to fear from despotic government.

Medieval philosophers took it for granted that people were justified in using force to escape tyranny. La Boétie, though, said force was not necessary - and, hence, not morally justified. Most people, he said, are responsible for their own subjugation and thus responsible for ending it. All governments, he said, survive by the consent, implicit or explicit, of the governed.

"Why do so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power people gave him?" he asked. "Shall we call this cowardice? When a thousand, a million, men [in]a thousand cities fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth.

"Obviously, there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant - for he is defeated when the country refuses to consent to its own enslavement. The people do not need to act. They do not need to shed blood. They conquer by willing to be free."

La Boétie continued: "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."

Enslavement, La Boétie argued, can happen under benign governments as well as malignant governments. This can occur because all governments use the same techniques to control people. They exploit ideology. They create dependence. They "stupefy" the people with gifts and games.

And all governments require bureaucracies - which expand until masses of people are bound to them "with cords of self-interest." In essence, all governments are pyramid schemes. "Give the people a bushel of wheat and a gallon of wine and the rabble cries: Long live the king!" La Boétie said. "The fools do not realize that they are recovering a portion of their own property."

 

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