Étienne de La Boétie: Republicanism and Liberty

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

As I indicated at the end of Sunday’s Link of the Day post, I am returning to Étienne de la Boétie, in a way which will link with things I’ve said about Locke, Montesquieu and Montaigne in the last few days.

De La Boétie’s historical role was to a large degree to be Montaigne’s friend. Montaigne was grief stricken after his friend’s death and ‘Of Friendship’ in the Essays is partly a tribute to their friendship,

De La Boétie’s other role in history was to write the essay ‘On Involuntary Servitude’, which as Montaigne suggests is rather raw, but has lasted as a little classic of Renaissance political thought. I had not really noticed it until I heard Chris Bertram’s podcast on Rousseau, featured in Sunday’s Link of the Day. Searching for an online version of the essay, I realised that the Google research result lead to the Mises Institute, Murray Rothbard and various expressions of the American libertarian scene, including the most thoroughly demented anti-Obama bloggers. I can’t really explain Rothbard much right now, but in brief an anarcho-capitalist economist, historian and activist with a following amongst left-libertarians, as well as the conservative-anarchists who predominate at the Mises Institute (named after the minarchist economist and political thinker, Ludwig von Mises).

This all seems rather peculiar. I certainly got a different result from Google when selecting results in French only, largely an interest in de La Boétie as a Renaissance humanist and friend of Montaigne, which is also what I got when I tried GoogleScholar. There are some French libertarians interested in de La Boétie, but they clearly get their line from the US Rothbardians.

No one could deny that there is a quasi-anarchist element in de La Boétie, nevertheless the forcing of de La Boétie into a mould only really formed by mid-century American radical free market anti-statists (Ayn Rand, Mises, Rothbard etc). It was at this time that the word libertarian was picked up by people claiming to be classical liberals, though the word had been used in France previously by anarcho-communists. Despite the constant fervent claim of libertarians to represent classical liberalism (I except a minority of vert moderate libertarians), very few of the liberal thinkers from the 17th to 19th Century thinkers fit their mould , something I dealt with in a post in Locke yesterday. One of the few exceptions is the 19th Century French economist Frédéric Bastiat (Rotbard established a Circle Bastiat). I searched an online version of his collected works in French, helpfully provided by the very excellent Online Library of Liberty, click here to do your own search. The result is zero references to Boétie. Any links between Francophone anarchism and de La Boétie at all then? Click here for a link to Belgian anarcho-communists.

Was de La Boétie an anarchist in life? It would be difficult to think of anyone at all who would fit the bill at that time, German Anabaptist antinomians who thought they were above law because of divine grace, anyone? De La Boétie was not even a rebel of that kind, a magistrate serving the French monarchy in the Bourdeaux courts of justice, together with Montaigne.

Do the historical references in ‘On Involuntary Servitude’ point to a consistently anarchist/libertarian left or right point of view? De La Boétie refers to the liberty of Plato’s Republic and expresses admiration for Sparta’s legendary law giver, Lycurgus. Not exactly part of any libertarian-anarchist canon. Other De la Boétie heroes are the Roman senators who assassinated Caesar. I don’t think anyone is proposing Brutus and Cassius as symbols of capitalism without a state.

De La Boétie does express rejection of tyrants of all kind, democratic as well as monarchical or aristocratic. But the goal appears to be have a ruler who is not a tyrant rather than no ruler. The language is very much that of classical republicanism, as revived in the Renaissance, of individuals joined together as brothers against a tyrant. Rothbard blunders about contrasting de La Boétie and Machiavelli. Rothbard had some talent as an economic historian, but evidently not history of ideas. Both Machiavelli and de La Boétie were inspired by classical republicanism, both were willing to work for a prince, but hoped to revive something like the Roman Republic before the decay of its political institutions (as Machiavelli makes very clear in his longest book The Discourses). It’s a constant battle to distinguish between the real Machiavelli, and what is suits some people to project onto him through a superficial, or manipulate reading, of The Prince. My curse on Master Thinkers who help make the struggle necessary. Rothbard’s understanding is not always as crude as I’ve suggested above, and he does get into some contextualisation, and he does make it clear that de La Boétie was not quite an anarchist himself; nevertheless republican thought, and the really non-libertarian elements of de la Boétie are played down in favour of ranting to mobilise readers as Rothbardians.

Everyone is free to take classics and extract the bits they like as parts of their ow way of thinking. It is, however, a good idea to explain to yourself and then everyone else, what you are doing. Rothbardian enthusiasts, who don’t know, and don’t care about the Renaissance and Ancient Republican context, throwing de la Boétie around in connection with whatever enthusiasm of the moment. A very peculiar way to use Montaigne’s friend, and Montaigne’s name plays very little part in this discourse. How about they read the section of Essays on law and mystic authority, I looked at on Sunday. I think you could make a better case for that being an anarchist, or near anarchist passage, that would be the wrong approach but progress of a kind. As Chris Bertram correctly points out, some things in Rousseau have precedents in de La Boétie. If anyone thinks I just like being nasty to libertarians, you can see from checking earlier posts that I’m very critical of Rawls’ reading of Classical Liberalism and that favour free market libertarianism in its most moderate forms. That I believe is compatible with the kind of republican tradition which comes from Aristotle and Cicero, through Machiavelli and Harrington, and which is widely thought to have some presence in classical liberal thinkers like Locke and Montesquieu. I addressed the importance of political community in Locke yesterday, and dealt with it briefly in relation to Montesquieu on Sunday.

I’m thinking of including de La Boétie in my teaching of political theory in the second semester of the coming university year. In any case, I hope to get back to him. For now, one positive thought, The negative role of habit in de La Boétie, which I think Bertram mentioned as anticipating Rousseau’s view of social man; it paralleled by discussions inhabit, tradition and custom in Montaigne and Pascal. These discussions all refer to the way in which social existence, in its laws and moral codes rests on an erosion of agency, of free will, at its strongest.

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