Review of “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”

‘In this short book, Etienne de la Boetie explains the acts of tyrants and questions why they rise to power and keep it for so long.

Boetie is an anarchist, who is often touted as the founder of modern political philosophy in France. He died abruptly at the age of 32, but his book remains a classic.

The book starts with Boetie pondering why tyrants hold on to power for so long. It is not just the cruelty and horror that is inflicted upon people (although Boetie explains that this introduces cowardice among the populace), but it is the populace that gives into servitude. A tyrant has power if his subjects allow him/her to do so.

His second part looks at how tyrants are able to hold on to power. He goes through a number of reasons that include tradition (custom), religion and cowardice. The populace is even swayed by charisma of the tyrants as exemplified by the Egyptians?

In the final part of the book, he explains how tyrants eventually fall; their inability to trust eventually leads to their demise. He mentions Xenophon’s explanation on how it comes to the point that tyrants need outside parties to fight wars for them because they do not know to whom to give arms.
Also, Boetie provides some advice that the closest subjects of the tyrant are greater slaves and are most threatened. Eventually, the tyrant’s lust for power and inability to love are things that lead to downfall.

This book infuses theory with examples of classical antiquity. Emperors such as Nero, Claudius, and Caesar are brought up. Even Lycurgus’s famous teaching tale is brought up to drive the points home. This is what makes the book a page turner.

Rather than looking at this piece of literature to point out the flaws of the government, I see it as a reminder of the very worst of tyrants that their reign will never exist for long. If anything, the Middle East revolution (Arab Spring) provides a stark example.’

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