Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

We posted about how Alexis de Toqueville was prescient about issues we are facing today. Blogger Clarendon points us back even further, to Etienne de la Boetie who wrote Discourse on Voluntary Servitude way back in 1548. Here he refers to ancient Rome, but the principle about government largesse applies in all times:

Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.

The discourse considers “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.” Here is another gem:

This method tyrants use of stultifying their subjects [by debasing them] cannot be more clearly observed than in what Cyrus[30] did with the Lydians after he had taken Sardis, their chief city, and had at his mercy the captured Croesus, their fabulously rich king. When news was brought to him that the people of Sardis had rebelled, it would have been easy for him to reduce them by force; but being unwilling either to sack such a fine city or to maintain an army there to police it, he thought of an unusual expedient for reducing it. 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.

It’s all worth reading.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • SusanR

    Bread and circuses.
    Present form: hot wings and television.
    (Or Starbucks and free wi-fi)
    We all like to think we don’t ask for much. And, when we don’t, that’s exactly how much we’re ‘given’.

  • SusanR

    Bread and circuses.
    Present form: hot wings and television.
    (Or Starbucks and free wi-fi)
    We all like to think we don’t ask for much. And, when we don’t, that’s exactly how much we’re ‘given’.

  • Peter Leavitt

    One form of voluntary servitude would be to watch American Idol. which for the life of me I don’t understand why my good wife and Veith slavishly follow.

  • Peter Leavitt

    One form of voluntary servitude would be to watch American Idol. which for the life of me I don’t understand why my good wife and Veith slavishly follow.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    If you don’t understand it, Peter, you shouldn’t have any opinion about it one way or the other! I suppose your wife and I are indulging in voluntary servitude, since we watch the show by our own free will. I hope your wife isn’t subjecting you to involuntary servitude by making you watch it! The good thing about it, if you want to know, is that it is all about making aesthetic judgments about the quality of music performances. If everyone did more of that, our culture would greatly improve.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    If you don’t understand it, Peter, you shouldn’t have any opinion about it one way or the other! I suppose your wife and I are indulging in voluntary servitude, since we watch the show by our own free will. I hope your wife isn’t subjecting you to involuntary servitude by making you watch it! The good thing about it, if you want to know, is that it is all about making aesthetic judgments about the quality of music performances. If everyone did more of that, our culture would greatly improve.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    If you don’t understand it, Peter, you shouldn’t have any opinion about it one way or the other! I suppose your wife and I are indulging in voluntary servitude, since we watch the show by our own free will. I hope your wife isn’t subjecting you to involuntary servitude by making you watch it! The good thing about it, if you want to know, is that it is all about making aesthetic judgments about the quality of music performances. If everyone did more of that, our culture would greatly improve.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    If you don’t understand it, Peter, you shouldn’t have any opinion about it one way or the other! I suppose your wife and I are indulging in voluntary servitude, since we watch the show by our own free will. I hope your wife isn’t subjecting you to involuntary servitude by making you watch it! The good thing about it, if you want to know, is that it is all about making aesthetic judgments about the quality of music performances. If everyone did more of that, our culture would greatly improve.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Well, that might explain it! My ability to make aesthetic judgments of music is minimal. My wife doesn’t make me watch American Idol; she reserves that for god-forsaken trips to the Met to watch assorted operas.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Well, that might explain it! My ability to make aesthetic judgments of music is minimal. My wife doesn’t make me watch American Idol; she reserves that for god-forsaken trips to the Met to watch assorted operas.


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