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Voluntary Servitude

The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude was written by Étienne de la Boétie in 1549, when he was an 18-year-old university student. This excerpt reminds me of certain societies I know today.

    Poor miserable folk, foolish peoples, nations obstinate in evil and blind to good! You let the most beautiful and fair of your revenue be taken from under your eyes, you let your fields be ravaged, you let the possessions of your ancestors be stolen and stripped from your homes! You live in such a way that nothing is yours any longer. It seems that you would henceforth see it as a great blessing if you were left only half of your goods, your families, your lives. And all these harms, these misfortunes, this ruin, doesn’t come to you from enemies, but indeed from the enemy, the very one who you made what he is, the one for whom you go so courageously to war, and for whose grandeur you don’t hesitate to give up your lives. Yet this master has only two eyes, two hands, one body, and nothing more than the least of the inhabitants of our countless cities. All he has more than that, are the means you provide him with to destroy you. Where does he get those eyes to spy on you, if it isn’t from you? How does he have so many hands to strike you with, if you don’t lend them to him? Aren’t the feet with which he treads on your towns also yours? Does he have any power over you that isn’t your own? How would he dare to harass you, if you weren’t in agreement with with him? What evil could he do you, if you weren’t shelterers of the thief who plunders you, accomplices of the murderer who kills you, and traitors to yourselves? You plant your fields so he can lay them waste, you furnish and fill your houses to provide for his plunders, you raise your daughters in order to satisfy his pleasure, you feed your children so he can make soldiers of them in the best of cases, so he can lead them to war, to butchery, turning them into ministers of his covetousness and executors of his vengeance. You wear yourselves out in hardship so he can cosset himself with delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures. You weaken yourselves so he will be stronger, and hold you more tightly on a shorter leash. And from so many indignities that the beasts themselves would not put up with them if they felt them, you could free yourselves if you tried, not even to free yourselves, but only to want it.
    Make up your minds to no longer serve, and you are free.

My thanks, not for the first time, to Yahia for bringing this text to my attention. The translation is my own.


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