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Of Étienne de La Boétie we remember, at most, two things. First, he was the friend of Michel de la Montaigne. When La Boétie died, Montaigne wrote “if you ask me why I loved him, all I can say is, because it was him, because it was I.” La Boétie is less well known for his principal work, a rambling essay on political allegiance entitled Discours de la servitude volontaire, ou le Contr’un: the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-One. The “One” was the King, tyrant or dictator who ruled the many, and why the many permitted that to happen was the puzzle La Boétie set out to answer, in a foundational if neglected work of political theory
What La Boétie wanted to know was why people agree to be oppressed by their rulers. “I should like merely to understand,” he wrote:
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 September 2012, on page 13
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