Reflexions on Civil Disobedience
[Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.]
La Boétie’s The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude asserts that tyrants have power because the people give it to them. Liberty has been abandoned once by society, which afterward stayed corrupted and prefers the slavery of the courtesan to the freedom of one who refuses to dominate as he refuses to obey. Thus, La Boétie linked together obedience and domination, a relationship which would be later theorized by latter anarchist thinkers. By advocating a solution of simply refusing to support the tyrant, he became one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Lew Rockwell summarizes La Boétie’s political philosophy as follows:
“To him, the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear, Boétie explains in “The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.” — “Étienne de la Boétie and Egypt” (2011)
Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience impressed Mahatma Gandhi. In 1907, about one year into his first satyagraha campaign in South Africa, he wrote a translated synopsis of Thoreau’s argument for Indian Opinion, credited Thoreau’s essay with being “the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America”, and wrote that “Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable to the Indians in the Transvaal.” He later concluded:
Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable. — “For Passive Resisters” (1907).