La Boétie argues that tyranny will collapse if enough people refuse to cooperate and withdraw their moral support to it (1576)

Etienne de la Boétie

Found in The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

The French judge and poet Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) believed that tyrants are able to rule because most people give them their moral support. The converse is true. Tyranny will collapse under its own weight if enough people refuse to cooperate with it and no longer believe in the legitimacy of a tyrant’s rule:

Everyone knows that the fire from a little spark will increase and blaze ever higher as long as it finds wood to burn; yet without being quenched by water, but merely by finding no more fuel to feed on, it consumes itself, dies down, and is no longer a flame. Similarly, the more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy. But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies. …

All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves? …

(Y)ou can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.

Before there was Gandhi and his theory of satyagraha (civil disobedience and non-violent resistance) there was La Boétie. This French lawyer who was best known in his own lifetime as a poet, translator, and friend of Montaigne wrote a perceptive essay in 1576 on the nature of tyranny and why tyrants are able to subdue and rule an entire people with the aid of a relatively small number of troops and policemen. His explanation is that most people are willing to cooperate in their own subjection to authority; they obey orders even though there is no gendarme standing next to them to enforce compliance. His solution is similar to Gandhi’s - if only people in significant enough numbers would refuse to obey commands, if they withheld tax payments, if they no longer regarded rulers as being legitimate sovereigns but as bandits with crowns, then the system of tyranny would grind to a holt. This quote cames at the end of Part I and could be seen as a kind of Randian appeal for productive citizens to go on strike and retreat to the Renaissance equivalent of a Galt’s Gulch.