Etienne de La Boetie: The Psychology Behind Crowd Manipulation

More than 450 years ago, Etienne de La Boetie wrote “Discourse n Voluntary Servitude”. La Boetie was born on 1530 to an aristocratic family. He obtained his law degree and was a French magistrate, classicist, writer, poet and political theorist.

In his book “Discourse on voluntary servitude” he brilliantly outlines the reasons why large populations blindly obey a small number of people. His reasons are of as much value today, as they were when he was alive; he explained “herd” mentality not based on personal opinion but on careful study of government and people’s psychology, philosophy and “moral” ideas.

You may wonder why I chose to write about this particular character; after all he lived so long ago; the reason is simple…even though it is not 1554, we are currently experiencing similar political and “moral” instability, where sadly most of our educational system has become obsolete; where teaching rational thinking has been replaced by robotic repetition.

I have had the blessing of having experienced both sides of life, and can honestly say, that sadly there is a big difference between an upscale private education and public education. I learned a lot about the beautiful level of humanity and camaraderie within Public Schools, while the private schools I attended were meant to challenge preconceived ideas.

The biggest difference between Private and Public education comes down to their curriculum; I had to learn to accept the fact that public schools are not there to teach you to think on your own; specially currently. You are not taught nor encouraged to search, to challenge, to explore, to formulate your own opinions based on proper analysis. More or less you are taught to repeat and try to emulate your teachers. Meanwhile at private schools, one is more than encouraged to challenge. We were taught to research, to question, to come up with reasons why we had to accept what was being taught; did it have validity? if so why. There you did not get a “good” grade based on how much you memorized but on how much you actually understood. There was more focus on philosophy, economics, music, politics, psychology and extensive history. One of the biggest lessons they try to help you understand is that “rules are meant to be broken”. Meanwhile at public schools the resounding message seems to be “follow the rules”. Anyone who thinks the curriculum being taught at public schools is the same as the upscale private institutions, has simply not ever experienced the second. I don’t point this out callously, simply as a crude fact; they say we all have a right to an education; they just don’t tell you which type.

I remember a teacher who after giving us a law assignment said “if you encounter an obstacle on your path, you do not simply give up because you are being told to do so or because you may think you won’t make a difference. Rules were created by men, which means you as a human being have the capacity to change them, but you will have to be persistent, believe on your cause and work on your method of “attack”. You will need to use one of the three methods: Reward, Coercion or Enticement but always with reason. You have to analyze which of these 3 will best suit your argument; that is something you have to discover by studying and analyzing the challenge at hand, your opponents and the “audience”. Keep in mind, if rules were meant to be blindly followed, we would still be stuck in the dark ages.” Her words stayed with me; years later her words took even a deeper meaning and helped me understand why my father had always said “one system teaches to rule while the other teaches to obey”…is it fair? Absolutely NOT but is the sad reality. Perhaps now, you better understand why I chose to focus on Etienne de La Boetie, someone who understood the dangers of blindly trusting a few and giving them total control and power over the welfare of large groups of peoples.

Etienne de La Boetie, wrote his book during a time of political instability; religious wars were being gestated. His law degree was obtained at the University of New Orleans, which at the time was a hub of thought and debate. As a member of an aristocratic family who was very well connected, he was privy to the inner mechanisms behind politics and wars. The combination of all these factors gave birth to “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”, an essay in which he openly confronts the tyranny absolute governments and monarchy can exercise to control the population.

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, Boetie explains in the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.

Murray Rothbard “Ending Tyranny Without Violence”

Discourse on voluntary Servitude is a great book, one which should be encouraged to read, for incentivizes free thought. The book includes an analytical introduction which may feel a bit heavy to some readers; however, it is not necessary for one to read it (although I recommend it) in order to properly appreciate the book’s content.

On Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, La Boetie poses the question “Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords?” He was trying to make sense of why people willingly accept to be treated as if they are mindless beings who can’t discern for themselves and whose rights and choices could be striped off at any time. Moreover, why after their rights have been taken away, do people still “choose” to follow corrupt leaders; in other words why does tyranny exist.

After much analysis and reflection La Boetie comes up with a crude conclusion; tyranny exists because people allow it. In other words, there is no way tyrants or corrupt leaders could govern so many, if that “many” would not hand their power on a silver platter. This crude conclusion, although opaque, also has an upside; just as easily as the herd surrenders their power, so can they take it back. However, they have to be willing to make that choice, something most are not willing to do because with the power to choose also comes self responsibility; something most don’t want to accept and why tyrants use this weakness to “control”.

It is this fear of self responsibility, the reason why most people shy away from confronting serious matters, and accept rules which have many holes in their argument. La Boetie also adds that those caught in “herd” mentality live in dissonance; they are taught if they obey, a reward is granted to them. This only promotes the desire not to closely look at their own reasons behind their choices but rather like to regurgitate whatever their leaders tell them to. The desire not to confront the fact that they will choose to do whatever their leaders say; regardless of good or bad but based on how popular a sentiment has become; is dissonance.

La Boetie points out that what matters to the herd isn’t the consistency of the product or law but the packaging; how it is being presented. If rules are made in which the majority can feel included and feels as if they actually understand what is being asked of them, they will be willing to give up just about anything.

Are we really that naïve? La Boetie points out that is not so much naivetes but ignorance, and an even more powerful aspect; people like to belong and they will do just about anything to feel “accepted” and “loved”; regardless of whether or not such acceptance and love are conditional.

La Boetie reflects that brute force (something people often associate with the word tyranny) is very seldom use, as it would only work with a small number of people and only for a limited period of time. When it comes to large crowds, rewards or manipulation (enticing) works best; yet the tyrannical behavior remains the same.

The rewards system is something which works very well when implementing a new law or new modus operandi. It is no different than a magick trick; the herd is distracted by the reward while their rights are being stripped away, by the time they notice what is missing, they have gotten used to the new way of doing things. This works because there is nothing more powerful than “Custom”, hence the saying “custom is more powerful than love”. This means tradition, (getting used to how things are, predictability) is something human beings tend to want more than anything else, and “leaders” know this, so they use it to their advantage; which can be good or bad depending on the type of leaders.

La Boetie further explains how tyrants use repetitive propaganda to further create this new sense of belonging; add to that the use of influential connections who are willing to say whatever it is needed to please those who fund them; and last but not least, they need the existence of a servile bureaucracy.

He wrote this centuries ago, pointing out when it comes to control, business and politics, not much has changed since the beginning of time, yet people like to believe none of these applies to their current system. As La Boetie points out, the reason behind this fallacy of thinking is because the herd does not want to admit their own ignorance when it comes to the mechanisms behind the motor of their fragile reality.

La Boetie points out something which Marcus Aurelius (rational leader) would have agreed with as much as Caligula (tyrannical leader), that is…custom is even more powerful than nature. Although any of the three method technique ( Coercion, reward or enticement) can be used to obtain control, it does not change the fact that a population who would rather let others be responsible, can be manipulated. Once a population gets used to something, then it becomes their “custom” which means the will start to see their circumstances as the “new normal”.

Many great minds have taught from the beginning of time that there is nothing more complex (Harmful to the slave. Beneficial to the tyrant) than when a slave believes himself to be free, because in believing so he will not seek freedom. How could he seek something he has never experienced? If he was born a slave, chances are that is all he will expect to be. In order to enforce willful slavery, one first has to install the feeling of familiarity, normalcy…in other words, CUSTOM. This is mostly achieved through repetition and propaganda; promoting the new system as benevolent. Once a population feels as if their circumstances; although toxic; are normal, that population will not resist nor fight back; in other words the herd cements for tyrants to remain in power…obedience becomes domination.

The solution? refusing to support tyrants by first learning to use rational thinking; accepting our ignorance when it comes to things we don’t understand instead of repeating whatever is popular. Instructing/educating ourselves and then formulating a proper analysis. Posing yourself the question “what am I being asked to give up in exchange for “freedom”? If it is demanding you give up your rights, then it is demanding you give up actual freedom in exchange for a temporary reward or false freedom; one that can be taken away from you as easily as it was granted. By advocating a solution of simply refusing to support the tyrant, La Boetie taught us about the power of choice, becoming one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and non violent resistance.

We no longer live in the dark ages, and although not everyone can obtain a well rounded education through the school system; we live at a time where ignorance is really more of a choice than the norm. A well rounded education does not have to cost you an arm and a leg to obtain, for nowadays we have access to libraries and the internet; just be careful with the second. This one requires you learn how to conduct research. Learn to locate reputable material that supports and contradicts the topic you are researching; otherwise you are just enabling yourself. Evaluate your sources and be willing to explore sources and “data” worldwide vs limiting yourself to what is on the surface.

There is nothing more powerful nor more dangerous than a properly educated mind. A well rounded education and protecting your freedoms are the best gifts you will give yourself.

It has always happened that tyrants, in order to strengthen their power, have made every effort to train their people not only in obedience and servility towards themselves but also in adoration.

Etienne de La Boetie
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By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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