The fire from a little spark

‘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…’

Am reading the section on Etienne de La Boetie in Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book on Montaigne, ‘How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ (which I’ve just heard has won the 2010 Duff Cooper award – congratulations to her) and was struck by the extraordinary prescience of his essay ‘ Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator (Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un).

His essay, written over 450 years ago in 1552 or ‘53, seems to describe just what is happening in the Arab world today – the people awaking for an almost hypnotically induced slumber, of consent to be ruled by ‘the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them.’

In the essay La Boetie questions why people agree to be oppressed by government overlords and concludes that it is not just fear, for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn:

… 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. 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 into pieces. 

In this, he became one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, and (can we hope?) explains why Gaddafi and similar rulers cannot, in the end, prevail.

Consider the justly famous battles of Miltiades,4 Leonidas,5 Themistocles,6 still fresh today in recorded history and in the minds of men as if they had occurred but yesterday, battles fought in Greece for the welfare of the Greeks and as an example to the world. What power do you think gave to such a mere handful of men not the strength but the courage to withstand the attack of a fleet so vast that even the seas were burdened, and to defeat the armies of so many nations, armies so immense that their officers alone outnumbered the entire Greek force? What was it but the fact that in those glorious days this struggle represented not so much a fight of Greeks against Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over greed?

see full essay at http://www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm

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