Welcome to this website dedicated to Etienne de La Boétie. Our two main objectives in creating these pages have been, first of all, to offer reliable information concerning La Boétie – his life and works. Secondly, it has been our wish to present this information in a way that is accessible to all persons that wish to learn more about the man and his writings.
Principal events concerning the life and works of Etienne de La Boétie
(Information concerning the life of Etienne de La Boétie comes mainly from two sources: Anne-Marie Cocula’s book Étienne de La Boétie (Sud Ouest, 1995) and Louis Desgraves’s Introduction (pp. 9-44) in his edition of La Boétie’s Œuvres complètes (William Blake and Co. Édit., 1991))
Birth of Etienne de La Boétie (sometimes written as Estienne de La Boétie or La Boëtie) on November 1 in the small town of Sarlat, in the south-western part of France.
La Boétie’s uncle and godfather Etienne de La Boétie, following the premature death of young Etienne’s father Antoine (and probably also that of his mother, Philippe de Calvimont), secures a solid education for his nephew: Classic Greek and Roman authors in the purest fashion of the Renaissance.
La Boétie enters the University of Orléans, where he studies law and prepares a career in the judicial authorities. He also takes interest in philosophy, history, philology and poetry. La Boétie writes his famous Discours de la Servitude volontaire during his years at the university. His teachers include future martyr Anne (masculine first name) du Bourg.
La Boétie receives his licence in law from the University of Orléans on September 23.
La Boétie is received as counsellor at the Parlement of Bordeaux on May 17, although he is under age. It is during his years at Bordeaux that La Boétie befriends Michel de Montaigne. He gains influence among his colleagues soon after his arrival at the Parlement. He is believed to have married Marguerite de Carle that same year.
La Boétie serves as censor of theatrical plays that are performed at the Collège de Guyenne. In Paris he meets Counsellor Michel de l’Hospital (or l’Hôpital), a defender of tolerance and an advocate of a policy of appeasement in religious matters. Michel de l’Hospital sends La Boétie to the Parlement of Bordeaux to defend religious tolerance. La Boétie’s intervention at the Parlement is a frank success.
Towards the end of the year, La Boétie travels with Charles de Coucy, the King’s lieutenant and seigneur of Burie, to the town of Agen. Their objective is to bring peace and order to this town where conflict between Catholics and Protestants is threatening to escalate.
La Boétie is believed by some scholars (Bonnefon, Gontarbert, Cocula and Martin) to have composed his work Mémoire touchant l’Edit de janvier 1562 during the summer that followed the issue of the Edict of January (Malcolm Smith and Jacques Jospeh Desplat, however, have argued that the work was composed prior to the publication of the Edict, in 1561). The Edict was issued by Catherine de Medici (under the influence of Michel de l’Hospital), and it manifests a certain policy of appeasement, authorising the co-existence of Catholicism and Protestantism in France.
Etienne de La Boétie falls ill on Monday, August 9. Montaigne encourages his friend to go to Germignan to stay with Montaigne’s sister Jeanne and his brother-in-law Richard de Lestonnac. His condition getting worse throughout the week, La Boétie dictates his testament to the notary (the testament is dated August 14) and bids farewell to the closest members of his family. Etienne de La Boétie dies during the early hours on Wednesday morning, August 18. He was 32 years, 9 months, and 17 days old.
Michel de Montaigne decides to have printed and published some of La Boétie’s works: his translations of Plutarch and Xenophon, as well as La Boétie’s Latin and French verses. He chooses to leave La Boétie’s Discours de la Servitude volontaire as well as his Mémoire sur la pacification des troubles (also referred to as Mémoire sur l’Edit de janvier 1562) unpublished.
A long passage of La Boétie’s Discours is first published in Latin, together with other texts, in an anonymous publication entitled Dialogi ab Eusebio Philadelpho cosmopoliti in Gallorum et caeterorum nationum gratiam compositi, and later in French in Le Réveille-matin des François et de leurs voisins, composé par Eusebe Philadelphe cosmopolite, en forme de Dialogues.
Protestant theologian Simon Goulart (who was also responsible for the French translation of La Boétie’s Discours in Le Réveille-matin des François…) publishes, for the first time, the complete text of the Discours in his Mémoires de l’Estat de France sous Charles IX [...] in 1576 (new editions in 1578 and 1579).
La Boétie’s Discours de la Servitude volontaire is published for the first time on its own with the title Vive Description de la Tyrannie, et des Tyrans, avec les moyens de se garantir de leur joug. The author of the work is said to be a certain Odet de La Noue.
Paul Bonnefon discovers and publishes La Boétie’s Mémoire touchant l’Edit de janvier 1562, over three centuries after the composition of the work. The work is published again in 1922 by Bonnefon, and in 1983 by Malcolm Smith under the title Mémoire sur la pacification des troubles.
The Works of Etienne de La Boétie
The works of Etienne de La Boétie can be divided into two categories with reference to the context in which they were originally published. La Boétie’s close friend and humanist philosopher Michel de Montaigne assumed the responsibility of printing and publishing some of his friend’s writings eight years after La Boétie’s demise. The following six works belong to this first group, and are generally believed to exist in the form intended by La Boétie (the page numbers that are given after each title refer to Œuvres complètes d’Estienne de la Boétie, edited by P. Bonnefon):
- La Boétie’s translation of Xenophon’s The Economist (Lat. Oeconomicus ; Fr. La Mesnagerie) (pp. 59-158)
- La Boétie’s translation of Plutarch’s Conjugal Precepts (Gr. Γαμικά παραγγέλματα; Lat. Coniugalia praecepta; Fr. Règles de mariage) (pp. 159-184)
- La Boétie’s translation of Plutarch’s Letter of Consolation to his Wife (Gr. Παραμυθητικός προς την γυναίκα; Lat. Consolatio ad uxorem; Fr. Lettre de consolation à sa femme) (pp. 185-200)
- La Boétie´s Latin verse – Stephani Boetiani Poemata (pp. 201-244)
- La Boétie’s French verse, including his 29 sonnets – Vers François de feu Estienne de La Boëtie (pp. 245-286); Vingt neuf sonnetz d’Estienne de La Boëtie (pp. 287-306)
At the time of printing and publishing La Boétie’s works for the first time in 1571, Montaigne made the decision to exclude two of them from publication. His reasons for doing so were related to the religious disorders that agitated France during most of the second part of the 16th century, as he explains in book I, chapter 28 of his Essays (On friendship) and also in a note to the reader that he printed together with La Boétie’s works. These two works are
- Discours de la Servitude volontaire ou Contr’un (pp. 1-57) and
- Mémoire sur la pacification des troubles (sometimes referred to as Mémoire touchant l’Edit de janvier 1562)
The former was published for the first time – although incomplete – in 1574 against the personal desire of Michel de Montaigne (to whom La Boétie left his entire collection of books as well as his personal manuscripts). To this day there remain four manuscript copies of La Boétie’s Discours that are conserved at France’s Bibliothèque nationale. Most scholars agree that the so-called manuscript of Henri de Mesmes (conserved at France’s Bibliothèque nationale, fonds français, 839) is the most reliable and authentic among the existing manuscripts, and have therefore used it as reference when preparing their editions of La Boétie’s Discours (e.g. Bonnefon, Smith, Goyard-Fabre, and Gontarbert). Françoise Bayard, however, has contested the anteriority of the manuscript Mesmes, and has used the printed version of Mémoires de l’Etat de France sous Charles IX [...] as reference for her own edition of La Boétie’s Discours (Imprimerie nationale, 1992).
La Boétie’s Mémoire sur la pacification des troubles remained undiscovered for over three centuries after its composition and was accidentally come upon by Paul Bonnefon in 1917. It was first published by Bonnefon that same year and then again in 1922, albeit with a title that was not the one La Boétie had intended and together with only very few explicative notes. Malcolm Smith edited the work in 1983 and gave it the title Mémoire sur la pacification des troubles (derived from the opening sentence of the work), that he takes to better correspond to the subject of La Boétie’s discussion. Some scholars (Bonnefon, Gontarbert, Cocula and Martin) believe that La Boétie composed his work after the publication of the Edict of January, in 1562. Smith and Desplat, however, believe that it was written during the summer of 1561, and therefore before the Edict was published.
There may have existed another work by Etienne de La Boétie that has been lost, for in his book Bibliothèque historique de la France from 1768, father Lelong mentions that a certain Simon de Millanges (publisher of the first editions of Montaigne’s Essays) would have published one of La Boétie’s works entitled Historique description du solitaire et sauvage pays de Medoc in the year 1593 in Bordeaux. No copies of this text are known to exist.
Finally, it was once believed that one of the existing French translations of Aristotle’s Economics (Fr. Économiques) was by La Boétie. This, however, is false – not only is the translation made by someone other than La Boétie, but it is also agreed by modern scholars that the work entitled Economics has not been written by Aristotle, but rather by his successor in the Peripatetic school, Theophrastus (for questions concerning the translation of the text, see Œuvres complètes d’Estienne de La Boétie, edited by P. Bonnefon, pp. 419-426).
© Tommi Lindfors 2010-2015. Drawings by Raimo Lindfors.