For many, Freedom is the most important thing for the human being after life. That's why, in all times, the defense of it has been one of the constant and most fierce struggles that have been fought, with the pen and the sword. At the same time, the denunciation of government systems, characters, or societies in which freedom has been diminished, compromised or violated, is almost an imperative, an obligation of human beings. Communism, socialism, absolutism, fundamentalist theocracies, are systems that attack and reduce freedom to a minimum, leaving depleted individuals, submerged in defeatism, pessimism and what is even more serious, conformism . Many books, conferences and treatises have been written about freedom, its defense and attack, but today I want to speak only about one and even more specifically about one of the paragraphs in that speech that seemed so strong and true to me. I had never heard of Etienne de La Boetie until I found the name in the last novel I read from the South African winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature J.M. Coetzee called Diary of a bad year.
I was struck by the character and I found that he was a French writer, whose best friend was nothing more and nothing less than Michel de Montaigne and who worked for civil peace and tolerance in the wars between Catholics and Protestants. And this Frenchman, when he was barely eighteen years old, wrote his Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la servitude volontaire), which is basically a pronouncement against Absolutism where he questions the legitimacy of any authority over a people and discusses the reasons for its submission. Not only it's surprising that he wrote it at such a young age, but the writing (which I invite you to read in its entirety because it's really good) is quite solid and polished. Étienne uses examples taken from the history of classical antiquity to criticize the political situation of his time and in that same sense I bring his words to relate them to our present and ask ourselves: are we condemned not to learn? Why does the same thing that happened centuries ago continue to happen? The paragraph that I want to highlight says:
“It is incredible to see how the people, once they are subjected, frequently fall into such a deep oblivion of their freedom that it is impossible for them to wake up to regain it. It serves so well and so voluntarily that it would be said that not only has he lost his freedom but he has won his servitude."
It's not then the loss of freedom what scares us the most, but its oblivion, because who forgets that one day he was free, is a slave for the rest of his days. This reflection on a submissive society that has won its servitude is not entirely new and makes us think of certain dystopias of the twentieth century (Huxley, Orwell) but Étienne de La Boétie wrote his speech in 1548! almost half a millennium ago he said it and the story keeps repeating.
The paragraph continues:
"It is true that at the beginning they are forced to do so and defeated by force. But the successors serve without regret and do willingly what their predecessors had done under duress. Men born under the yoke, and therefore fed and educated in servitude without any other horizon, content themselves with living as they have been born and do not think about having more goods or rights than those with which they have been found. They consider that the condition in which they were born is their condition by nature.”
Hence, absolutist systems take power for a long period. First, by force, they impose a servitude to young people, adults, all those who oppose its establishment; after that, many die, others emigrate and the others, listless, stop fighting and resign themselves to defeat. And then, the final blow is given in the next generation, the children that are born within the system and because they don't know any reality different from this one, they assume it as normal, they think it is the natural. This task is not achieved abruptly and simply. It is a gradual process, which involves taking over the spaces: the media, institutions, the names of things, figures, education ... it is such a broad and progressive work that those who lead the system refuse flatly abandon power in a peaceful or quick way. Will they waste all the time and resources they have invested in converting society into subjects, into voluntary slaves? Of course not.
Surely these words evoke certain governments, certain times and certain characters, but for Venezuelans who read these lines it is inevitable to think about their current situation. How not to identify? How can we not recognize in that mirror that Étienne de La Boétie bequeathed to us almost half a millennium ago? we have become accustomed to a reality with subverted values, conflictive, dark, challenging and our ability to adapt has played against us because as we adapt to everything, we also stand everything. However, it's time to say It's not right! and to make an echo that resonates. Many often quote Neruda's phrase about flowers and spring but it seems a bit trite now. I prefer to leave a few words of Ernest Hemingway: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated". Have we been knocked down? we get back up. Were we hit? we defend ourselves. Our freedom's been robbed? kidnapped? OK, that's true, but what we can not do is to forget. Let us be that caged bird that looks beyond the bars, that has not forgotten what it is to fly, to sing, to fly freely through the air, that hits the bars to break them, because even though they have locked him up, his soul is still free. Even if we are slaves, let's not be servile. The moment will come, soon, but meanwhile it is forbidden to forget our freedom! Only then we can reconquer it because who achieves what it does not long for?