Étienne de La Boétie, Montaigne’s great friend, died on this date in 1563. La Boétie wrote poems in Latin and French, and translated Plutarch, Xenophon and Ariosto. His major work, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, was published eleven years after his death. Like Montaigne, he served in the parlement. More recent scholars and thinkers, including Simone Weil, have attempted to revive his reputation as a political philosopher. But La Boétie has suffered a peculiar fate. He is a supporting player. We remember him only because he was Montaigne’s friend.
Who fantasizes about being a sidekick, an aide-de-camp, the hero’s best friend? We long to be Aeneas, not fidus Achates. We think Johnson, not Boswell; Socrates, not Alcibiades. Unfair but true. In How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne (Other Press, 2010), Sarah Bakewell defends La Boétie against his posthumous enthusiasts, including some Huguenots, who appropriated his work. Some turned him into a proto-anarchist or libertarian. Others even claimed Montaigne was the true author of Voluntary Servitude.
La Boétie had likely contracted the plague in Agenais, where he had recently spent a week. Most of what we know about his sickness and death comes from a letter Montaigne wrote his father. He describes his friend’s suffering and his own grief but here is the sentence modern readers will recognize as quintessentially Montaignean:
“The whole room was full of wails and tears, which nevertheless did not interrupt the train of his speeches, which were a little long.”