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Against One

Washington Diarist.

Nothing demystifies a dictator like death. The videos of Qaddafi dragged from a drainpipe, addled and bloodied, and then dead on the floor of a large freezer, harshly illustrated the absurdity of tyranny. An entire country held for forty-two years in the grip of this flabby, destructible man? It makes no sense; or rather this particular view of dictatorship makes no sense—the cinematically simple notion of the dictator as shrewdly, almost magically in control of a whole people, a solitary villain at the top whose removal is all that is required for his society to be free. “Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few,” wrote Hume in 1741. “When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” It is a deeply troubling observation. Dictatorship, too, rests on consent. The complicating truth is that no tyrant ever ruled absolutely alone. This was most sickeningly proved by the totalitarian tyrants, whose thoroughgoing style of domination, the penetration of every dimension of social and individual life, along with the physical destruction of millions, could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of huge numbers of people; but they were only the most extreme example of this, as they were the most extreme example of every horror that they perpetrated. Complicity is a form of consent. So, too, is acquiescence, and indifference, and adjustment, and the withdrawal into personal and communal experience that we otherwise extol as civil society, and into the prior and less tender loyalties of tribe and religion; and so too, of course, is opportunism, the consent that comes from a desire to share in the advantages of power, or of proximity to it. Power always provides reasons for people to serve it. The long career of political evil is owed to the fact that people learn to live with it. This is not admirable, but it is understandable. Not all of this consent is freely given, after all. Opinion determined by fear is not a high form of opinion: terror is not an “argument.” But too many people have too much to lose. Love makes people weak as much as it is makes them strong, and loveless dictators have a use for this beautiful frailty. They exploit the humaneness of their subjects to secure their inhumane rule over them. They inhibit good people and grind them into cowards. They owe the duration of their despotism to the time it takes for people with children to consider the option of heroism—to form, freely, a new opinion or to express, bravely, a very old one.

THIS DISCOURAGING POINT about the popularity of tyranny was made most eloquently two centuries before Hume, by one of the sexier figures (a small company!) in the history of political thought. Sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century—the date is still unclear—the young French humanist Étienne de La Boétie wrote an explosive little book called Discours de la servitude volontaire, which inspired the Protestant anti-monarchists of his time. La Boétie owes his posterity mainly to his association with Montaigne, who wrote his famous essay on loving friendship as a tribute to him. Montaigne reports that his friend’s “noble work” was published by others as Contr’Un, or Against One, but he chose prudently not to include La Boétie's subversive pamphlet in his edition of his friend’s writings. “I would like to understand,” La Boétie begins, “how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the degree to which they have the power to endure it; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they prefer to bear with him rather than contradict him. … It is the people themselves who permit, or rather bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their own servitude. A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat. …” La Boétie’s voice sometimes rises—“How does he have any power, except through you?”—but mainly he is analytical about the causes of willing slavery, which he attributes largely to custom, and to “the idea that it has always been this way.” This, he warns, is what happens when “the very love of liberty seems no longer natural.” About the psychology, he is brilliant: “Liberty once lost, courage also perishes. … The tyrant does not consider his power firmly established until he has reached the point at which there is no man under him who has any worth.” It is a bleak account. The only hope lies in the few “who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from trying to shake it off … those of clear-minds and far-sighted spirits who are not content, like the brutish mass, to see only what is at their feet.” The problem, La Boétie says, is that these lovers of liberty “are not known to one another.”

HOW, THEN, can an unfree people become free? The isolated members of freedom’s vanguard must find each other, with or without hashtags, and undertake concerted action; but the destruction of the dictator, not to mention his unlawful execution, is not enough. An external liberation must be followed by an internal liberation. Whether or not the longing for freedom is universal, the preparedness for freedom is not. Freedom has many applications, and democracy is only one of them. Outwardly free, inwardly unfree: this is the paradox of political emancipation. It leaves la coutume untouched. Many of the ethnic and religious traditions that were suppressed by the tyrant, and then released by the revolution against him, are not liberal in spirit. Hillary Clinton was right to tell Mahmoud Jibril in Tripoli that “now the hard part begins.” The news is not all bad, of course. Force has been shown to be on the side of the governed (and of those who help the governed). The monster is no more, and the Transitional National Council appears to be serious about political openness, and the country is rich, and Obama has unwittingly falsified his own premise about the end of American preeminence (there would have been no mission to hand off to NATO if the United States had not demanded one); but there are clans and militias and mullahs still ahead. Having been tested by unfreedom, the Libyans will now be tested by freedom. Tunisia to the west is acquitting itself well of that test; Egypt to the east, less well. May it come to Syria soon.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.