The Marquis de Sade is not often the first man who comes to mind when one is asked to name a great moral philosopher. That is a shame, and a true misunderstanding of an entire part of the living dichotomy that is moral philosophy. So many thinkers have been obsessed with the potential for good and with the exploration of what is needed to improve morality and society. Sade was not such a man. He was beyond such things, and really beyond petty questions of “the good” or even of society. This is a stance that is both dangerous in the eyes of those unprepared or unwilling to see the real impact and importance of evil as a moral force and unwelcome as a distraction at best and a perversion of the concept of morality at worst by those in the halls of power and the ivory towers of intellect. Sade was the philosopher who rejected love, rejected society, rejected kindness, and above all despised taboo. He pushed the limits of what it meant to be human, indeed what a human being was capable of while remaining human. No book of his illustrates this ability of his more than The 120 Days of Sodom.
“The extensive wars wherewith Louis XIV was burdened during his reign, while draining the State’s treasury and exhausting the substance of the people, nonetheless contained the secret that led to the prosperity of a swarm of these bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities, which, instead of appeasing, they promote or invent so as, precisely, to be able to profit from them the more advantageously.”
Right here in the first paragraph of the book that would become one of the most infamous and despised of all European literature we are told by Sade that this is no conventional morality tale. The narrative and the ethics of this book will be divorced from the interests of the people and of the state. A more conventional author would follow up this first passage by explicitly apologizing for coming parade of “bloodsuckers” and their twisted wants and desires. No such apology is forthcoming from Sade, nor should one be expected. This is not an apology for perversion and evil, it is an exploration of evil, indeed a celebration of evil. This is not an evil perpetrated against the protagonists, as in his novels Juliette and Justine, which would allow us some leeway to claim that this is a tale of overcoming adversity or at least withstanding the same. It is certainly not like his Philosophy In the Bedroom, with its playful exploration of the desires and deeds of free actors reveling in their consensual sexual excesses. What The 120 Days gives us is foremost a catalogue of the perverse coupled with a simple narrative of four men and a handful of women who partake of these perversions and get away with it all scot-free. We are not asked to lament this fact, indeed we are not even called upon to regret this outcome. Sade has given us a list of what can be done by one or more human beings to another human being. Not what should be done, or what should not be done. What can be done. It is this unabashed honesty of purpose and execution that makes this book one of the great moral tomes of all human history.
The further we go into this forest of iniquity and pain the more we are numbed to the advance of evil in favor of conscience and humanity. Sade introduces us to four men: A bishop, A judge, an aristocrat and a banker. These are the perpetrators of the infamies that follow. They purchase over a dozen men, women, boys and children, men and women, boys and girls, with which they can inflict all of their desires and urges. There is not stop-gap to keep them from going too far, and there are no rules beyond which these four powerful men have arbitrarily created in order to extend their pleasure and delineate the limits of what one man may do to the erotic property of the other. The only law on display here is the law of the jungle. It fulfills the desires of the men who are without question in complete tyrannical control over the bodies and emotions of those they would exploit, and it leaves to their undeserved fate the boys and girls they have purchased and acquired from the very dankest recesses of society. These are unwanted and the unloved. These are the wretched, and their worth is only as playthings to be used and abused by their betters.
Sade makes it clear that the lot of the poor is to suffer, and it is the responsibility of rich powerful men to take advantage of this suffering as much as they can. Sade declared that
“Crime is the soul of lust. What would pleasure be if it were not accompanied by crime? It is not the object of debauchery that excites us, rather the idea of evil.”
A world where evil is the norm and the expected result of human interaction is a world where the concept of evil only has meaning in relation to what pleasure can be derived from it. The world has no apotheosis, mankind no chance at betterment or redemption. Mankind serves as a feast, a meal prepared for those who have the chops to take and to consume. This is a morality of annihilation: the world is a disgusting joke and would be better off destroyed, but since it is around and there is no possibility of anything better why is it a crime for those who can take advantage of this to do so with relish? Millions suffer every moment to no effect. Why not take some pleasure in this inevitable pain? The world is not this way because there is no god. Indeed one comes to the conclusion that Sade believes that if there were a god things would be unimaginably worse than they already are. What is god but yet another powerful “man” and powerful “men” seek pleasure through the torment of others. Indeed the existence of a hedonistic god would make the evil inherent to the world make more sense, or at least give it some sort of meaning. Sade sees no reason to believe in a god though. He is content to let the world be evil on its own terms.
That is not to say there is no good. There must be good for evil to have any meaning at all, but in the end “Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature” [Camille Paglia, Sexual Persona (1990) NY, Vintage, p. 235]. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Take pleasure or see pleasure experienced at your own expense. Nature made man its image, and nature consumes, and nature encourages those who would take pleasure in existence to do so.
“These instincts were given me by Nature, and it would be to irritate her were I to resist them”.
The word “Nature” here is capitalized, and this connects Sade to the enlightenment tradition of seeing the world and humanity as products of an all-encompassing universal moral and material existence. The deists saw in human kind and in the natural world the workings of Nature’s God. Sade had no need for this “revolting absurdity” as he has the Duc express to his fellows in the book. Sade sees the foolishness and stupidity of basing an entire system of morality and law around a “moral” god who, if in fact real, made the world as a vicious state of nature. Are we not creatures of this Nature, or, for the sake of argument, this Nature’s god? If so why should we of all creatures deviate from the standards upheld by the other creatures of the earth? Set aside all of those childish justifications from revealed religion; such stories and precepts are like the mutterings of an idiot trying to keep himself from doing his duty. This duty is to be a part of Nature, and to do ones best to live up to the potential that Nature imbued us with. “Thus”, he has the Duc continue, “nothing but the law”, a law of moral weaklings struggling against their own nature, stands in the way of human potential.
Sade is no fool and he understands that others do not see the world as he does, and they will do their best to make sure that men like Sade do not hold sway over the lives and fortunes of men. But the fact remains that many of these good Samaritans, most of them in fact, will fail or in the attempt at doing good cause even more evil. And there is no greater evil in the eyes of Sade then keeping powerful men, or even just men with enough gall, from achieving the greatest amount of pleasure that they can derive from the world. The world is shit and it will always be shit, but at least let those who can play like hogs in the filth.