Albert Camus in his classic study of the death penalty “Reflections on the Guillotine” noted how true and seemingly irredeemable evil individuals offer “impenetrable exteriors”. Like the stone walls of the castle into which they retreat the four men use the inherent positive societal prejudices about their social stations, status and wealth. Such attributes equate to an assumption of good moral behavior and standing in the mind of a society built upon the recognition and almost worship of privilege. Sade takes this supposition and takes it to its logical extreme; if power equates to an assumption of public moral uprightness then the private attributes of the successful man are often quite the opposite. And if their means to power are unsavory then their cravings and passions must be equally if not even more wicked. All of the story telling serves to arouse and inspire the assembled men to sexual action and to illuminate for us the reader their inner most desires and debauches. Ayn Rand, often compared to Sade in her adherence to an extreme libertarian vision of morality, said
“Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.”
One senses a bit of self-congratulation in these remarks, and Sade’s personal ethos turns this proposition on its head. By rejecting any sort of social contract Sade is able to have his characters justify their depravity and existential greed through a sort of fatalistic atomism taken to its extreme, a system he describes in his short story Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man
“Nothing perishes in the world, my friend, nothing is lost; man today, worm tomorrow […] can [God] have wished to create me in order to reap pleasure from punishing me, and that solely on account of a choice he does not leave me free to determine?”
Sade uses the inevitable decay and an eternal reemergence of life and matter as an excuse, for lack of a better term, for the indulgence of the grossest abuses in the name of hedonism. Life is an eternal process of indulgence and destruction wherein those who are in the best position to satiate their desires are morally right in taking any measures to do so. This looks at first glance like the sort of nihilism that Christian apologists point to as proof of the inherent iniquity of atheism and a secular morality. This could not be further from the truth of course. What Sade is rejecting is not a religious ethos (though I believe he thinks he is) but a secular one; he neglects to realize that the real arbiter of moral sanctity and order is not theocratic but human and civil. We are only accountable to our fellow human beings for our behavior and it is a human morality that is either put in place or rejected. What Sade is rejecting is not a Christian morality but a civic morality; he is embracing libertarianism in its most pure and pragmatic form. Sade’s greatest failing is not his atheism, which is actually quite reasoned and sober if divorced from the moral conclusions he erroneously uses it to justify, but his rejection of accountability to his fellow man. The answer to Sadean “morality” is not Christian morality but secular ethics and civil law. Sade himself came to understand this better during the cataclysm that was the later stages of the French Revolution.
Jejune and repetitive as some of the dialogue and plotting can the book taken as a whole is invigorating, stimulating and intellectually challenging. The characters, if not particularly deep or original, do have their own sort of utilitarian charm. But to read the 120 Days for pleasure is really to miss the point; this book is a personal mission statement, a philosophical thought experiment in the form of a novel. Sade attempted to create a moral system that transcended any then in existence. That he failed in no way detracts from the genius of the work and its relevance as a cautionary tale showing the true potential of libertarian hedonism if unleashed in a realm without the protections of the social contract. In his own perverse way Sade is as vital to the enlightenment exploration of civil rights and social law theory as is Rousseau, Ficthe or Locke. For what is the value of morality and law if we do not understand the havoc that would be wrought under the auspices of their antithesis?