Beyond the Falsehood: the existent of Marquis de Sade

Marquis de Sade

“In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice”- Marquis de Sade

Donatien- Alphonse-Francois Marquis De Sade was born in 1741 Paris into an old patrician family. He was educated at the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand and at military school at Versailles. The end of the Seven Years War in 1763 dashed his hopes of a military career, and that same year he reluctantly made the good match his impoverished father forced on him by marrying Renee Pelagie de Montreuil, daughter of a recently ennobled but wealthy lawyer. Serious sexual misdemeanours brought him to the attention of the police and he was jailed twice for his excesses. In 1772, for attempted murder and sodomy, he was sentenced to death and his effigy was burned in his absence. In 1777, after years spent in not uncomfortable hiding, mainly at his chateau at La Coste near Avignon, he was jailed and not released until 1790. During his prison years study was his therapy and writing his salvation. It was now that he developed a coherent system of atheistical materialism and wrote plays, novels, and the stories of Les Crimes de l’amour (The Crimes of Love), which he published in 1800. In the 1790s, having no love for the ancien regime which had deprived him of his freedom, he played a minor role in the revolution. Jailed as a political moderate, he escaped the guillotine in July 1794 by an administrative accident. Describing himself as ‘a man of letters’, he tried to make a living from the novels (Justine,1791 Aline et Valcour,1795; La Nouvelle Justine and L’Histoire de Juliette, both 1797) which justified their obscenities by reference to a comprehensive system of sexual realpolitik. In 1801 he was jailed as the author of Justine, and in 1803 was transferred to the lunatic asylum at Charenton, diagnosed as suffering from ‘libertine dementia’. He continued to write and even helped to stage plays for the inmates. His applications for release were consistently rejected, and he remained a captive until his death in December 1814. Against his wishes, he was given a Christian funeral, but was buried in an unmarked grave. He was known as the father of eroticism that the nobleman’s life was more sadistic than his work. The Marquis de Sade was an 18th French century nobleman, famed for his erotic novels which inspired the term sadism to describe sexual cruelty. To a select few, he was a literary libertarian who freed the public from the shackles of prudish society through the introduction of an entirely different kind of restraint. To most, Marquis de Sade’s work was blasphemous and unfit for polite society, and often he was prosecuted or imprisoned. His books were even banned for almost two centuries.

In total, de Sade spent over 30 years behind bars and was even transferred to the Bastille at one point. His wife retired at a convent. While imprisoned, de Sade recorded his sexcapades. He wrote his atheist manifesto, Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, and a 39-foot-long account of his perversions in what is known as 120 Days of Sodom. When French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, de Sade was sent to a mental institution in Paris. Here he began work on what is potentially his most known work, Justine, which features the various sexual torments of a young woman prisoner at the hands of various partners, including some religious figures. His imprisonment was a prolific period of writing for de Sade and some of his works were picked up as plays though not all were performed. Though de Sade was liberated from the asylum for a brief time, in which he was able to save his ex-wife’s parents from the Reign of Terror, he was ultimately sent back to prison where he would die. His writings were banned in France until 1957, and have seen novel life in the recent literary world. Critics have reviewed his works in current years and claimed they may have been the first works of sexual liberation, some even go so far as to claim him a feminist.

Hailed by the early 20th century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire as ‘the freest spirit who ever lived’, but demonized throughout the last two hundred years as a misogynistic pornographer, and as the original proponent of sexual sadism and lustmurder, the Marquis de Sade is a creature of myth. The popular assumption that Sade was as sadistic as his monstrous fictional villains is still current today among the majority of the population who have never read a line of his work. In fact, Sade’s thought, which is expressed at great length in novels, short stories, plays, critical essays, and personal correspondence, is considerably more complex than allowed by any of the simplistic labels, positive or negative, associated with this mythical reputation. (Phillips:2005)

The Marquis de Sade is famous for his forbidden novels, like Justine, Juliette, and the 120 Days of Sodom. Yet, despite Sade’s immense influence on philosophy and literature, his work remains relatively unknown. His novels are too long, repetitive, and violent. At last in The Philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, a distinguished philosopher provides a theoretical reading of Sade.

Sade had plenty of time to study during his life, and he was indeed a well read and educated person. But it is not known exactly what he read and who influenced him most; and he uses scientific authority capriciously. If we want to place Sade within a tradition, it should not be conceived in terms of the historical and personal influences which shaped his thought, but rather in terms of his spiritual home. This spiritual home seems to be the darker side of philosophical ethics, a kind of neglected vision of human perversity beyond the healing effect of moral teaching.

Two of Sade’s own intellectual heroes were Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, both of whom he interpreted in the traditional manner to recommend wickedness as an ingredient of virtue. Sade echoes Machiavelli, for instance, when he describes his fictional hero Saint-Fond: “Saint-Fond is a very great minister nonetheless . . . he considers murder indispensable to the maintaining of good government. . . . Did Machiavelli lay down different principles? There is no room for doubt: bloodshed there must be if any regime, a monarchical one especially, is to survive; the throne of the tyrant must be cemented with blood.” Machiavelli and Hobbes seem to subscribe to a radical relativity of values, or an actual transformation of value into disvalue for the sake of political survival. Robert Mandeville is another model mentioned by Sade, and he would have appreciated Malthus as well. The pseudo-Malthusian idea of the desirability of the mass destruction of people, as a kind of surplus population, is a recurrent theme with Sade, who promotes murder and opposes procreation. Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population did not appear before the year 1798, but similar ideas were popular before that time.

Philosophers have scarcely proved that the glamor of vice remains an impossibility throughout all contexts of cruelty. Sade argues that it is possible; he does so by telling a story of the solipsist mind which directs its gaze inside upon its own libidinal landscape and recognizes that the scenery is full of terror, violence, and egoistic pleasures. In this sense his story of the Id remains in the state of pure individual and private enjoyment, outside of all norms and values. Such solipsism, in which we are dealing with the privacy of the mind seen from inside, is the theme of my study of Sade, but let us anticipate a little and see how the narrator himself sketches one of his libertine heroes. (Airaksinen: 1991)

La Mettrie writes:

there is so much pleasure in doing good, in recognizing and appreciating what one receives, so much satisfaction in practising virtue, in being gentle, humane, kind, charitable, compassionate and generous . . . that I consider as sufficiently punished any one who is unfortunate enough not to have been born virtuous.

Concerning crime and punishment, he maintains that “they [criminals] are sufficiently punished by their own conscience, their first executioner.” When an action is done intentionally, a purely consequentialist approach to ethics fails to capture this entailment. The “first executioner” does not emerge. Therefore we should not read La Mettrie consequentialistically in this context. His conscience approaches the Kantian one. Sade echoes the idea that a person tends to regret his evil deeds. The difference is, of course, that Sade wants to stop the executioner who inhibits one’s transgressive action: Veritable wisdom, my dear Juliette, consists not in repressing one’s vices, for, vices constituting, practically speaking, the sole happiness granted us in life, so to do would be to adopt the role, as it were, of one’s own executioner.

Sade claims he knows how one should act: you permit me now to indicate the manner of totally silencing that inner and confusion-breeding voice . . . it consists simply of reiterating the deeds that have made us remorseful, in repeating them so often that the habit either of committing these deeds or of getting away scot-free with them completely undermines every possibility of feeling badly about them. Sade says, in effect, that vice is an acquired character-trait that allows one to avoid the feelings of guilt, which otherwise follow from evil intentions. Habits, which are learned automatisms, make one act without deliberation or choice on a prudential basis, and paradoxically produce harm to self. Poe-perversity is based on an action-generating mechanism which is independent of choice according to one’s best option. This is the reason why he has adopted its use and, indeed, why he is devious. The mechanism chooses a bad alternative when it works like a person-external source of causal influence. Thus habits explain the lack of guilt, but not yet, perhaps, the presence of the maximal pleasure to the pervert. In order to understand Sade, we must deal with the problem of transgressive behavior. Much of his language is moralistic, and yet he refers perverse motives and their rewards back to the agent himself. One of our main problems will be to try to understand this mysterious reward which follows from Poe-perverse choices, independently of whether they are habitual or not. The role of habit is to make the perverse pleasure possible in the long run, when disgust and remorse tend to extinguish the relevant motives.

Imprudent Preference-Formation

Certainly what philosophers have sometimes called the state of nature allows one all the freedom one may desire. In the state of nature, all violence is one’s right and as such is innocent. As Thomas Hobbes puts it: “in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.” Social life, as a reaction to this anarchy, creates its own logic of normality to the extent that objectivized value judgments emerge – and with them, ironically, the possibility of even more vicious social dreams. One now has something – civil laws, for instance – that one can violate. After morality and law emerge, a wicked person is able deliberately to do things which others interpret as injury to self and which look like mistakes. The negative evaluation of wickedness of the will implies that the person lacks moral emotions, like remorse and resentment, which characterize guilt and motivate self-corrective action. In other words, the person does not wish to change the world he has helped to create. He may be, on the contrary, happy about what he has accomplished or he may also construe his own relevant feelings in terms of pleasure. We hesitate. What is at issue here? What kind of fiction are we involved in? Perhaps it is impossible to think that harming oneself can be a source of pleasure and that the violation of moral prescriptions can be a source of satisfaction. If such perverse persons exist, they are truly wicked and bad, but we may see no reason for agreeing that they ever existed, except in fiction.

Marquis Sade claims that evil cannot be handled in any clear-cut way. To anticipate, the perverse motive is such that the agent transcends the limits of reason while reaching towards mere nothingness. Such a void, or pleasure in the technical sense, is what motivates him. Thus we can understand the meaning of pleasure by first referring to the harm-to-self principle and then by adding to it some empirical (explanatory) facts. The resulting motive is strange, however, and can only be described by fictional means. “Pleasure is, so to speak, nature’s vengeance”; therefore pleasure cannot be understood without nature.1 Pleasure is a complex phenomenon in Sade’s theory, and we have already seen how important it is when we try to understand perverse motivation. However, to maintain that a theory of pleasure presupposes nothing but a reference to nature is to exaggerate; pleasure is a cycle of sensual, cerebral, and orgiastic stages, where the middle point is artificial and thus independent of nature. Yet perverse motivation is first a reaction to natural stimuli, and it must return back to nature via discharge. Sade’s word for sexual climax is, indeed, “discharge”. The libertine, either a man or a woman, goes off like a gun. “Orgasm” refers to a mental complex which is misleading because Sade wants to be a mechanistic and naturalist philosopher. He deals with actions and reactions, like stimuli and discharges. Of course thoughts and feelings are important but in the end we have a mere discharge, not orgasm. Another important point must be kept in mind, namely, Sade thinks that women climax just like men do. They discharge. So much hinges on this notion that its metaphoric roots and implications must be kept in mind. What we have here is detonation which destroys its own environment. This is important unlike the feelings of pleasure as such. The latter is just psychology. Sade is interested in fiction. At first sight, Sade wants to be a naturalist and an atheistic philosopher. In his novels the libertine heroes give long accounts of their metaphysical speculations. They place great weight on quite technical and academic points of philosophy in the conduct of their lives; they would be logical positivists if they lived in the twentieth century. For Sade, science makes ethics look like a catalog of unreasonable commands or rhetorical tricks, such as persuasive definitions and noisy exclamations.The principle of nature which governs such verbal behavior is that of universal chaos, death, and destruction, and of the blind proliferation of life. In both of its aspects the world is a vortex of forces which neither display any natural or rational laws, nor show the influence of a benevolent supernatural mind. The injustice of social life and experience in general show that everything leads to destruction and to rebirth in one form or another. Chaos and death also imply rebirth; nature is equally malevolent and productive. The creative aspect is random. Millions of people die, and even more are born.

Sade’s concept of nature must be understood as the map of a road from vulgar materialism to hell. External atoms and forces are transformed, step by step, into the myth of evil in man. D. H. Lawrence illustrates perfectly the Sadean struggle against nature in this mad urge to destroy everything meaningful. Sade refuses to nominate a law-giver. Therefore nature rules absolutely, providing the human agents with their entitlements but not with their corresponding duties. For Sade, everything is permissible. The Sadean grand theory follows. The truth is: Man thus has no relationship to Nature, nor Nature to man; Nature cannot bind man by any law, man is in no way dependent upon Nature, neither is answerable to the other, they cannot either harm or help each other.

Women and Pleasure

Obviously anyone can be a Sadean hero. The choice is free, as the cases of Justine and Juliette show. In the same way, no fundamental differences between men and women emerge, despite the claim of some interpreters of Sade. For instance, Lawrence W. Lynch has argued: If women have no sexual dignity in Sade, we could also say that they have no physical identity. Justine and Juliette exist only in terms of their relationship to males. Furthermore, women have no civil or monetary rights. It seems that Sade envisaged two types of women. They are either prostitutes Or, women can be enslaved by men and submit to eventual murder. . . . Juliette may be freer than the other females in Sade, but she must continually rob and kill in order to survive. Strong women need not be only witches whose power originates from a strange and unknown source and who are by definition alienated from mainstream society. The Malleus Maleficarum is helpful here: there are three things in nature, the Tongue, an Ecclesiastic, and a Woman, which know no moderation in goodness or vice; and when they exceed the bounds of their condition they reach the greatest heights and the lowest depths of goodness and vice. Men tend to have too little virtue, women too much. But female virtues are also the highest. Here we see the Aristotelian trap in which Sade’s victims are caught: too much virtue, like too much benevolence, shows immoderation and is a defect of character. The female virtues are defects simply because they either upset the proper equilibrium of virtues or they lack the master virtue which alone could balance the scale.

If Sade is a hedonist, he is only a fictional one. Since his hedonism means that the libertine aims at pleasure which signifies transcendence and ultimately nothingness, this makes a mere discharge, detonation, the mark of orgiastic experience. Therefore, pleasure is neither a tool nor an end, but simply an indicator of what we call an orgasm – the orgiastic life is important to Sade as symbolism. An Epicurean hedonist, on the contrary, assigns extrinsic value to pleasure, and intrinsic value to its collection in the long run. In a rather paradoxical manner, he only aims at present pleasure as a means, rejecting any present pleasure which does not contribute towards a final release. Therefore he sees it later in the mirror of his personal history as a picture of the value of his life as a totality. If he is successful, he can be happy that he was happy. Sade’s heroes do not want to be happy in this sense. The Epicurean rule is that what belongs to a person is pleasant and what comes from outside is painful. Pure pleasure, then, does not require external support, and in this sense eating is not an ideal source of pleasure: one must be hungry to enjoy culinary delights, and hunger is an external causal influence on a person. The good life is that which in the end shows the largest collection of internal pleasures. An Epicurean wants to collect such pleasures that do not presuppose dependence on the external world or bring about pain. Of course, if there is a residue of pain, the total collection diminishes in size. ()Sade offers a view to nowhere through the mirror, or everywhere beyond human thought and motivation. This translucent white is what we see when we read Sade, so that the reader can locate his own transcendental fears in it. Sade the Asylum Poet writes about his own distant enemies and longs for them. As such, his dreams are not his readers’ dreams and need not interest them too much. However, his method captures something which seems to be a real feature of the human mind: pure perversity as the transgression of values. It drives one forward to do all the vicious things which often seem to inherit the world. In the ending, it seems to be agreed upon that no matter one’s critical stance on the man, his name has stood the test of time, and it doesn’t look like Marquis de Sade be forgotten anytime soon.


  1. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer 1979, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Tr. John Cumming, Verso, London. See “Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality.”
  2. Timo Airaksinen 1988a, Ethics of Coercion and Authority. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.
  3. Simone de Beauvoir 1966 (1952), “Must We Burn Sade?,” in Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (eds), The Marquis de Sade: The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Grove Press, New York.
  4. Robert Dunn 1987, The Possibility of Weakness of Will. Hackett, Indianapolis.
  5. Sigmund Freud 1977, On Sexuality. Tr. James Strachey, The Pelican Freud Library , Vol. 7, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.


I Pravat Ranjan Sethi completed my studies from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, at present teaching at Amity University. My area of interest is Modern History especially Nationalism, Political History, Critical Theory and Gender Studies.



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