The Marquis de Sade was perhaps not much of a philosopher, but what philosophy there is in his work is clearly the brain-child of the enlightenment. It is as if the age of reason has gone a bit senile after all those years and has now, shortly before her final demise, decided to present her dirty backside to the public. The Marquis de Sade is Voltaire’s ugly little brother, the Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll, urging us to be reasonable, to pay no attention to the “heart”, to seek out and kill off all prejudices, to claim our political and intellectual freedom: “Ah, smash those chains – nature wants you to smash them! You should have no other limits than your leanings, no other laws than your cravings, no other moral than nature; stop languishing in those barbaric prejudices that caused your charms to fade and imprisoned the godly surges of your hearts.”
Some of Sade’s demands appear downright progressive, even today. You can find passages in his work that could easily be cited by gay rights campaigners and feminists. He argues vehemently against the death penalty and the right of any government or state to inflict capital punishment on its citizens. He defends the right to freely pursue one’s own sexual orientation, especially homosexuality (but also incest and paedophilia), without fear of punishment. He demands that every woman should be granted the right to decide what happens to and with her own body. Women should be allowed to express their sexuality just as freely as men, and abortion is absolutely fine if that is what a woman wants, because this decision is only hers to make: “A woman is always the mistress of what she carries in her womb, and there is as little wrong with destroying this kind of material as there is with purging the other kind with medicaments, if we feel the need.” He also rejects the institution of marriage on the grounds that a woman should never become, or be seen as, the possession of any man. Marriage binds a woman unjustly to a man, makes her his property, which violates the rights of men and nature: “No act of possession can ever be perpetrated on a free being; it is as unjust to own a wife monogamously as it is to own slaves. All men are born free, all are equal before the law (...) The act of possession can be exercised only on an animal or an immobile object, but never on an individual that resembles us”. Therefore women, being neither animals nor things, should be free to do whatever they want, which of course for Sade means especially to have sex whenever and with whomever they want: “Fuck – in a word – fuck! That’s why you were put upon this earth!” “Fuck, Eugénie, fuck away, my dear angel! Your body belongs to you, to you alone. You are the only person in the world who has the right to enjoy your body and to let anyone you wish enjoy it.”
Yet despite all his talk of human freedom, all the exuberant liberationist rhetoric, the world that Sade seeks to create is in fact deeply oppressive. By granting so much freedom to the individual, he effectively proposes to leave the weak and vulnerable without protection. He argues against the death penalty, but mainly because he feels that individual (not state-committed) murder and theft should not be seen as crimes, but as natural, and hence ought not to be punished, which of course is not exactly good news for the victims of such crimes. He imagines a completely free society, a kind of republican utopia: “Citizens, remember: in granting freedom of conscience and freedom of the press, you must also allow freedom of action, with few exceptions”, and killing other people is not one of them: “The freest nations are those that welcome murder.” He denies that parents have any duties towards their children, but also that children have any duties (of gratitude) to their parents, which leaves not only the unborn, but also all children who are not yet old enough to fend for themselves entirely at their parents’ mercy (infanticide is just as permissible as abortion). It also leaves those same parents free to pursue their pleasure without having to care for their own ageing parents. In fact, they would be perfectly in their rights to get rid of them for good.
The oppressive nature of Sade’s libertarianism is also due to his peculiar understanding of the normative authority of nature, according to which every right that nature bestows on us is also a duty: what we are allowed to do is also what we are meant to do. “We obey its laws if we yield to the desires that nature alone has placed in front of us; and we outrage nature if we resist it.” Thus the allegedly natural right to satisfy one’s desires and to take pleasure wherever one finds it is transformed into a holy duty: “Let pleasure be the sole god of your existence. It is to pleasure alone that a girl must sacrifice everything, and nothing should be as sacred to her as pleasure.” And what if she doesn’t want so much pleasure? Well, then she needs to be forced. Nature must be obeyed, which is certainly very convenient for men: “In whatever state a woman may be, my darling – whether girl, woman, or widow – she must never have any other goal, any other occupation, any other desire than to be fucked from dawn till dusk. It’s toward that single end that nature has created her.” For this reason, “we even have the right to pass laws that compel a woman to yield to the ardour of the man who desires her, whereby violence itself, as a result of such a right, can be used legally by us.” “A woman’s fate is to be like a she-wolf, a bitch: she must belong to everyone who wants her.” Sade denies that this contradicts what he said earlier about women never being the property of any man. It is true, no woman belongs to any one man, but that doesn’t mean that she cannot be used by any man who wants her. In other words, she can never be private property because she is meant to be public property. And because this is in fact what she wants anyway, that is, what her nature commands her to do, men do not really wrong her by forcing their will upon her. They just help her being what she is meant to be. They allow her to exercise her rights: “First of all, by what right do you demand that a woman should be excepted from the blind submission that nature prescribes for her in male caprices? And then, by what other right do you demand that she should surrender to a continence that is impossible for her body and absolutely hopeless for her honour?” So by a happy coincidence both men and women get what they want. And this will certainly, Sade claims, increase universal happiness.
Yet Sade goes even further than that, invoking yet another (and of course equally faulty) argument from nature: “If nature didn’t mean for man to be superior, then it would not have taken the creatures given to him for this instant and created them weaker than man. The debility to which nature has doomed women proves incontestably that it intends for man, who delights more than ever in his power, to exercise it with all the violence he prefers. Indeed, he can even torture the woman to death if he so wishes.” Not much is left here of the rights of women that Sade seemed to be defending earlier.
Sade was certainly a misogynist, but I suspect that underlying Sade’s whole philosophy is a deep-seated hatred not only of the female sex, but in fact of the whole human race. “The entire human species could be snuffed out, and the air would be no less pure, the constellations no less radiant, the rhythm of the universe no less exact!” It would certainly be no great loss, assuming that the universe is indeed as cold and empty as Sade believed. Born out of self-loathing, a human-nature disgust that Sade may have inherited from Jonathan Swift, what he proposes is essentially a recipe for self-destruction. Because what nature ultimately wants is us gone.