The Marquis de Sade wrote the world’s most cynical satires. His pornographic works belong in the Horror section of bookstores, because they illustrate some grave truths as well as presenting a daunting challenge to modern secularists. If you wonder why Christians associate atheism and freethinking with immorality, you might look beyond the Cold War for the source of that connection, when the atheistic Soviets were demonized by God-fearing Americans. But in the modern period you’d need to look no further than Sade’s scandalous advocacy of libertinism. Contemporary Americans who speak endlessly of the need for freedom seem oblivious to the fact that they shackle themselves by adhering to cultural norms, including moral and even legal regulations. The freest individual is, of course, the fictional character Satan. Lord Satan is the true hero of those whose highest ideal is personal liberty. (For example, every one of the Nine Satanic Statements in LaVey’s Satanic Bible is consistent with Sade’s libertinism.) Sade understood this diabolical end-game of freedom, and so his satires push freedom of thought and naturalistic philosophy to their furthest reaches. If you’re a critic of freethinking and naturalism, you’ll happily interpret Sade’s works as reducing those assumptions to absurdity. By contrast, if you’re an advocate of liberty in thought and in action, but you reject Sade’s contention that you should therefore be, in effect, a rabid Satanist and sadist, you have to explain why secular postmodern liberalism doesn't reduce to libertinism. What follows is my critique of Sade’s inversion of morality.
What is Libertinism?
Let’s look first at Sade’s philosophical assumptions and at libertinism itself. Sade was a rationalist not in the technical Western philosophical sense that he believed there are innate ideas--although he did emphasize our instinctive side--but in the broader, progressive sense that he favoured reason over faith and tradition. Thus, he accepted a science-centered, naturalistic worldview, according to which the world is made up of ordered patterns of matter and energy. There are no immaterial spirits, afterlives, miracles, or gods. In short, Sade was a materialist, a naturalist, a vehement atheist, and a respecter of science. So how does he derive sadism from those assumptions?
Here’s my charitable reconstruction of his reasoning. Sade argues, implicitly or otherwise, not just that everything is natural, but that we ought to be natural, and here “natural” must be used in two different senses. Metaphysically, miracles are impossible on his view, but morally speaking, unnatural behaviour is possible and bad, according to him. As far as I can tell, natural and thus moral behaviour, for Sade, is that which copies as much of the natural world as possible and which therefore gives the lie to the conceit that our species is unique. Thus, what we ought to do is follow our gut instincts, especially the instinct to seek pleasure by any means. Pleasure is our highest good, for Sade, and so he was also a hedonist. But the reason pleasure should be our ultimate value is that animals in general are concerned mainly with their own gain, and we should avoid the dualistic delusion that we’re substantially different from the other species. Moreover, egoism follows from mechanistic atomism, according to which an atom is independent of all other atoms and collides violently with others like a billiard ball.
The horrible twist in Sade’s hedonism is that someone who seeks mainly personal pleasure should offer no apology for taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Again, the reasoning is starkly naturalistic: moral constraints on egoism are based on dualistic delusions; fundamentally, we are beasts and so our highest good is to behave as beasts. Moreover, we learn from biology that species divide into the weak and the strong; the strong prey on the weak, both between and within species. Thus, there are both predator species as well as alpha leaders of smaller groups. This is a broad natural pattern and so not only do we tend to emulate it, but we ought to do so. And so there are strong, wealthy classes of people that prey on the poor masses. In addition, predatory behaviour is natural and thus good for the Malthusian reason, which is that predators are needed to thin the herd, maintain biological variety, and prevent mass starvation from overpopulation. Predatory people may be diagnosed with sociopathy, but they can appeal to libertinism and say that their egoistic mastery of vice and their wholesale contempt for altruistic morality follow from the modern, Enlightenment assumptions (rationalism, materialism, and so on).
To be clear, for Sade the predator’s license to prey on the weak prescribes not just rough sex with a lower class individual, but every conceivable vice and “crime”--deception, theft, rape, incest, bestiality, and murder are all encouraged by Sade as long as these acts are accomplished for libertine ends. Predators have elite wisdom, given their modern insight into the horrific nature of reality. The real world is materialistic, whereas fanciful notions about a human’s special worth and otherworldly destiny are fantastic and thus immoral. Sade thus reverses traditional notions of virtue and vice. What mass society regards as virtues--asceticism, altruism, mercy, cooperation, empathy, civility--are actually vices, from the esoteric perspective. For the libertine, the wise individual is what an ignorant or deluded person might regard as an evil genius, a sort of corrupted Batman, someone who not only acts on all of his lusts without pity or remorse, but who has the power and the social connections with likeminded predators, to escape the wrath of the masses. In the US, for example, the Wall Street plutocrats who seem too big to fail and who thus threaten to destroy the global economic system should their Ponzi schemes be regulated and their oligopolies be broken up in the name of fair competition, would be the best and the brightest in the moral sense--as would all the amoral math and computer whizzes who flock to Harvard Business School to become multimillionaires by exploiting the broken economic system.
For Sade’s libertine, anything that curbs private pleasure is bad, but not everyone can be happy in nature. On the contrary, the atomic interactions that are at the bottom of all natural processes are indifferent to moral inequalities; indeed, the gaps between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, and the happy and the miserable may be required by a broader and thus a normatively higher pattern. Nature is full of inequalities, and so the more unequal a society may be, the better. The upshot is that libertinism isn’t fit for everyone, but only for the elite, for the aristocrats, oligarchs, or autocrats who are strong enough to follow their unbridled impulses with impunity. If you lack the power to evade, bribe, or otherwise control the police, for example, you’re better off following herd morality, but this morality for the weak is, according to the libertine, nothing but a procedure for being bad. According to Sade, then, selfless people who sacrifice their lusts to get along with others, because they lack the power to live above the law, are the unhappiest, while the libertine who is the most free just by being the most independent is the one who enjoys the most pleasure.
Our highest natural purpose is to be pleased with life, but since only a minority can fulfill that purpose in a sustained, heroic way, the masses must settle for second place, by living as means for the predators’ fulfillment of that end. And here we see the mechanistic, instrumental side of libertinism. Currently, sadists in the sexual sphere are infamous for their black leather outfits which are meant to dehumanize the practitioners and their masochistic partners so that they can be treated as functionaries in our most natural, beastly game of being masters or slaves. Again, from the materialistic viewpoint, people are soulless robots carrying out our programming, just as atoms are forced to play their part in some natural process. Human societies are mainly games for two classes of robots: slaves serve at the pleasure of masters, by suffering in the masters’ cruel schemes. All else is superstitious folly.
The obvious question, then, is how even the masters can be free if we’re all just slaves to our impulses. Indeed, for Sade there’s no miraculous self-control, but our actions can be more or less out of line with broader natural patterns. When we act naturally in that sense, we fulfill our biological and physical purpose and we live the good life, which is just the most selfishly pleasurable one. When we act unnaturally, by pretending that we’re above nature, that we don’t fit into larger biological and physical patterns, nature punishes us for our error, namely for the effrontery that deluded people call virtue. Liberty here is a matter of lacking restraint, of having the courage and the power to do what you really want to do, if not the power to supernaturally choose your own desires in violation of natural law. And just as God is supposed to use even evil-doers to fulfill his grand design, so too nature uses unnatural, “saintly” people in the furtherance of the game in which we play our roles: again, altruists serve as sheeple, as slaves whose suffering pleases the sadistic masters. For the libertine, this is a mechanistic means-end relationship that’s fundamentally the same as any purely physical process. Just as we hunt weaker or dumber animals for food or sport, for example, so too the most powerful people should kill weaker folk for fun or profit. This is because powerful people ought to have predatory impulses, which means they ought to be sadistic, to derive pleasure from lesser people’s suffering, to delight in this natural game that’s played out all around the world throughout our history, including the Age of Reason.
One other curiosity is how Sade can be a rationalist if he thinks we’re all just primitive animals or robots. Once again, I think this is only a superficial inconsistency. Sade is a rationalist with regard to his philosophical principles, discussed above, but he follows reason up to the point that reason undermines itself. Reason (the scientific explanation of evidence) shows that we’re just animals, that we have no immortal essence or supernatural home, just as science shows we’re part of larger natural processes. So once Enlightenment reason (freethinking) undermines all religious delusions, cowardice and cheap vanity, the libertine says reason has played its part in the drama, and our task is to behave as the beasts we really are. Thus, Sade is a rationalist when it comes to learning how the real world works, but he’s an irrationalist with regard to morality. More precisely, Sade implies that reasoning has only instrumental value, that a wise person will think logically if that’s what’s needed to bring his fiendish plan to fruition.
False Starts Against Libertinism
When evaluating libertinism, we should distinguish between two separate but equally interesting questions. First, is libertinism the best philosophical outlook? Second, do powerful people tend to be libertines as a matter of fact? I suspect the answer to the second question is that yes, indeed, powerful people tend to adopt the libertine viewpoint--even if only to justify their preexisting sociopathy. But whether their sadism or their philosophical defense comes first is yet another interesting question I won’t pursue here.
Instead, I want to focus on the first question. Typically, when a naturalist derives moral prescriptions from a theory of natural facts, you can expect that the naturalist has committed the naturalistic fallacy, that she’s just presupposed that prescriptions follow logically from descriptions. And indeed, I suspect that Sade’s writings are full of naturalistic fallacies. Specifically, according to my reconstruction, Sade infers that we ought to recognize our unavoidable role in larger natural processes, and that when we do so our resulting behaviour is morally best. But just because a process is broad doesn’t mean it’s best, just as an idea’s popularity doesn’t make it true. However, this technical point of logic doesn’t put down the threat that libertinism poses to the softer, gentler secular philosophy of liberal humanism. No, as I said, Sade seems to understand what I’ve called the curse of reason. Whether sadism follows logically from metaphysical naturalism is neither here nor there, given the truth of the latter, because according to that metaphysical picture, we’re just clever animals that have a habit of deluding ourselves into thinking that the highest purpose of our thoughts is to be logical. Not so, says the powerful person who uses logic and fallacies alike as instruments in the Machiavellian manipulation of people, by way of making the most fun moves in the game of life. In any case, Sade has another ready response to this charge, which is that libertinism is the only morality left standing after the Enlightenment showed that altruistic moralities are the ones that rest not just on technical errors of reasoning but on whopping delusions of supernaturalism.
So I’m going to leave aside the naturalistic fallacy objection. Am I, then, a libertine? Well, I share Sade’s philosophical naturalism and respect for science. Of course, science has moved on from the mechanistic worldview. As quantum mechanics shows, atoms are as much interrelated (entangled) waves as they are independent, ego-like particles. So physics is no longer suited to crude social Darwinism. A liberal secular humanist’s main objection to libertinism, though, would be that the Age of Reason doesn’t end in Sade’s cynicism, that reason shows we’re cooperative beings who enter into a social contract precisely because such self-restraint is in our narrow interest, the alternative being anarchy and indeed what Hobbes called the state of nature, which is the state that Sade says is inescapable. (There are other contenders for rationalist morality, such as utilitarianism, Rawls’ defense of the welfare state, and so forth, but I’ll focus here on the idea of the social contract.)
Now, on my charitable interpretation of libertinism, I think this liberal, egalitarian philosophy falters for a Straussian reason that’s implicit in Sade’s critique of polite society. According to Leo Strauss’s reading of the ancient Greek philosophers, philosophy subverts the delusions needed to sustain social ties. Therefore, philosophers need to maintain “noble” fictions so that the unphilosophical majority can continue to productively participate in the society that sustains the philosopher’s elite, cynical lifestyle. I trust you can see how similar this is to Sade’s (and Nietzsche’s) view of masters and slaves. (Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave dialectic precedes the latter two’s, but Hegel’s is less interesting because he appeals to a deus ex machina in the necessity of more and more self-consciousness.) According to Sade, there are and have always been masters and slaves, two broad classes of people, just as there are predatory and servile species. True, predators and sadists need the meeker creatures, but if they’re sufficiently clever they can have it both ways: they can abuse the weak masses even as they pretend to cave in to the demand for a social contract, for a society of laws and traditional morality. Like vampires, sadists can practice their higher morality in secret.
As for finding evidence of this, we could look to the likely answer to that second question I posed. If powerful people do tend to think and secretly act as libertines, and have always done so in all parts of the world, we might well suspect that any defense of egalitarianism or of altruism that becomes conventional wisdom is the perpetuation of a noble lie. At least, regardless of the evidence or logic in favour of something like the US Bill of Rights, we’d have the competing fact that all societies tend to map onto the grotesque pattern of the masters and slaves in their respective positions in the dominance hierarchy. We could aspire to some higher-minded society, but the point is that if we’re beholding a large-scale natural process here, we should take a second look at any altruistic metanarrative, including any scientistic one, such as the one you find in economics and game theory which uses fancy mathematics to cloak its normative and thus largely artistic nature. After all, the notion that selfish people ought to sign onto a social compromise for their own good assumes that selfish people should err on the side of caution, as John Rawls says. But very powerful people can throw caution to the wind because they’re too big for society to let fail or to imprison; they become parasites, the hidden Lovecraftian gods whose intentions and lifestyles are alien and therefore monstrous to those of the struggling dupes.
The Existential Choice: Collusion with Horrible Nature or Tragic Rebellion?
Anyway, even if there were rational and naturalistic defenses of morality, Sade would have a fallback position which is that reason doesn’t make itself our ultimate ideal. Even were there some calculations showing that our selfish pleasure is maximized by helping rather than harming others, who says our behaviour ought to be rational, first and foremost? Logic and science alone don’t tell us what we should do. When Sade says we’re animals, he’s pointing to our primitive instincts as the motives we should follow, because they put us in touch with natural reality. This is what we might call Sade’s standard of existential authenticity: natural behaviour is the beastly kind that matches the most universal, metaphysical pattern in nature, whereas unnatural, altruistic actions put us at odds with natural forces and so lead to our unhappiness, as nature punishes saints by creating predators to humiliate them or to hunt them down for sport. Even if you’re armed with fancy philosophical arguments for altruism, you have to care about those arguments to let them guide your life outside of the Academy or of your anonymous speeches in internet chat rooms. You have to feel that we should be logical in our dealings with others and with our inclinations, and any such feeling will have to compete with our wilder, more ancient and technically fallacious impulses. When it comes to motivating us, the lizard brain beats the cerebral cortex, as does any technique that capitalizes on the Throne of Emotion on which sits the hypocritical god of Logos.
So when I consider libertinism I want to compare Sade’s hero, the sadistic master of weak people, with a different one, namely the rebellious ascetic and altruist, and I want this comparison to play out according to aesthetic ground rules. Which narrative makes for the better story, Sade’s farce of the monstrous instrumental relation between masters and slaves or the tragedy of rebelling against any such relation for the sake of another natural ideal, that of artistic integrity? After all, naturalists after Darwin have moved on from the creationist, platonic assumption that forms are eternal; even were there a broad natural conflict between masters and slaves, this conflict needn’t be permanent. There’s continuity between naturally selected species and between social classes, so we can be moved by the prospect of rebelling against some universals for the sake of evolving new ones. The problem with Sade’s mechanistic interpretation of natural processes is that he misses the mystery of cosmic undeadness. An actual machine is spiritless and robotic, because the machine is the handiwork of a mind, and we can see the mind infuse her intentions into the machine’s functions. But there’s no mind behind the universe and nature creates and changes itself, from the chaotic quantum fluctuations up to the cosmic dance of spiraling galaxies.
My point here is that there are two equally naturalistic stories to tell. There’s Sade’s social Darwinism, assuming for the sake of argument that we have selfish impulses and that there’s an unsettling order in our history of cynical elites preying on deluded weaklings. But there’s also a naturalistic, nonrational defense of altruism (or at least of a rejection of sadism), which I call existential cosmicism. We can concede that reason has little to do with morality, but maintain that we ought to rebel against nature rather than attempting to emulate the heartlessness of natural forces. Sade’s satires excel at showing the hypocrisy of elites who must wear the mask of Christian moralism in public while effectively worshipping Satan in private, when they scheme for Machiavellian control and engage in all manner of perverted sexual adventures. Exposing this hypocrisy makes for great comedy. But there’s a reason comedies seldom win an Oscar for Best Picture, and it’s not just a matter of Hollywood politics. Likewise, there’s a reason Shakespeare’s tragedies are more highly regarded than his comedies, and theists are moved more by depictions of hell than of heaven. Even comedians are known for doing their best work when they’re miserable, and indeed the greatest art emerges as sublimations of suffering.
The best art speaks to the horrors and tragedies in the world, not just because fear and disgust are powerful emotions, but because we feel that the whole universe won’t end well, theistic fantasies notwithstanding. Theists speak of the coming kingdom of God, but talk is cheap and myths have to earn their emotional power by engaging honestly with reality; otherwise, the myths become corrupting dogmas. God is nowhere to be found, whereas we confront death every day, whether in the death of the animals or plants we eat or in that of people in the news or in our personal life. Heraclitus was right when he spoke of change as being at the heart of Being. The seasons change and whole solar systems and even galaxies come and go in their time. The universe too will go. Perhaps elsewhere in the multiverse another universe will spring into being, but the point is that everything in nature has a beginning, a middle, and an end--just like a story. Endings make for tragedies: the heroes all die, because everything ends before having a chance to culminate in some godlike state beyond Death’s reach. Thus, the greatest art is tragedy because it speaks to the finite structure of natural being.
Although Sade’s satires don’t end happily for the slaves, from the slaves’ perspective, in a sense his works do have happy endings, because from nature’s viewpoint, as it were, everything works as it should: all our natural functions are served, whether we’re masters or slaves, and when masters are pleased to bring about the suffering of slaves, our greatest good is achieved. To be sure, this is horrifying comedy, because it overturns the noble lie about morality, which is the Enlightenment convention that everyone has the right to be a liberated and happy master. Still, Sade’s philosophy ends happily for everyone in the mechanistic sense that we all fulfill our necessary functions in our service to nature. If we strive to be selfless because of some alleged supernatural calling, we only set ourselves up to be prey for those who aren’t so gullible.
By contrast, rebellious detachment is about making the best of our hopeless situation. We’re doomed to extinction and there’s no cavalry or angelic host waiting in the wings to save us. Our noblest, most honourable course is to sublimate existential horror and create the best artworks with the raw materials of our ideas and our life decisions (as well as creating paintings, songs, novels, and so forth). If we’re naturally inclined to be selfish and beastly, we can choose to detach from those impulses and to rebel against the genes and other natural forces, and achieve the freedom of artistic independence. For Sade, freedom is going with the flow of cruel nature, whereas for the existential rebel, freedom is being as unnatural as possible for the sake of creating tragic art.
Here the rebel may have the last laugh against the libertine. For Sade, altruists are deluded fools whom elite masters use as pawns in nature’s game that rewards the winners with sadistic pleasure. But for the existential cosmicist, the elite master hardly fares much better than the slave in the long run. Although the master’s life may be full of pleasure and the slave’s full of suffering, even Sade should grant that nature uses both in its elaboration of some larger process. For example, now we know about genetics and natural selection. So there should be some awkwardness in the Satanist’s or sadist’s self-glorification and revelry in the downfall of slaves since, being a naturalist, the master must realize that she’s doomed as well and is merely a plaything of undead natural forces. So the choice is (1) to conform to a global pattern, to be liberated by surrendering to our primitive impulses and accepting our permanent position in the dominance hierarchy or (2) to rebel against those Fates, to reinforce our uniqueness as a species and as individuals, to be original and so to earn the highest aesthetic honours. We can say Yes to the worst in the world or we can say No and try to create something both new and tragic and thus aesthetically better than what’s given to us.
For these reasons, I think that, compared to libertinism, the philosophy of existential cosmicism makes for the more appealing myth, aesthetically speaking. Even though I share some assumptions with Sade, I’m unmoved by his prescription of sadism. I’d feel no joy in torturing a pitiful creature, because I understand that I’m equally pitiful. We’re all in the same existential boat, masters and slaves alike. Sadists delude themselves when they forget that, at best, they’re big fish in a little pond, predators in a game played out on a backwoods planet. In the ocean of natural processes in which we swim, we’re all sinking. Shall I step on someone’s head to enjoy a few more breaths, to delay my drowning or even to live for years on an island made up of the backs of slaves? Or shall I attempt to show how all sufferers can make the best of their plight, by exploring the power of tragic art to give us a higher sort of pleasure, to turn our fear and loathing into the artist’s bittersweet creativity? I choose the latter, because sadism sickens me and this is because the libertine’s true master is the abomination of a merely undead god.