The Marquis de Sade and the End of Evil

by Ran Prieur

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Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, was a French nobleman of the late 1700's who sexually abused numerous prostitutes and servants, was imprisoned the Bastille, served as a judge after the Revolution, was accused of moderatism and nearly guillotined, was imprisoned again for his writings, and lived out his years in an insane asylum, where he completed fiction and philosophy that was decades, and in some ways centuries, ahead of its time.

Those who would condemn Sade's writings because of his personal behavior should consider Abraham Lincoln, who is widely admired for his opposition to chattel slavery, even though he personally started and conducted an illegal war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and admitted that the purpose of the war was not to end slavery but to reinforce the monolithic character of the American domination system, or as he put it, "preserve the Union." If you think Lincoln's crimes were different because he was President, then Sade would agree... but in reverse! "To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable, but to have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honorably discharged is incomprehensible."

The fundamental difference between people who like the Marquis de Sade, and people who don't, is their view of evil. To the anti-Sadeans, evil runs from the frightening edge of consciousness all the way to the infinite depths of the universe, and human society is at best a fragile shell of civility that keeps us from plunging into bottomless horror. Therefore, "good" means authorities and rules that keep the world safe and predictable, and any ethic or practice of selfishness or wild freedom is simply a movement toward evil.

Good people who like Sade see evil as a dead end, not the default condition of the universe but an aberration, which can keep itself going only with great difficulty. Not only can we defeat it with good, which means something like empathy, but we can defeat it with awareness, because evil cannot exist in full illumination, and we can even defeat it with more evil, in the same way that you can blow out a fire with an explosion. The worst thing we can do is to repress evil under a veneer of civility, which keeps it both stable and hidden.

There's no better example of hidden evil than the long tradition of sexual abuse by the upper classes. In every rigid hierarchy, from primitive tribes to the Catholic church, the rulers are constantly tempted by the sexual side of domination. I'm not sure why domination has a sexual side, but it does, and it's more compelling than non-sexual domination or non-dominating sexuality. The Marquis de Sade was on one level another participant in elite sex abuse, and on another level its greatest enemy, because he brought it into the light. For one thing, he left witnesses. Normal elite sex abusers kill their victims, or intimidate them into silence, or make the abuse so unbelievable that if the victims try to report it, everyone will think they're crazy. Sade was a psychic exhibitionist who seems to have wanted his victims to tell their stories.

More important, through his writing he brought his own feelings, and a value system that justified them, into the light. His masterpiece is "Philosophy in the Bedroom" (available in PDF from the Marquis de Sade eLibrary). Here's a typical passage:

Nature, mother to us all, never speaks to us save of ourselves; nothing has more of the egoistic than her message, and what we recognize most clearly therein is the immutable and sacred counsel: prefer thyself, love thyself, no matter at whose expense. But the others, they say to you, may avenge themselves... Let them! The mightier will vanquish; he will be right. Very well, there it is, the primitive state of perpetual strife and destruction for which Nature's hand created us, and within which alone it is of advantage to her that we remain.

"Philosophy in the Bedroom" is like Nietzche, but a hundred years sooner and mixed with graphic sex. It's like Darwin but decades sooner and without holding back. Darwin followed Sade in declaring nature a war of all against all in which the strong are right to exterminate the weak, but he stopped there and left the human social implications vague and unspoken, which enabled the elite to quietly keep social Darwinism to themselves and engineer two centuries of tyranny and ecocide.

Sade took the same idea to its logical conclusion and said that every individual human should be free to rob and rape and murder! His vision, almost 100 years before anarchism, was the total democratization of force, even force at its most horrific. His goal was to break the alliance between savagery and Empire, which would have denied savagery its strongest tools, made Empire impossible, and prevented every major atrocity of the industrial age.

Of course I don't agree that every human should be free to rape and murder, and I think his vision was naive, but it's damn hard to explain why. The whole modern age could be called the Sadean Age, because for 250 years we've been struggling with the issues he raised. We believe in "freedom," still defined in 18th century terms as the freedom of selfish individuals to gratify desires. We believe in "equality," that this freedom should be distributed to all. And almost everyone still holds Sade's proto-Darwinian view of nature as an amoral, hyper-selfish struggle for survival. To this day, Sade challenges us to take these beliefs seriously or abandon them, to shit or get off the pot.

For 250 years we've done neither. What Sade (and Adam Smith, and Jefferson, and many others) failed to understand is that enlightenment-style "freedom" cannot possibly be held by all, because it includes the freedom to dominate, and it's the nature of domination to form monopolies and hierarchies. Once there is power-over, no law, religion, or ideology can stop it from forming a giant system in which no individual has any power, but merely channels the power of the system itself.

I said the elite kept Sade's philosophy for themselves, but even they don't get to live by it. True Sadean freedom belongs only to the Beast, the social organism made up of every link of power-over in the world. In the modern age, the physical form of that Beast is the industrial megamachine. It is the world's one and only Sadean actor, ravaging whole continents for no other reason than the joy of indifferent brutality. Its human slaves experience this joy vicariously through the beautiful deadness of monolithic architecture, through the addictive rush of increasing numbers and soulless change, and through scenes of wild freedom on television. More than would ever admit it take secret pleasure in forests being turned into parking lots. They call it "progress" or "civilization" or "modernization" or even "evolution," but a more precise term is technosadism: the spiritual habit of taking pleasure in withholding empathy from the living while they are turned by mechanical action into the dead.

Technosadism is a religion, and for some reason humans need religion. It's not enough for us to say, "here's a set of rules that makes a good game." We need a Story, a Meaning, a Role in something larger. Technosadism provides this meaning by projecting its own behavior onto "nature," defined as the whole universe. This world rests on the back of selfish brutality, which again rests on selfish brutality, and so on all the way down. And our holy quest is to out-brutalize nature itself, to beat it into submission: wolves, jungles, volcanoes, planets, stars.

What this religion is missing is God, and not just a bearded sky father but any kind of guiding intelligence. The modern machine metaphysics -- that the universe is nothing but lifeless bouncing particles and waves -- is often credited to Descartes, but he believed in God, and even Isaac Newton was into esoteric spirituality. So how did we lose God? Richard Dawkins could not say it any better today than Sade did in "Philosophy in the Bedroom" in 1795:

...if movement is inherent in Nature; if, in short, she alone, by reason of her energy, is able to create, produce, preserve, maintain, hold in equilibrium within the immense plains of space all the spheres that stand before our gaze and whose uniform march, unvarying, fills us with awe and admiration, what then becomes of the need to seek out a foreign agent, since this active faculty essentially is to be found in Nature herself, who is naught else than matter in action? Do you suppose your deific chimera will shed light upon anything?

Supposedly the issue is intellectual efficiency -- why believe A plus B if you can explain everything with A alone? But really there are quite a lot of things we can't explain with a matter-based metaphysics, and the deeper issue is morality. Technosadism demands an amoral universe, one with no intelligent perspective to judge the value of our actions. This doctrine likes to call itself "scientific rationalism," but experimental testing of hypotheses and rational thought could just as easily support other models of reality. A more precise term for the metaphysics of technosadism is mechanistic nihilism: the belief that matter is the root of mind, and mindlessness is the root of matter, and therefore mindlessness and meaninglessness underlie everything.

So-called "postmodernism" is really nothing but extreme modernism, an attempt to destroy modernity with the same nihilism that drives it. This is what I meant by evil being difficult to sustain: the megamachine needs just enough moral emptiness to permit enslaving the human species and exterminating life on Earth -- a little more moral emptiness and people have no reason to do their jobs. Sade would have loved postmodernism, but it has never worked for ordinary people, who want more meaning, not less.

To this day, the strongest opposition to technosadism comes not from newer ideologies, but older ones: nationalism, tribalism, fundamentalist religion. The so-called "clash of civilizations" going on right now in southwest Asia is between, on the one side, a weird alliance of technosadism and Jehovah sky-fatherism, and on the other side, tribalism and Allah sky-fatherism. The world's poorer people cling to their gods, and reject the technosadean project, precisely because they haven't shared in the benefits of the project, the continual increase in manufactured toys and comforts. For the same reason, as ordinary Americans get poorer, they're sliding back into violent tribalism and fundamentalist religion. If they can't look forward to owning a nice house and car and giant TV, they have to look forward to destroying enemies and going to heaven.

Of course, in Sade's original vision, people don't need to look forward to anything. His libertines, like wild animals, live in the eternal present. Only when Sade's philosophy merged with civilization were hedonism and decadence defined as consumer products earned after a long day of wage labor

There are human societies where people don't need to look forward to anything, where they have a meaning of life that's not based on holding tension between where they are and where they want to be. So why do people have to look forward to anything? Sade himself imagined his libertines, like primitive humans and wild animals, living in the here and now. So why do people have to look forward to anything? Can we have a spiritual perspective, a meaning of life, that's not based on holding tension between where we are and where we want to be? This question leads us even farther back, to primitive humans and wild nature.


Sade himself imagined his libertines getting their pleasure in the here and now. Only when his values were merged into civilization did hedonism come to mean a life of wage labor while looking forward to ice cream and internet porn.

Sade (and Rousseau, and many others) had the right idea: to defeat the Empire by learning from nature and nature-based humans. But only now Indeed, to ordinary Americans, the word "modern" has lost all its human meaning, and now refers precisely to machines and our roles inside machines as servants and hangers-on.

Sade should be forgiven for his philosophical mistakes, because 200 years later we are only beginning to know better. To this day, right wingers think murder and torture are heroic if done on the orders of a right wing leader, even if he's breaking the law. Lefties are still stuck in a cartoonish extreme pacifism that would be forced to condemn slave revolts and the French resistance to Hitler.

The Marquis de Sade is the reductio ad absurdum of the modern age. He challenges us to either follow him into madness, or refute him and topple everything we believe.

, while in the shadows, ecologists patiently gather evidence that nature is based on cooperation. Even anthropologists hesitate to morally distinguish among primitive humans, so that we're forced to lump them all together, and either admire the worst tribes or believe that the best tribes have nothing to teach us.