Into The Abyss:marquis De Sade And The Enlightenment Essay, Research Paper
Into the Abyss
Marquis de Sade and the Enlightenment
We are no guiltier in following the primitive impulses that govern us than is the Nile for her flood or the sea for her waves” – La Mettrie
The eighteenth century embraced a secularized France in which the idea of utility, and not of salvation, were the principles by which one lived. Nature and reason in many ways replaced God. What this change left however, was a vacuum for the motive of morality in society. What would compel men to behave if not an omnipresent and all-powering God? The utilitarian idea that the greatest pleasure for the greatest good was able to reconcile the concept of a society questioning her religion but still looking to affirm her old values and moral codes. Many enlightened thinkers like Montesquieu argued for an emphasis on social, over individual welfare, and presented it as a solution left open by this vacuum.
This concept eventually evolved to a redefinition of morality in general. Prior, morality and social laws were frigid and prone to the dictums of the Church. Now, they were accountable to general society, and not the individual’s demands. Voltaire writes, ” Virtue and vice, moral good and evil, is then in any country what is useful or harmful to society?Virtue is the habit of doing those things which please men, and vice the habit of doing those things which displease men.” Consequentially, virtue and vice were not set in stone decrees, but rather arbitrary notions assigned to the whims of society. This idea left no universal law of good and evil. The right of the individual to pursue pleasure and his notions of right and wrong were secondary to his obligation to society. Voltaire explains, “To be good only for oneself is to be good for nothing.”
Rousseau also argued that the ambition of the individual’s particular desire be curbed to that of general societies. He writes, “The vices and virtues of each man are not relative to him alone. Their greatest relation is with society, and what they are in regard to the general order constitutes their essence and their character.” Helvitius deemed that society could determine what was moral and immoral according to what suited it best, “he whose strongest passion is so much in conformity with the general interest, that he is almost always necessarily determined to be virtuous.” The idea that moral codes were subject to judgment of society indicated it fickleness and changing nature. If morality was obliged and subject to society, than it was also a social construct.
These distinctions were essential. The idea of utility, of welfare and happiness, was the new code that directed enlightened thought. Yet, the concept of happiness as a fundamental priority in one’s life inevitably led to the idea of hedonism. If the individual pursuit of happiness were what was to motivate one’s life, than the concepts of virtue and morality would become secondary since they often conflicted. Hence, the idea that one should seek happiness in kin to society rather than for oneself was vital in ceasing the moral anarchy that would otherwise follow. Lester Crocker explains, “To those whom morals and virtue were themselves vital, as distinguished from the goal of happiness, it seemed the sole possibility of preserving those values against the corrosion of nihilism.”
D’Holbarch and Helvitius offered explanations that would be able to deter this line of thinking. They argued that it was only out of self-interest that people would be motivated to act in conformity with society, “We love virtue only for what selfish good it can bring us.” This concept of enlightened self-interest reconciled the idea of utility and nature, acting in one’s own self-interests, and therefore the greater good of society.
The concept of enlightened self-interest, of selfless selfishness, was bound, however, to be attacked. Rousseau articulates his disagreement, “What is useful to the public is scarcely ever introduced except by force, since private interests are always almost opposed to it.” Rousseau argued, quite convincingly, that the individual desires of man usually conflicted with that of society, yet, one was still obliged to subordinate oneself to society and live a moral life. In Emile Rousseau explains, “The wicked man fears himself and runs from himself; his joy comes in throwing himself out of himself.” He later continues, “On the contrary, the serenity of the just man is inner; his laughter has no maliciousness, but joy; he carries its source within himself; he is as gay alone as in the midst of a group.” Lester Crocker summarizes the efforts enlightened self-interest:
“We may recall that the ethical system fall into two main groups, according to their choice of the ultimate ends of life: those which embrace pleasure or happiness, and those which hold up virtue or character. If the selected end is virtue, than happiness is often thought to accompany it. If the happiness is the end, then virtue is sometimes recommended as the means to achieve it.”
The enlightened thinker was now generally secularized and did not look to God to find morality, but looked rather to the utilitarian concept of it. It was inherent in the nature of things for happiness to guarantee virtue and vice versa. The inescapable truth was however, that the virtue-happiness formula simply was not convincing enough. Evidence of the unhappy virtuous and the ecstatic wicked was rampant everywhere. The virtuous were not rewarded, as the philosophes would like to have believed.
The concept that virtue and the pursuit of happiness were natural was negated. “Only optimists and providentialists continued to assert that nature is good. At best, it is indifferent and devoid of value, except biological survival.” Hobbes, as Simone de Beauvoir points out, explains that “man is a wolf to man and that Nature is in a state of war.” If man wanted to look to nature to find reassurance of a moral order he would have been quickly disappointed for injustice and amorality was rampant in it. What the utilitarian had done was create a fallible, arbitrary moral code insisting that the will of the individual be sacrificed for the common good because it was natural for the virtuous to be rewarded and the wicked punished. Many were simply not convinced.
Once it was acknowledged that the ultimate pursuit in life was that of happiness, but that its pursuit did not necessarily correlate with the virtue of society in general, it opened the doors to hedonism. Enlightened thinkers like D’Holbarch and Helvitius tried in vain to argue that happiness could best be attained by conforming to the wills of society. By making this proclamation however they allowed for morality in general to be fickle and changing. It was only a matter of time before the pursuit of happiness would be pursued regardless of society and secondary to a constructed morality. “I call ‘good’ any kind of satisfaction and whatever means leads to it; I call evil, on the contrary, any kind of and especially that which id born of frustrated desire?so that anything is esteemed good or bad according to personal ideas,” wrote the poet La Mettrie. La Mettrie, goes further, “There is no vice or virtue, no moral good or evil, nor just or unjust, everything is arbitrary and made by the hand of man?Physical passions are the only real pleasures.” La Mettrie denies any moral codes. He later argues that happiness and virtue are not directly linked, but rather opposed to each other, much like Rousseau suggested earlier.
La Mettrie observes nature, “Nature?approves of crimes rather than of virtue, since she inclines us more to them, and since they are more useful to out happiness.” La Mettrie eventually argues that there is no such thing as good or evil, and that one should subside to their natural instinct, whatever it may be.
Pascsal detected the fallible state of nature and man as well. He differed from La Mettrie and others, however, because he believed that the only relief from the ills of society and circumstance of life was in faith in God, not reason. Rousseau too believed that culture was artificial, that it was constructed by society and not natural. Rousseau, however, still believed that culture should transcend an indifferent and amoral nature. He accounts for evil and justice in the world and urges to fight against them, to transcend them.
It was inevitable, and logical that the Marquis de Sade would be able to put the inconsistencies enlightened self-interest with La Mettrie’s and Rousseau’s ideas on the state of nature, society and the individual. Crocker explains, “Sadism is a dark pool formed by those streams of eighteenth century philosophy that flow into it.” Sade’s philosophy was an inescapable and arguably necessary consequence of the eighteenth century. As much distaste one can acquire for Sade’s work and fetishes, it is impossible and na?ve to ignore him. Many argue that intellectuals prior to him had entertained the notions that he had, they had just been too afraid or embarrassed to publish these ideas. Paris in Sade’s time was not the virtuous paradise that D’Holbarch and Helvitius envisioned it would be. The orgies and infamous behavior that Sade would be known for were commonplace in his time. Many critics argue that Sade’s only crime was in revealing a side of human nature that no one wanted to acknowledge was there. Sade opened up a Pandora’s box, so to speak, of the darker side of humanity.
Sade believed that nature was evil, or rather indifferent to virtues constructed by man. Simone de Beauvoir, explains, “Sade, though rejecting the first part of the generally accepted credo, ‘Nature is god; let us follow her,” paradoxically retained the second. Nature’s example has an imperative value, even though her law be one of hate and destruction.” Sade did not picture the Wordsworthian aspect of nature; rather he saw it as brutal, undiscriminating and cruel. Everything in nature is indifferent, therefore, there are no guidelines to our behavior and everything is permissible. “Man has no other laws than those imprinted on minerals, on rocks, on animals?” Consequentially, we are obliged to follow our instinctual desires, and to curb them would be to work against nature. Thus aspects of culture such as crime, and the gratitude of children to their parents are foolish. Sade takes his argument further and extends it to crime. In making creatures both weak and strong, “crimes” such as theft and murder are natural and to punish them is to betray nature.
Sade elaborates on the concept of weak and strong. According to Sade, “man is really born isolated, selfish, cruel and despotic, he wants everything and gives nothing in return?. the poor must suffer. It is one of nature’s laws. Their existence is necessary to create prosperity.” Crocker notes that this logic rings of Social Darwinism that will permeate the nineteenth century. This concept of the strong benefiting from the weak is a fundamental credo of the Marquis’s sexual behavior.
Another proponent in Sade’s system was that, “egoistic pleasure was the sole value in a world in which acts are morally indifferent; the greater the pleasure, the greater the value of the act.” Coupled with the idea that pleasure is best achieved by subjecting the weak to the strong’s desires, the only sense of justice is to do what you desire at the expense of others. Humiliation, degradation and disgrace should all be inflicted on the other to enable a greater sense of pleasure, according to Sade.
Sade’s rule, like other enlightenment thinkers, is to pursue pleasure. Crocker explains, however, how he differs from his peers, “To say that happiness depends on reciprocal consideration, or to say that it comes from denying and sacrificing the claims of the ego is, according to Sade, to talk utter nonsense.” Sade insists that we give into what Freud would later label, our ego, to give into our instinctual desires. We should not hide from our true selves; rather we should face and embrace it.
It is difficult to disagree with the validity of his argument. Sade argues for a complete liberation of our sexual nature. The culmination of our instinctual desires in crime and as Crocker relates, “the complete justification of nihilism.” Even if Sade’s idea of what our true selves really are is absurd or mistaken at best, his ideas are still noteworthy. Sade’s view of how men should behave, as presented in 120 Days of Sodom and his other works, is twisted, misogynist and warped, yet in all fairness it is a logical extension of his predecessor’s conclusions. We may not like or agree with Sade’s conclusions about our true selves, but we should respect how he arrived at his conclusions.
Sade does not try to find a median or balance between the pursuit of happiness and morality. He agrees in the depravity of mankind, but unlike his contemporaries he does not seek to transcend it, rather he seeks to embrace it. He does not ask us to delude ourselves, but rather accept the meaninglessness and insignificance of nature and the world by confronting it on its own terms.
Sade has been accused of being insane; a paranoid, deluded man consumed by his demented rantings and ravings in his texts. For years his work has been buried. Whatever the individual may think of him, his work is nonetheless both significant and relevant. Aspects of Social Darwinism, concepts that would influence Freud, Camus, Nietzche and others decades after him would all cite Sade. Sade is disturbing not because he is demented, but because his arrival of his conclusions is logical. Crocker argues that Sade directly dealt with the failure of nature and reason as models to establish an ethical society. He recognizes and foresees the failure of rationalism. There are many loopholes and contradictions in his philosophy, and most readers will disagree with his conclusions on the true state of man. Yet the idea that at the core of man lies not a selfless virtuous being, but an aggressive, amoral individual is still significant. The sadist philosophy sheds light on the horrors of Nazi Germany, of the genocide in Kurdistan and New Rwanda. Sade demands that the individual stop deluding oneself and give to the instinctual demands of man’s nature. While one may dismiss the idea of what Sade’s image of man’s nature is, he still forces us to question our nature stripped of the “delusions and illusions” that he insists cloud our perceptions.
The Marquis de Sade proposed his answer. Yet, he argues that the only way to seek pleasure is through the more sinister aspects of ourselves; the vile, the cruel and the indifferent. Sade ignores other aspects of human nature that I believe, perhaps idealistically that are inherent in our nature. If nature is indifferent to our acts and we are therefore able to do as we please, I do not believe that all individuals will turn towards nihilistic debauchery. Sade ignores traits that are inherent in our nature such as pity, remorse, and love. To dwell on, as Crocker writes, on our capacity for evil is just as negligent as assuming that our nature is purely good. Even though ultimately many may fault Sade for the inconsistencies and contradictions in his system, they are still powerful observations. Sade’s relevance lies in the fat that he was willing to explore territories that his peers would not. He broke boundaries that other enlightened thinkers had created. It was only a matter of time before someone would.