de Sade and the Curious Endpoints of Power

The Marquis de Sade isn’t the world’s best philosopher. He’s a fairly good writer and stylist, and has an alright grasp of character dynamics, but his dialogues are worse than Plato’s when it comes to having one character give long speeches, and another nod, agree, and say “oh yes, you’re right, you’re so wise, you’ve convinced me completely.” Plato at least had the decency to have his characters argue a bit, and occasionally end a dialogue with the problem unsolved. de Sade, on the other hand, well…

The longest and most cohesive statement he wrote on his theories is in Philosophy in the Bedroom, a series of dialogues in which Eugénie, a young woman who has already been seduced by an older and more experienced woman, is further initiated into the world of libertineism by the older woman’s brother and his friend (and the well endowed gardener). In between various sex scenes, de Sade’s mouthpiece Dolmancé speaks at length about atheism, natural law, hatred of mothers, the pursuit of pleasure as the highest goal, and how the stronger are obligated to dominate the weaker.

Many have read this and his other works as attempts at satire, as trying to show the enlightenment philosophers where their theories inevitably lead, and speaking out against the perversions of the upper class, but that just doesn’t square with the details of his life, considering that he was imprisoned for beating a hired servant, Rose Keller, half to death, holding her captive for quite some time, and then trying to pay her off. He was arrested at the request of his mother-in-law, who wanted him unceremoniously locked away from her daughter. His letters are full of whining about how unfair it is that he’s in jail merely for beating up a whore he paid (which is an interesting interpretation of events, as Keller, a widow and beggar, was under the impression that she was being hired as a housekeeper). If it’s satire, it’s of the sort that is jealous of those who are getting away with what he was caught doing.

It’s easy enough to see where his hatred of mothers come from, considering the circumstances.

But he makes one very glaring and crucial mistake early in his philosophy that renders the entire system rather hilarious in light of his life, and it’s a mistake seen again and again in so many people who try to use Nature or the state of lawlessness or the power of the strong over the weak as justifications for their actions.

He starts with the fairly reasonable propositions that Nature doesn’t care about humanity’s existence one way or the other, and that pleasure is the highest goal of human existence. There is little evidence that the planet would stop spinning if humanity was wiped out, and life existed long before we came into being, so we can grant him this, I think. It’s the second bit that trips him up.

Because pleasure is the highest goal, we should be relentless in seeking it, and therefore nothing ought to stand in our way when it comes to wringing every last bit of pleasure to be had from everything and everyone around us. If you would enjoy someone, take them, whether they consent or not. If you’d like to kill someone, do it. If you want something, take it. The state does this all the time, so why shouldn’t the individual? Those who are strong enough to inflict their will upon the weaker deserve to have their will services, and those who are weaker should learn to enjoy the pain that accompanies their taking.

All well and good, if you accept some of his premises, but he makes a major misstep along the way, and forgets just how society was constituted in the first place.

There is no natural system of government. There are no natural laws. There are no divine rules set in place. These statements his philosophy is in complete accordance with. And so it is that the strong are allowed to set forth their will upon those who are weaker than them.

And they did. Hundreds of years ago. This is the origin of the state.

Implicit in the ability of one to impose one’s will on another is setting boundaries, rules, laws, that the weaker must follow. The idea that a group of strong individuals wouldn’t band together and assert their collective will upon a populace is such naivete that it’s surprising that so many miss it. This ahistorical view of things, the desire to restart history from right now, always seems to crop up. They miss that they are late to the party, that it already happened. And even if it were restarted, it’d only be a matter of weeks or months before people had banded together to form gangs, and then local municipalities, and then armies, and soon we’d have nations all over again. If the state were so weak, it would not be able to assert its will upon them. It wouldn’t be able to imprison or execute them.

But for someone who’s convinced that the powerful get to do what they want, whining when you’re the one’s getting fucked is just pathetic. You’re already living in the world you asked for. You did what you wanted, and people more powerful than you did what they wanted to you. Who are you to tell them that they can’t collectivize and mob together if it brings them pleasure to see you scorned?

At the end of Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugénie’s mother arrives to try and save her daughter. She is beaten, humiliated, and raped by the assembled (primarily by her daughter), raped by a syphilitic servant, and her genitals are sewn up to insure that she is infected. If the collective is allowed to take revenge on a stand in for his mother-in-law because they disagree on her stances, why isn’t the collective allowed to have it’s way with him?

And when a truly strong man like Napoleon came into power and dominated the entire country, well, what possible objection could he have then? Dolmancé instructs Eugénie and the Madame de Saint-Ange not to complain when he whips them both bloody before sodomy, because it is only through pain that the greatest pleasure can be achieved.

Perhaps rather than struggling and running off to Italy whenever he could, de Sade should have learned to lay in prison and take it?

Or, perhaps, just perhaps, he’s not arguing in good faith, and like all folks of the Natural State of The World and The Strong Control The Weak persuasion, he imagines himself as the one holding the whip, rather than the one in the cell, and is baffled to find that this just isn’t the case?