What de Sade Read in Rousseau Part I

Nov 14, 2011 by

Sitting in his narrow asylum cell the Marquis de Sade had ample opportunity to read deeply in the latest Enlightenment texts. In 1775 an attempt was made to improve and reform French prisons. One such improvement eliminated censorship over books requested by the prisoners. De Sade expanded his library of Enlightenment thinkers dramatically. “Naturally he had all the great classics: Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Montaigne, Tasso and Ariosto occupied a proud place on his shelves. Philosophy, too, was well represented, from Nicole’s Logique to Holbach’s Systeme de la Nature…(Lever, 342). His arguments in such pieces as Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, suggest that he had read Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot etc.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814)

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814)

His most persistent request was for the works of Rousseau, particularly his Confessions. These requests were just as consistently denied him. Restrictions against Voltaire may have eased by the reign of Louis XVI but those against Rousseau had not entirely disappeared. Moreover, it was thought by his doctors to “inflame his mind” (Lever, 341). There are many parallels between Rousseau and de Sade and perhaps for that reason the latter was so eager to acquire the formers Confessions.

De Sade was familiar with many of the works of Rousseau from his reading prior to his incarceration. He rails bitterly at the censorship; “To deny me Jean-Jacques’ Confessions is  another fine thing, especially after sending me Lucretius and the dialogues of Voltaire…Alas, they do me a great honor to think that a Deist author could possibly be a wicked book for me. I wish I were still at that stage!..Rousseau may be a dangerous author for clumsy bigots like you yet become an excellent book for me. Jean-Jacques is to me what an Imitation of Jesus Christ is to you” (Lever, 340-341).

De Sade saw himself as transcending the Enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau. It could also be argued that he saw himself as more consistent with the empiricism of Locke than Rousseau. Rousseau’s notion of conscience is not grounded in empiricism and de Sade will also reject Rousseau’s deism on the basis of its not being empirical enough. Nevertheless, there are many parallels between Rousseau and de Sade. What did de Sade find in Rousseau, how did he read him? This essay will examine their similarities and their consequent divergences on the concept of conscience. Conscience is a key term for Rousseau and de Sade. The latter’s concept of conscience is more consistent with the Enlightenment ideal of empiricism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778)

According to Rousseau in his Creed of a Priest of Savoy, “There is, then deep in our souls an inborn principle of justice and virtue by which, in spite of our maxims, we judge our actions and those of others as good or bad; and it is to this principle that I give the name of conscious” (Rousseau, 85). A potential dichotomy arises in Rousseau between our consciences and our reason; between feeling and philosophy. Before we can precede much further this divergence must be accounted for.

This line of argument serves de Sade’s purposes. It potentially justifies crimes as well as virtues. But Rousseau dismisses the criminal implication of his “conscience,” and instead of proceeding by argument proceeds by intuitive feeling: “Even if all the philosophers in the world should prove that I am wrong, if you feel that I am right I ask nothing more” (Rousseau, 86).

For Rousseau feeling proceeded knowledge. Ideas and sense perception strike us from outside, but it is our feeling that way the value of those perceptions. We have an inner will to flee those things that are harmful to us. When danger threatens us we do not sit and ponder what our action ought to be: Our feelings tell us how to act. Thus Rousseau concludes “…the love of good and the hatred of evil are as natural as self love” (Rousseau, 86). Nature has endowed us with an intuitive desire for the good.

On the surface of this it appears that Rousseau is contradicting himself. He is privileging feeling and sentiment over reason and philosophy. He asserts that “Man does not have an innate knowledge of the good, but as soon as his reason makes him recognize it, his conscience moves him to love it; it is this sentiment which is inborn” (Rousseau, 43).

However, reason and philosophy, on his account, can become dangerous. Reason serves to justify our unnatural impulses. If we do not first consult our inner conscience reason can be counted on to calculate or justify any end that it wants. But our inner nature knows the truth and if we do not rely upon our conscience reason can lead us to corruption. “Conscience! Conscience! Divine instinct, immortal and celestial voice; sure guide of an ignorant and limited being, but intelligent and free; infallible judge of good and evil, who make man like God!” (Rousseau, 43).  Rousseau reconciles an apparent contradiction by sublimating the authority of reason to conscience and feeling. Rather than making the emotions or conscience subservient to reason, it is reason that must become subservient to conscience.


Works Cited

De Sade. The Complete Justine Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.

Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Print.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Creed of a Priest of Savoy. Frederick Ungar; Second Edition edition (1957)

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.