What de Sade Read In Rousseau Part II

Nov 21, 2011 by

What of so called “evil?” How does Rousseau account for entire societies that engage in practices he would consider to be immoral? There will always be aberrations, he argues. “Will a few uncertain and strange practices founded on local causes which are unknown to us, destroy the general deduction drawn from the common experience of all peoples, opposed to one another in everything else and in agreement only on this single point?” (Rousseau, 40). This argument does not open the door to a host of evil and immorality because those who are evil are so only because the peculiarities of their aberrant societies have made them so.

A posthumous portrait of de Sade in later life

 

Reading this de Sade must have thought Rousseau a hopeless optimist. De Sade’s dying man in his “Confessions of a Dying Man” is confronted by a priest with many of the same arguments Rousseau’s Savoyard Priest makes. But the character of the dying man argues that he was created by “Nature…created with very keen tastes, with very strong passions; placed on this earth for the sole purpose of yielding to them and satisfying them, and these effects of my creation being naught but necessities directly relating to Nature’s fundamental designs…all in accordance with her laws” (de Sade, 165). So far from repenting, the dying man only confesses his regret at not having pursued his inner passions further and not acknowledging the “omnipotence” of nature by acting upon his inner “faculties” (de Sade, 166).

For de Sade nature and the Universe are very efficient. “Whatever is in this world, is necessary” the Priest reiterates (de Sade, 169). To think that the Universe only makes use of “good” passions is hopelessly naïve. We are drawn to do wicked deeds precisely because they are necessary. “…Nature wished it to be; as it is, so she expressly modeled it, for my soul is the result of the dispositions she formed in me pursuant to her own end and needs; and as she has an equal need of vices and of virtues, whenever she was pleased to move me to evil, she did so, whenever she wanted a good deed from me, she roused in me the desire to perform one, and even so I did as I was bid” (de Sade 168). Evil then, is not an aberration. Evil is not the product of a society gone wrong. Evil is a necessary component of the Universe. It springs as fully formed from nature, from man’s inner conscience as good. Unlike adherents to natural sin de Sade declares its necessity, very nearly transcending the concept of good and evil altogether. Instead of lamenting the necessity of evil he embraces the concept.

For Rousseau it is the artificiality of society which corrupts mankind. It is the artificiality of society that encourages philosophy to justify through reason mankind’s flagrant disregard of his own conscience. De Sade on the contrary sees society as acting as a check to both man and nature’s most evil design.

But like Rousseau he does not see this man, the man checked and stifled by society as free. “What man on earth, seeing the scaffold a step beyond the crime, would commit it were he free not to commit it? We are the pawns of an irresistible force, and never for an instant is it within our power to do anything but make the best of our lot and forge ahead along the path that has been traced for us” (de Sade, 173). Only the man who is able to act out his own inner nature is free. But Rousseau and society must learn to recognize that man’s inner nature, his inner conscience is just as wicked as it is good.

Evil is just as much a part of the nature of man as good, according to de Sade

The priest asserts that this philosophy would only be an encouragement to crime. But de Sade’s dying man rejects this fear. He insists that we should “shun crime…but one must learn to shun it through reason and not through false fears which lead to naught and whose effects are so quickly overcome in any moderately steadfast soul” (de Sade, 174). For de Sade and his dying man, it is “reason” that informs the heart, not the heart or conscience which directs reason: “…reason alone should warn us that harm done our fellow can never bring happiness to us; and our heart, that contributing to their felicity is the greatest joy Nature has accorded us on earth; the entirety of human morals is contained in this one phrase: Render others as happy as one desires oneself to be, and never inflict more pain upon them than one would like to receive at their hand” (de Sade, 174).

For de Sade, deeply rooted in Locke, deeply rooted in empiricism there is little reason to accept the notion of conscience or nature as being innately good. Terrible things happen in nature. Men are driven to do dreadful acts. Man has an infinite capacity for both the greatest good as well as the greatest evil and this capacity is instilled in him by nature, not created in him by an aberrant society. To think that man has goodness written on his heart is simplistically naïve and does not really account for the fullness of the human condition. Both de Sade and Rousseau think that man to be free must be free of society. But Rousseau thinks that being free of society and its false, corrupting philosophy and sham reason will lead to goodness. De Sade on the contrary thinks that to be free is to admit both good and evil as equal partners in nature. Men should treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, but for someone with de Sade’s reputation this could account for a very broad range of actions; all of which would be perfectly natural.

1 Comment

  1. Athena

    I think you should definitely try to read more of Kant! Or if you don’t have the energy to read Kant, at least read an essay on Kant. I think Kant and De Sade are really on the same page with the idea of the nature of man and the use of reason. I think this excerpt could easily come from Kant’s ethics,”…reason alone should warn us that harm done our fellow can never bring happiness to us; and our heart, that contributing to their felicity is the greatest joy Nature has accorded us on earth; the entirety of human morals is contained in this one phrase: Render others as happy as one desires oneself to be, and never inflict more pain upon them than one would like to receive at their hand” (de Sade, 174). Anyways, nice article! I really enjoyed the comparison that it led me to after taking a semester on Kant. Which philosopher do you think relates most to Rousseau?

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