BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade

Philosophy in the BoudoirPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This seven-part dialogue tells the story of a young woman’s education in libertinage (“libertine” shouldn’t be confused with liberal or libertarian.) The book mixes action sequences of a pornographic nature with philosophical discussions on ethics, law, governance, relationships, and religion. A young woman, Eugenie, is sent (without objection) by her father into the care of Madame de Saint-Ange, though another character, Dolmance, serves as both the girl’s primary philosophy lecturer as well as the choreographer of the orgiastic sexual activities that take place throughout book.

Overall, the philosophy is weak, but not altogether lacking compelling ideas, at least in the context of its time – i.e. late Age of Enlightenment. Setting aside the controversial and broadly reviled nature of Sade’s philosophy, I criticize it primarily on the grounds that it misunderstands its own foundations and frequently contradicts itself. The foundations I’m referring to are the workings of the natural world. Libertine philosophy is an offshoot of Enlightenment thinking, and as such attempts to replace the superstition and the arbitrary morals of religion. The question becomes with what one replaces religion-driven bases for determining action. Sade’s argument is that we should see ourselves as part of nature and behave in synch with it. It could be argued that using natural principles as one’s guide is as fine an idea as any, but the problem is Sade doesn’t have an accurate picture of how nature really works. Ironically, he seems to have the same unsophisticated view of nature that his opponents held – i.e. that nature is always and everywhere a brutal and chaotic hellscape. [The main difference is that Sade assumed that one must surrender to this hellscape while his opponents proposed that one must subdue it.] The fact of the matter is promiscuity and intraspecies killing aren’t universal in nature, and cooperation does exist alongside competition in the natural world. (To be clear, interspecies killing is universal for many species and intraspecies killing occurs, but consider venomous snakes of a given species that wrestle for dominance while not using their poison or infantrymen who only pretend to shoot their weapons in combat. Also, I don’t mean to suggest monogamy is the rule [besides in birds, where it is,] but Sade seems to believe there is no order to mating in the natural world.) In sum, nature does not tell us to default to the most savage behavior in all situations, and while animals can be ferocious, they generally don’t go around being jerks for the sake of being a jerk.

Since I also criticized the book’s philosophy for inconsistency, I will give one example to demonstrate a more widespread problem. Dolmance tells us that humans should live checked only as nature would check us (as opposed to by religious dictates,) but tells Eugenie to not listen to the voice of nature that tells her to not behave fiendishly.

I also said this philosophy wasn’t without compelling points. Setting aside the many ideas that were well-addressed by more mainstream philosophers long before Sade entered the picture (e.g. the need to separate the activities of religion from those of government,) Sade’s arguments for seeing a purpose for sexual activity beyond procreation, against seeing the making of more humans as a grand and necessary virtue, and against attaching stigmas to nonprocreative sex are all ideas that have gained traction since the turn of the 19th century and arguably could be furthered to positive ends.

Speaking briefly to the non-philosophical side of the book, I will say that – excepting Dialogue VII (the final one) – this book was much less disturbing than some other of the Marquis’s books (e.g. 120 Days of Sodom or Justine,) Prior to the last section, the book involves consensual activities that aren’t dialed up to the maximum level of shock value. That said, Dialogue VII is as cringeworthy as they come. Also, I didn’t understand how all the orgy choreography could work, but that might be attributable to my lack of imagination.

This book will obviously not be everyone’s cup of tea (too much orgy sex for some, too much philosophy for others, and to much of both for most) but as the Marquis de Sade’s books go, it does delve most deeply into philosophy and is moderately less disturbing than some others.

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8 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade

  1. Funny… The book is almost tame compared to much of current media.

    I found it to be an interesting case study of the extremes people will go to in order to rationalize chasing base behaviors and other self-destructive practices. Similar rationalizations are used for quite a few modern day behaviors and attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I certainly think de Sade was the far end of a pendulum swing away from the status quo of the day. Besides enjoying being shocking, I suspect he also wanted to make space for whatever came next to be as unrepressed as possible. Did he really believe rape and murder should be legal? Quite possibly, but even so he probably realized that would never happen, but if you don’t start negotiating from close to what you find tolerable and the other side is far away from it, you’re not likely to end up in a good position.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read some of Sade’s political pamphlets after seeing a performance of ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade’, in, say 1973. [A great performance of a terrific play by Monash Dip Ed drama students).
    I can’t remember what he wrote, but the dullness of the pamphlets didn’t inspire me to read any of the fiction. So fifty years later, you’ve given me more insights, thank you.
    BTW the use of fiction to present arguments opens up the possibility of ironic meaning in the work but I am assuming that there is no sign of any such intention in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s quite possible that Sade’s intentions were different from what he explicitly states. This might account for some seeming contradictions between the philosophy espoused and the behaviors taken by characters. It’s also worth noting that Sade puts a foil so they can banter back and forth about the more controversial aspects of Sadeian libertine philosophy. There is a character, Le Chevalier, who is libertine in sexual inclinations, but who firmly disagrees with the anarchic elements of Dolmance’s (presumably Sade’s) philosophy under which rape and murder would not be crimes and would only be punished to the degree some loved one did so old school tribal style. Le Chevalier suggests that there is room for charitability and rule of law — even for those people who like to be flogged and / or partake of pansexual orgies. From what little I’ve read by experts on Sade (e.g. the VSI book by Oxford U Press,) I don’t think they generally believed he was faking a stance to make a point, but he might well have recognized that the extreme world he advocated wouldn’t happen so wanted the discussion to be wide open as to what less extreme world would come to be. While I certainly think Sade was titillated by being as shocking as possible , I also see his extreme stance as a[n] [over]reaction to the status quo of church and state being in bed together and the tremendous hypocrisy and savage repression that was taking place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome. Also, to your point about the pamphlets being unpleasant reading, it occurs to me that that might have been his driver in writing the novels. It was probably a tough sell to get people to read tracts on political philosophy, philosophy of religion, or naturalist ethics even back in his day, but if you stick some porn in there…

        This one really seems like that could be the case because it really does swing regularly between philosophy conversation and sex scenes.


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