BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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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