Issue #56 October 2022

The Marquis de Sade and Immanuel Kant: The Odd Couple

Cornelis van Haarlem "The Nun and Monk" (1591) [Detail]

The Marquis de Sade and Immanuel Kant both believe that we should be indifferent towards emotions involving empathy in that they can distract us from what is morally more important. Both use arguments that make use of the criterion of universalizability.

However, although based on universalizability, the maxim that Sade approves of would not be approved of by Kant. This points to a problem for Kant: the repercussions of universalizability are not supposed to vary according to a person’s character.

It will here be argued that both Kant and Sade are mistaken in their belief that all reasonable people will, essentially, resemble them.

· · ·

Similarities between Sade (1740-1814) and Kant (1724-1804) were first pointed out by Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). The Dialectic of Enlightenment argues that the horrors of the twentieth century are traceable to the Enlightenment – the Enlightenment here being shorthand for belief in the autonomy of reason, elevated above the influence of any socio-historical context.

For Horkheimer and Adorno accept Hegel’s criticism of Kant: that Kant was unjustified in treating reason as completely isolated from any social context. The other two figures whom they take to exemplify this attitude are Nietzsche and Sade. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that by treating reason as completely autonomous we isolate ourselves, unsustainably, from other people, from an important part of ourselves, and from nature.

Certainly, as they suggest, in Sade there is an explicitly expressed desire to dominate others, to dominate oneself and to dominate nature.


The Desire to Dominate Others

The desire to dominate others is plain to see in all of Sade’s novels. Their common theme is the education of an innocent by a group of libertines. Events typically begin with a group of libertines taking a teenage girl’s virginity. They see her as an apprentice-libertine and this act is the first step in her apprenticeship.

Her tuition initially progresses to the mutual pleasure of all involved. But do not get too comfortable. One turns the page and, suddenly, a scene of pleasure gives way to one of pain and cruelty; for part of the girl’s education is to learn to inflict pain on others. The pain can turn to pleasure, but sometimes for the victim what follows is nothing other than sheer torture.

These are Sade’s fantasies but fantasies that he took extremely seriously, for he believed that through fantasies we can become sensible to the forces of nature that are otherwise obscured by social convention. He believed that, although the conventions of vice and virtue cannot guide us, we still have some guide. We can at least admit that in the jangling of our nerves we feel ourselves to be alive – and part of nature – and the greater their jangling the more we feel ourselves to be alive. It is this that leads him to the view that pain is superior to pleasure: “its effects cannot mislead, and its sensations are keener.”1placeholder

The libertines teach their apprentice that it is in the infliction of pain that we best carry out nature’s destructive impulse. Admittedly, nature also has a creative aspect but, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we are better suited to carry out acts of destruction. Moreover, pain is more enduring and, he argues, practice in the infliction of pain leads to enjoyment. However, we should remember that although “[c]ruelty is inherent in nature,”2placeholder nature herself is indifferent to our choices.

In between sex, whilst the libertines recover their strength, one or other of them typically discourses upon the truths and repercussions of materialism. After a while, members of the audience begin to masturbate – not from boredom but from sensibility – because the expressed ideas are physically stimulating. In fact, the explanation of the libertines’ philosophy invariably leads to sex either through the stimulating nervous shock of its iconoclasm or through the power of its arguments, which typically conclude as follows:

“Fuck – in a word – fuck! That’s why you were put upon this earth! There is no barrier to pleasure outside of your own strength and will; no exception beyond place, time and person. All hours, all areas, all men must serve your sensual delight; continence is an impossible virtue, which nature, violated in its rights, instantly punishes with a thousand miseries.”3placeholder

The apprentice is convinced. She follows the libertine’s advice. She pays tribute to indifferent nature by indulging in sex and cruelty at the dictate of her insatiable desires.


The Desire to Dominate Oneself

Although the jangling of our nerves reminds us that we are alive, the tone and style of Sade’s writing is deliberately deadpan – rather like William Burroughs’. As Roland Barthes observed: “In Sade, no striptease.” This tone and style accords with the libertines’ instruction to their pupil: to be indifferent towards crime. Sade permits himself and his fictional libertines to feel pride in the censure of society and to feel pleasure in committing sacrilege; but he argues that libertines should avoid becoming ensnared by the conventional temptations of social value and significance, for they distract us from experiencing indifferent nature and discovering our own deepest desires. He argues that if we are apathetic towards irrational social conventions, we will better appreciate nature; and we will learn – through practice and self-discipline – to enjoy cruelty as a means of arousal.

Self-discipline enables the experienced libertine to choreograph the participants in an orgy in such a way that it is brought to the maximally satisfactory conclusion, for: “We need order even at the height of ecstasy and infamy.”4placeholder This ‘objective’ approach to pleasure is taken to such an extreme that sometimes the occurrence of who will do what to whom is decided on the basis of drawing lots. Sometimes wholly mechanical sex machines are used.

Sade’s libertines argue that because emotions (based on empathy), as opposed to pure lust, are inseparably bound up with contingent social conventions we must learn – through the use of reason (in the service of desire) – to ignore them. Thus, unsurprisingly, there is little sense of surroundings or of character in Sade’s novels; and their plots are thin and unvaried.

Sade wishes to dominate any part of himself that might be influenced by empathetic emotions – the very emotions that most of us believe constitute the most valuable part of humanity – for he believes that these emotions are dependent upon the existence of contingent social conventions, and these conventions obscure the truth of materialism.

However, as a materialist, in order to be thoroughly consistent, there must be no gap between Sade’s life and his work.5placeholder Realising this, Sade’s desire to dominate himself pushes him in two different directions. On the one hand he expresses a wish to be personally forgotten. His will requested that he be buried in a wood and that his grave be strewn with acorns, “so that the traces of my grave will disappear from the surface of the earth.”6placeholder On the other hand, as a conduit of nature’s destructive tendencies, he wished to be remembered through some monstrous crime. Thus, his novels are precious to him because in them he commits crime in perpetuity. This motivation for writing is explained in the following conversation in Juliette.

“‘I would like . . . to find a crime which, even when I had left off doing it, would go on having perpetual effect, in such a way that so long as I lived, at every hour of the day and as I lay sleeping at night, I would be constantly the cause of a particular disorder, and that this disorder might broaden to the point where it brought about a corruption so universal or a disturbance so formal, that even after my life was over I would survive in the everlasting continuation of my wickedness . . .’

‘For the fulfilment of your aims, my dear,’ said I, ‘I know of little else than what may be termed moral murder, which is arrived at by means of counsels, writings or actions.’”7placeholder

The perfect Sadeian hero is perhaps Arnoux de Saint-Maximin who discovered the lost manuscript of Sade’s The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom hidden in the Bastille. He found and preserved the manuscript but nothing else is known of him. Yet, alongside Sade himself, he is partly responsible for the existence of perhaps the most infamous catalogue of imagined crimes in the history of the world.


The Desire to Dominate Nature

Sade argues that the artist or moralist can never ‘capture’ nature. It is vainglorious to think otherwise. Nature always eludes us. We can only feel her, by having sex, creating art and committing crimes.

“Nature, even stranger than the moralists portray it to us, eludes us at every moment the barriers that their politics would like to prescribe; uniform in her design, uneven in her effects, her constantly troubled breast resembles the depths of a volcano, from which are thrown in turn either precious stones serving man’s indulgences or fireballs that annihilate them; mighty when she spews forth an Andronicus or a Nero; but always sublime, always majestic; always worthy of our studies, of our brushstrokes, and of our respectful admiration, because her designs are unknown to us, because it is never upon what those designs cause us to feel that we, slaves to her whims or needs, should base her feelings towards her, but on her grandeur, on her energy, no matter what the results may be.”8placeholder

However, although in the above passage he notes that nature is worthy of our “respectful admiration,” elsewhere Sade admits to the impossible desire to destroy nature herself. Sade realises that one reason that it is impossible to destroy (and thereby transcend) nature is because we ourselves are part of nature. Thus, we are slaves to nature whether we would be or not. But, although it is impossible to fulfil all of our desires, we can, at least, talk of our desires and fulfil some of them.



Sade read many philosophers, including D’Holbach, Diderot, Condillac, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Machiavelli, but, so far as we know, not Kant. And yet, as noted by Adorno and Horkheimer – although Sade aims to affect us at a visceral level and Kant aims to avoid this level altogether – there is common ground in their approval of apathy. That is to say, both believe that we should be indifferent towards emotions involving empathy in that they distract us from what is morally more important.

Sade is particularly scornful towards pity:

“Pity is anything but a virtue. It is a weakness, born of fear and misfortune, a weakness that must be overcome most of all if one is striving to conquer excessive nervous sensibility, which is irreconcilable with the maxims of philosophy.”9placeholder

Adorno and Horkheimer point out that Kant (and Nietzsche) would have agreed.

Furthermore: “isn’t Kant’s infamous definition of marriage – “the contract between two adults of the opposite sex about the mutual use of each other’s sexual organs” – thoroughly Sadeian, since it reduces the Other, the subject’s sexual partner, to a partial object, to his/her bodily organ which provides pleasure, ignoring him/her as the Whole of a human Person?”10placeholder Kant seems to regard the relationship between a married couple in much the same way as Sade regards the relationship between libertines in an orgy.

According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the root of Kant and Sade’s similarities lies in their wish to establish the autonomy of reason. But can reason alone establish the ends of moral action? For if it is truly autonomous then is it not also directionless? Kant and Sade both pondered this problem. Sade concluded that however much we strive for autonomy we can never be truly autonomous from nature – but our striving for autonomy is still something of which he approved.  Kant’s answer is that it is nature that reminds us of our moral autonomy. We appreciate the sublime in nature when we appreciate the insignificance of our place within nature; but, when we then (in the next moment) ask how is it possible for us to appreciate the sublime, we are forced to conclude that we must be in possession of something of equivalent internal grandeur. That thing is the moral law within us.

Cornelis van Haarlem "The Nun and Monk" (1591) [Detail]

The Categorical Imperative

Kant argues that our experience of nature affirms the existence of an internal moral law; but it is reason alone that allows us to distinguish between right and wrong. Specifically, all autonomous rational beings must respect the categorical imperative, the first formulation of which is to: “Act only in according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a general law.”11placeholder Kant’s categorical imperative is not a direct guide to action but it is a means by which to test moral principles. For example, I can be certain that ‘do not steal’ is a reliable maxim to follow, for it makes sense (assuming that I aim for consistency), for me to wish that all rational beings would follow this maxim. In other words, it is a universalizable maxim and so, for this reason, it would be irrational of me to disregard it – as well as impractical. Kant argues that the moral world is only conceivable – and only has any semblance of order in practice – because we assume that others will be as rational as ourselves.

Kant provides three other formulations of the categorical imperative. The second of which is to: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”12placeholder The third formulation is to think of: “the idea of the will of every rational being as universally legislating will.13placeholder The fourth is to: “Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends.”14placeholder There is debate among Kantian scholars as to whether Kant thought of these formulations as different in substance or merely different in emphasis but it is clear that he believed that they were all derived from reason alone. This, for Kant, is the principal distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning. In theoretical reasoning the explanandum is external to reason; in practical reasoning it is intrinsic to reason itself.

Sade does not draw any distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning but, as Lacan points out, his philosophy does possess an argument in which he makes use of the criterion of universalizability. The argument in question is within a philosophical digression within Philosophy of the Boudoir. The digression takes the form of an anonymous pamphlet ‘Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains’ [‘Frenchmen, some more effort if you wish to become republicans’] which is read aloud during a rest from an orgy.

Echoing Rousseau on the origins of private property, Sade argues that in “the natural condition” all women belonged to all men, but this state of nature was destroyed when “a man kidnapped a wife and attached himself to her emotionally.”15placeholder But: “No act of possession can ever be perpetrated on a free being; it is as unjust to own a wife monogamously as it is to own slaves. All men are born free, all are equal before the law; we must never lose sight of those principles.”16placeholder

Sade then makes a Kantian move.  “The act of possession can be exercised only on an animal or an immobile object, but never on an individual that resembles us”17placeholder – i.e. a rational being. “It is therefore incontestable that nature has given us the right to express our desires for all women without exception, it is equally incontestable that we have the right to force them all to submit to us; not exclusively – for that would contradict what I have said above – but for the moment.”18placeholder Furthermore, there should be pleasure houses set up under government protection in which “[i]ndividuals of both sexes will be supplied with all the people they desire.”19placeholder

In other words, any rational being has the right to force any other to submit to his or her will. Lacan terms this maxim “the nerve of the diatribe” and points out that Sade’s argument is Kantian in that he is claiming that this maxim is universalizable.20placeholder

Lacan is rather obtuse in spelling out the implications of this comparison. He himself admitted that his essay ‘Kant avec Sade’ has been ignored because, “I am incomprehensible.”21placeholder Nonetheless, inspired by Lacan, several commentators have argued that the Kantian aspects of Sade’s philosophy point to a weakness in Kant’s philosophy. For example, Žižek points out that: “Sade keeps the structure of an unconditional injunction, positing as its content the utmost pathological singularity.”22placeholder Žižek’s point can be illustrated by a letter that Sade wrote to his wife from the Bastille.

“My way of thinking, you say, cannot be approved. What difference does it make to me? The truly crazy person is the one who thinks in a certain way for the sake of others! My way of thinking is the fruit of my reflections. It grows out of my existence, my organisation. I am not the master who can change it. And if I were, I would not change a thing.”23placeholder

In summary, Sade did not claim that reason was autonomous. He believed that reason is the slave of the passions, but nonetheless he seems to approve of a particular maxim because it can be universalised. In the latter respect he is irreproachably Kantian – and this points to a problem for Kant. For, according to Kant, the repercussions of the categorical imperative are not supposed to vary according to a person’s character – the categorical imperative is supposed to follow from the universality of reason. However, with a radically different character from Kant’s, Sade endorses a maxim that Kant would not have approved.

In his lectures on ethics, Kant makes clear that in his view sexual desires can have nothing to do with our moral duties. Indeed, they are a distraction from them. For:

“If [. . .] a man wishes to satisfy his desire, and a woman hers, they stimulate each other’s desire; their inclinations meet, but their object is not human nature but sex, and each of them dishonours the human nature of the other. They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonour it by placing it on a level with animal nature.”24placeholder

Yet Sade universalised a maxim based on sexual desire. For Sade, sexual desires are not a distraction from our moral duties, they are the principal subject of our moral duty.



Opposing the view that reason is the slave of the passions, Kant argued that no reasonable man would contemplate indulging his lust, if the certain consequence was being hanged.

“Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passions if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer may be.”25placeholder

His point was that although we may not always be governed by reason, in practice reason is sufficiently autonomous to hold sway over the passions. Sade disagreed: he argued that the threat of capital punishment never deterred any crime. Modern day psychologists are also likely to disagree with Kant.

But, if we then accept that sometimes some people do desire their own destruction and we accept Kant’s view that only the moral law can persuade us to put aside self-interest, we arrive at a rather strange conclusion:

“. . . if, as Kant claims, no other thing but the moral law can induce us to put aside all our pathological interests and accept our death, then the case of someone who spends a night with a lady even though he knows he will pay for it with his life, is the case of the moral law.”26placeholder

We are faced with the conclusion that the rapist who ignores the threat of the gallows is a moral person, for he has put aside self-interest. Kant’s moral system has been turned upside down.

In a late work, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Kant in fact entertained the idea that his purely formal moral system might be run for the benefit of purposes that intuitively are morally bad. Kant’s position was that the existence of God is an unproven but necessary hypothesis that impels us to recognise duties as divine commands. But could the same formal system be run under the regulative ideal of “diabolical evil”? He raised the question only to dismiss it on the grounds that no human being could be so inspired. Clearly, he had not read Sade.

Kant was naïve in thinking that all reasonable people resemble him, but Sade makes an equivalent mistake. He claims that all reasonable men (if they are honest) will admit that they resemble him.

“There is no man who doesn’t wish to be a despot when he has an erection – evidently he feels less pleasure if others seem to have as much pleasure as he.”27placeholder

We might wish to give Sade the benefit of the doubt and suggest that by “no man” he means “no man or woman” and by “erection” he means “state of arousal.” But, whether or not we extend his reference, he is here vulnerable to the criticism that his claim is simply not true. Assuming its truth is a flaw at the deepest foundation of his philosophical system. Sade anticipates this objection but has no argument against it, only insults: “I fully realise that an endless number of morons, who never become aware of their own feelings, will barely grasp the philosophical system that I am establishing – but who cares for these imbeciles!?”28placeholder

Kant assumes that his own character and circumstances are irrelevant to his philosophy but, the example of the maxim universalised by Sade suggests that this is not the case. But Sade makes a similar mistake, in assuming that all reasonable people are essentially like him. Again, that is not the case. The universal nature of the criterion of universalizability, as promulgated from two very different perspectives, is thus cast into doubt.

Dr. Stephen Leach is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the School of Social, Political and Global Studies of Keele University and is co-editor (with James Tartaglia) of The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers (2018).


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.65.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.66.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), pp.33-34.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.53.


Warman, Caroline Sade: From Materialism to Pornography. (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2002).


Lever, Maurice Marquis de Sade: A Biography, trans Arthur Goldhammer, (London, HarperCollins, 1993), p.550.


Sade, Marquis de Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse. (New York, Grove Press, 1797/1968), p.525.


Sade, Marquis de ‘Reflections on the Novel’ in The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings, trans. Austryn Wainhouse. (New York: Grove Press, 1799/1966), p.113.


Sade, Marquis de Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse. (New York, Grove Press, 1797/1968), p.125.


Žižek, Slavoj ‘Kant with (or against) Sade’ in The Zizek Reader, ed. Elizabeth and Edmond Wright. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1999) p.289.


Kant, Immanuel Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington, James W., 3rd ed. (Indianapolis Hackett, 1785/1993), p.30.


Kant, Immanuel Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington, James W., 3rd ed. (Indianapolis Hackett, 1785/1993), p.36.


Kant, Immanuel Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington, James W., 3rd ed. (Indianapolis Hackett, 1785/1993), p.43.


Kant, Immanuel Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington, James W., 3rd ed. (Indianapolis Hackett, 1785/1993), p.44.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.127.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.127.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.128.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.128.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.131.


Lacan, Jacques ‘Kant with Sade’ [1963], trans. James B. Svenson jnr. October 51 (Winter 1989), pp.55-75.


In Nobus, Dany, The Law of Desire: On Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’. (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), xiv.


Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Kant with (or against) Sade’ in The Zizek Reader, ed. Elizabeth and Edmond Wright. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1999), p.291.


In Lever, Maurice Marquis de Sade: A Biography, trans Arthur Goldhammer, (London, HarperCollins, 1993), p.311.


Kant, Immanuel, Lectures on Ethics, trans Louis Infield. (New York, Harper & Row, 1775-80/1963) p.164.


Kant, Immanuel Critique of Practical Reason. New York: Macmillan, 1788/1993), p.30.


Zupančič, Alenka ‘The Subject of Law’ in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. Slavoj Žižek, Durham NC, Duke University Press, 1998), pp.58-59.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.154.


Sade, Marquis de Philosophy in the Boudoir, trans Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin, London, 1795/2006), p.155.


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