The marquis and me - 5
Sade is certainly correct to claim that monarchies and despotisms have always been supported by the church, especially the Catholic Church, itself a model for despotisms and their traditional claims to ‘divine right’. The restoration of extraordinarily repressive monarchies in Europe after the fall of Napoleon was aided and abetted by that church – but I’m veering off topic, for the point of Sade’s attack upon the church is to undermine all moral authority, so that everything can be permitted, according to his view of nature’s dictates. It’s the kind of argument that embarrasses many brights, and that’s jumped on gleefully by believers as proof of the corrupting force of non-belief. I’ve even read critiques, from philosophers of a spiritual bent, that Sade represents the corrupting or nihilistic effects of pure rationalism. I can only suppose they’re misled by Sade’s frequent use of the term logic in his commentaries, which are in fact no more logical than the average.
Yet Sade’s warnings about the church are just as relevant today:
Well understand that your system of liberty and equality too rudely affronts the ministers of Christ’s altars for there ever to be one of them who will either adopt it in good faith or give over seeking to topple it, if he is able to recover any dominion over consciences. What priest, comparing the condition to which he has been reduced with the one he formerly enjoyed, will not do his utmost to win back the confidence and authority he has lost? And how may feeble and pusillanimous creatures will not speedily become again the thralls of this cunning shavepate?
Accepted that Sade’s comments are a bit extreme and absolutist, his understanding of the church’s need to re-establish and maintain a power that was ever arbitrary is pretty well spot on. The modern commentator Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, points out the need for religious orthodoxy, because of its arbitrariness, its lack of empirical grounding, to maintain itself through rigorous and ruthless policing of boundaries. See my own commentary on Boyer here and here. The problem, of course, lies in the establishment of established churches, or orthodoxies. They become established because the credulity of the general populace allows them to.
I want to move on, though, to Sade’s more general views on society, manners and the state. Of course he sees connections here – there is never more than a single step from superstition to royalism, he writes. However, like many thinkers witnessing times of revolution - year zero times we might call them, and how many zeros there have been – he was overly optimistic about the refashioning of human society. The blank slate disease, as Steven Pinker might call it:
Frenchmen, only strike the initial blows; your state education will then see to the rest. Get promptly to the task of training the youth, it must be among your most important concerns; above all, build their education upon a sound ethical basis, the ethical basis that was so neglected in your religious education.