The Most Impure Tale Ever Written Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

We began this series positing that what is deemed “sacred” is not the exclusive domain of the religious. Secular commitments of conscience, as well as the beliefs of the religiously heterodox, are no less inviolable than the sanctities of the orthodox. Blasphemy, we have argued, is a “crime in search of a victim,” an entitlement for the privileged, a cudgel used to suppress the free expression of those who are not afforded the protection of the offended—religious dissidents, freethinkers, and artists.1

Few forms of dissenting expression have been deemed as offensive as blasphemous fiction. And few writers have attained the infamy as that of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade. Nearly 200 years after his death, Sade’s blasphemies remain infamous. A true challenge to the most ardent defender of free speech, Sade offers a fitting close to our series.

Inspiring both revulsion and fascination, the Marquis de Sade is not one for whom there is a middle ground. French novelist Pierre Guyotat has asserted that Sade is France’s “Shakespeare,” while Simone de Beauvoir defended Sade as an icon of radical freedom.2  Sade has been crowned the precursor of modern nihilism and a proto-Freud, a “moral pornographer,” the “freest spirit who ever lived,” and “a Professor Emeritus of Crime.”3 From Nietzsche to Foucault, from Salvador Dali to American filmmaker John Waters, we find Sade’s influence.

Born in 1740, Sade was the only child of a family of provincial nobility. After serving as an officer in the Seven Years War, Sade acquiesced to a marriage arranged by his parents. Five months after his marriage, Sade plunged into his first scandal. The first outrage was committed in 1763, against a twenty-year old prostitute. After paying the young woman, Sade locked her in a room where he masturbated into a chalice and trampled on a crucifix. He then demanded that she allow him to beat her with a whip and sodomize her, which she refused. The devout young woman was forced to spend the night with her tormentor, during which he read her poetry “filled with impieties and totally contrary to religion.”4 Sade was afterward arrested on charges of blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege, both capital offenses. After his father begged Louis XV for clemency, Sade was released two weeks later.

This was followed over the next several years with similar episodes, resulting in various charges of poisoning, pederasty, debauchery, and sodomy for which Sade was jailed, escaped, sentenced to death (later appealed), absconded to Italy, returned to France, and finally was remanded to prison in 1778.

While imprisoned over the following twelve years, Sade turned his manic energies into writing. His first major work, 120 Days of Sodom was an exhaustive catalogue of sexual perversions, from bestiality to coprophilia to torture, described with an icy, bureaucratic style devoid of all eroticism, an utterly dehumanizing form of pornography evoking “the Aztecs’ human sacrifices.” 5 In Sodom, Sade transgresses all the norms of literature as well, bullying his audience as ruthlessly as does his protagonists their captives. The effect is to alternately fascinate and revolt his readers.

Released from prison in 1790, Sade tried to launch his career as a writer, publishing Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and Philosophy in the Bedroom in 1795. Justine, the first of his novels to be published, is an ironic morality tale in which the protagonist, twelve-year old maiden Justine, endures a series of calamities, each designed to disprove a moral tenet. Maintaining her belief in God and in charity while being viciously exploited each time she offers help or affection, Justine’s successive calamities undermine the fundamental Christian tenet that there is a providence that looks after the good and pious. It is also a malicious subversion of Enlightenment ideals, particularly Rousseau’s, of living in accordance with nature’s inherent goodness.6 In Sade’s conception, nature is cruel and evil; we save ourselves only by emulating its corruption and making egoism our principal moral guide:

It’s nature I wish to outrage … I would like to violate its plans, reverse its course, vanquish the starts that float throughout it, ravage whatever serves it … insult it, in sum, in all its manifestations.7

In Philosophy in the Bedroom, the protagonist, a teenaged girl by the name of Eugenie, is subject to far less cruelty than the unfortunate Justine. In the novel, a profligate nobleman and his depraved friends set out to corrupt Eugenie and convert her, as it were, to the “most outrageous libertinism.” Unlike Sade’s other works, in Philosophy comedy and politics are blended with, as its title suggests, philosophizing. “Never may an act of possession be exercised upon a free being,” one of the protagonists expounds in an interlude between his debauches, “the exclusive possession of a woman is no less unjust than the possession of slaves.”8 Again, Sade subverts Rousseau’s Social Contract, presenting all governments as evil because they thwart and curb our innate cruelty “Cruelty … is the first sentiment imprinted in us by nature.”9 Sade is as pessimistic about human nature as is Thomas Hobbes, but comes to the opposite conclusion: championing absolute license as against absolute authority.

In all his writing, there is a question, much debated by critics, of Sade’s intent, whether it is irony, exhibitionism, or the desire to shock. One can read the subtext in his playing out fantasies of revenge against those who persecute him, including family members, and his relentless contempt for the hypocrisy of the offended. It is clear that the numerous passages articulating Sade’s atheism were written in earnest. “Frenchmen, I repeat it to you,” a protagonist in Bedroom exhorts the reader, “Europe awaits her deliverance from scepter and censer alike.” Lauding the ancient Romans for their idolization of action, passion, and heroes, he turns to Christianity with contempt:

[W]hat, on the contrary, do we find in Christianity’s futile gods? … Does the grubby Nazarene fraud inspire any great thoughts in you? His foul, nay repellent mother, the shameless Mary—does she excite any virtues? … So alien to lofty conceptions is this miserable belief … even in Rome itself, most of the embellishments of the papal palaces have their origins in paganism, and as long as this world shall continue, paganism alone will arouse the verve of great men.10

We should relegate God, he proclaims, “forever into oblivion.”

The Napoleonic Consulate, cracking down on public immorality, arrested Sade in 1801 and detained him at the Sainte-Pélegie Prison. After attempting to seduce young prisoners there, he was declared insane with “libertine dementia” and transferred to the Bicêtre Asylum. He continued to write, produce, and perform plays. In 1814, he grew seriously ill and died of “gangrenous fever.” His surviving son, Claude-Armand, burned all his father’s unpublished manuscripts.

Sade’s commitments of conscious are ruthlessly egoistic, valorizing above all other considerations his quest for pleasure and extreme sensations. Scowling at the vacuity of Enlightenment optimism, Sade bore witness to the brutality of nature and the beastliness of the human animal. Sade mordantly skewered the institutions of society, especially that of religion, for their injustice and hypocrisy in suppressing this natural state.

Sade presents a true test of one’s commitment to free speech. As a man, Sade was reprehensible, a privileged narcissist who abused other human beings, the perfect candidate for today’s “canceling” and de-platforming. Nonetheless, Sade himself was human—a complex being, selfish, witty, articulate, and aggrieved. In a letter to his wife from prison, Sade wrote,

If my freedom depended on my principles, or my inclinations … I would sacrifice a thousand lives and a thousand freedoms … I hold on to those inclinations and principles to the point of fanaticism. … The gallows would be there, and I wouldn’t change my mind.11

An author’s work may be beastly; an author may be guilty of committing transgressions that are difficult or impossible to forgive. But the freedom to create, the freedom to express what one believes, the freedom to write and to read—a freedom that necessarily entails the freedom to offend—is sacred.


1. The inaugural article of the series was “A Dangerous Idea,” appearing in the August/September 2022 issue of Free Inquiry. The first article explored fiction’s unique power to engender empathy and the special threat this artform therefore poses to dogmas and orthodoxies. In the second article (“Ethical Blasphemy,” October/November 2022), we continued with an investigation into contemporary concepts of the sacred and the blasphemous, notably the modern idiom of blasphemy, as framed by Austin Dacey, as a “crime in search of a victim.”

2. John Lichfield, “Marquis de Sade: rebel, pervert, rapist … hero?” Independent, November 14, 2014. Available online at

3. Francine du Plessix Gray, At Home with the Marquis De Sade. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 11.

4. Ibid., pp. 63–64

5. Ibid., p. 266. Gray calls Sodom “the most repellent fictional dystopia ever limned, the creation of a borderline psychotic whose scatological fantasies” had grown deranged in the solitude and rage of his jail cell. Its encyclopedic aspirations to categorize every conceivable sexual perversion, she says, “reveal Sade as a true child of the Enlightenment.”

6. Ibid., p. 317–18.

7. Ibid., p. 299.

8. Sade, Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom & Other Writings, trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Grove Press, 1990, p. 318.

9. Ibid., p. 237–38.

10. Ibid., p. 299.

11. Ibid., pp. 137–38.

We began this series positing that what is deemed “sacred” is not the exclusive domain of the religious. Secular commitments of conscience, as well as the beliefs of the religiously heterodox, are no less inviolable than the sanctities of the orthodox. Blasphemy, we have argued, is a “crime in search of a victim,” an entitlement …