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In his dedication of Philosophy in the Bedroom, Sade urges the "gentle, debauched reader" to take the example of "the cynic Dolmance," the notorious libertine master of Sade's parodic bildungsroman. (1) What does Sade mean by giving us, his trusting readers, a Cynic as our guide? This essay aims to answer this question and, more generally, to outline the function of Cynicism in Sade's work.
The topic of Cynicism has received increasing attention, most recently in essays on Nietzsche by R. Bracht Branham and Anthony K. Jensen and most publicly in the early 1980s, when Peter Sloterdijk brought Cynicism back to the table for philosophical discussion with his Critique of Cynical Reason. (2) Positing a clear split between ancient Cynicism and its modern counterpart, Sloterdijk describes the former as an enlightened philosophy and the latter as an attitude of disillusioned self-assertion or "enlightened false consciousness," "that state of consciousness that follows after naive ideologies and their enlightenment" (5, 3). Sade, who wrote in the waning years of the Enlightenment, offers an interesting entry point for analyzing the relationship between ancient and modern cynicisms and for reflecting more carefully on the relationship between Cynicism and enlightenment.
Sade stands at a crucial juncture in the history of Cynicism. The modern definition of cynicism gains widespread currency in the late nineteenth century, when, for instance, the German language divides the term in two: Kynismus refers to ancient Cynicism, Zynismus to disenchanted, modern cynicism. The English language has no such distinction, although it has become common practice to capitalize the word to denote a school or movement (Cynicism) and leave it lowercase when the common, modern meaning is intended (cynicism). The seeds of this shift are already present in the eighteenth century, and Sade, often referred to today loosely and unflatteringly as a cynic, figures importantly in it.
Beginning with a modern definition of cynicism, this essay briefly sketches the ways that Sade can be called a lowercase cynic, then seeks to complicate this understanding of cynicism in Sade by relating it to ancient definitions of Cynicism and by positioning Sade more specifically in the context of eighteenth-century debates on the value of Cynicism for social reform. The conclusion traces Sade's transformation of Cynicism in the Enlightenment's wake.
Sade, or the Cynic Failure of Enlightenment
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines a cynic as "a faultfinding captious critic; esp: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest." (3) The cynic is a lucid observer of the world; having seen through the foolishness of our beliefs in goodness, morality, love, he accepts the cold cruelty of the world and adapts his behavior to this reality. Refusing the solace of new ideals, the cynic orients himself in a demystified world by focusing on self-preservation and self-advancement. In this sense, he is the wayward child of the Enlightenment: he has learned its lessons (the undermining of tradition and authority, the questioning of social and religious codes of behavior, the unraveling of a teleological world), but, rather than seek to build a better society on the rubble of the old, he retreats into pragmatic opportunism. Hence Sloterdijk's definition of modern cynicism as "enlightened false consciousness."
As the immediate heir of the Enlightenment and an avid reader of Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French materialists, the Marquis de Sade can claim the honor of being the first true cynic in the modern sense, the first, perverse product of the age of reason. Sade uses the word cynic sparingly in his writings, but it appears, tellingly, in his dedication to Philosophy in the Bedroom as the epithet attached to his leading libertine, Dolmance. Like most of Sade's libertines, he is an elegant aristocrat endowed with a penis of daunting proportions and a decided penchant for boys. He introduces Eugenie, with great verve and good humor, to the pleasures of the flesh (from masturbation and cunnilingus to sodomy and flagellation), all the while peppering his demonstrations with philosophical sermons that aim to divest Eugenie of all her beliefs. Well-versed in eighteenth-century philosophy, Dolmance calls on Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon to tear down, one by one, the prejudices that form Eugenie's moral code: modesty, virtue, religion, chastity, beneficence, charity, sensibility. After examining the virtues, he attacks the vices: rape, incest, murder, parricide. Eugenie herself draws the lesson from Dolmance's cynical philosophy: "In the light of what you tell me, it seems, Dolmance, that there is nothing on earth as indifferent as the committing of good or evil; ought not our tastes, our temperaments alone counsel us?" (217; 3:401). Sade's libertines call on the philosophes only to turn them against themselves, voiding the enlightened attack on prejudices of the deeply moral impulse that governed the life work of a Voltaire and a Rousseau. For Dolmance, the relativity of values signifies the negation of all values, and sensualism becomes a principle of unfettered pleasure seeking. Cynicism emerges, in Sade, as a philosophy of moral nihilism and self-seeking gratification that strongly presages the modern use of the term.
But if Sade is, beyond dispute, a modern cynic, he is something more complex. Prior to the twentieth century, Cynicism always conjures up the image of the filthy, rude proto-Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope. The philosophes, indeed, had undertaken to sanitize the concept of Cynicism; Sade in fact revives its original aura and thereby reinvigorates it for modernity. To make this clearer, I begin by defining ancient Cynicism and briefly sketching the term's evolution through the late eighteenth century.
Ancient Cynicism and Its Reception among the Philosophes
Cynicism, which began in fourth-century BCE Athens with Antisthenes and Diogenes of Sinope, may be cursorily defined as an art of living grounded in asceticism and dedicated to an open, blunt, and merciless critique of society on the basis of animal nature and reason. The name Cynic comes from the Greek noun kyon, "dog," and was originally used as an insult for the ill-clad and sharp-tongued Diogenes. The Cynics, however, soon adopted the term for themselves, finding it an apt designation for their commitment to "play the dog," to lead a dog-like existence of simplicity and shamelessness, which they flaunted as a means of critiquing the hypocrisies and decadence of civilized society. Diogenes is said to have received his Cynic calling when the oracle at Delphi instructed him to "deface the currency" (paracharattein to nomisma), to overthrow the common morality, and the early Cynics' dedication to animal life shows how seriously they took the task. (4) The …