Feature 05.23.2023 6 minutes

The Spirit of de Sade

Our Lady of Strasbourg Cathedral. Stained glass window, 14th century. The Last Judgement : the devil.

An evil culture takes on a life of its own.

There comes a point in certain generations when fools become indistinguishable from madmen. The intellectual verities of the moment grow so absurd that journalists, college professors, and other run-of-the-mill idiots begin to say with complete conviction what no sane person could think was true.

Such is the case these days, when the various forms of philosophy called “moral relativism” have become mainstream. Shakespeare saw it coming with the fracturing of the church. He had Hamlet return from Wittenberg and declare, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet, at least, was only pretending to be crazy. Two hundred years later, the Marquis de Sade could found an entire philosophy on the same idea—“All is relative to our manners and the climate we inhabit; what is a crime here is often a virtue several hundred leagues hence.” And when it came to crazy, the Marquis wasn’t kidding around.

Today, you don’t even have to be a psychopath to talk like one: you just have to buy into the going thing. In her otherwise excellent survey Evil in Modern Thought, American philosopher Susan Neiman begins by saying, “Among the many things this book will not offer is a definition of evil or criteria for distinguishing evil actions from those that are simply very bad…. To lament the loss of absolute standards for judging right and wrong ought to be superfluous a century after Nietzsche.”

I don’t lament the loss of absolute standards for judging right and wrong, but I am occasionally made melancholy by the social narrative that prevents first-rate thinkers like Dr. Neiman from recognizing they exist. I myself am not a philosopher. I’m but a simple barefoot teller of tales. Maybe that’s why it wouldn’t occur to me to write a book, or even a sentence, about a word I couldn’t in some way define.

Luckily, I know exactly what evil is. All moral thought and action are derived from what I’ll call the Great Speculation: the unprovable two-part conjecture that, one, other people’s inner lives are as real to them as yours is to you and, two, all inner lives are of equal value to God on high. From this, we deduce the salutary notion that, at the very least, we should not do to others what we ourselves would abhor and that, really, when you come to think about it, we might even try to love our neighbors as fellow souls made in the image of God. Extinguish either half of the Great Speculation—really blot out either one entirely—and you’ll discover what evil is in a great big honking hurry.

You can read the atheist Sade if you need point-by-point instructions. “There is no possible comparison between what others experience and what we sense,” he said. That’s why he was in favor of torturing people for pleasure, if it happened to be your thing. Does Dr. Neiman—or the clothing company that puts up billboards saying “Respect all cultures”—does anyone really believe you can make sadism moral by thinking it so? That if enough people in a culture believe evil to be good—that if even everyone on earth believes it to be good—it actually ceases to be the evil it is?

Demons in My View

At the town hall in Poznan, Poland, October, 1943, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler spoke to the officers in his charge as if the extermination of the Jewish people was a difficult but noble task. “To have seen this through and…to have remained decent…is a page of glory never mentioned…” Presumably they all agreed with him. Was he right within that company? At what distance from the town hall did he become mistaken? If a country oppresses its women or enslaves its blacks or molests its children, does that only become evil at the national border? No absolute standards of right and wrong! Respect all cultures! In a pig’s eye.

But when we come to speak of the demonic, Himmler is very much to the point. Men do go mad from time to time, and cultures do grow foolish to the point of madness. Nations do perceive genocide as noble. They declare slavery a right. Abortion, even! “Dread not infanticide,” counseled Sade. “The crime is imaginary: we are always mistress of what we carry in our womb.”

And people can go even further. They mutilate the young to transform their bodies into bizarre flesh costumes of the opposite sex. If the satanic Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele had suggested such “Gender Affirming Care” to his Führer, Hitler would have reeled back with a cry of horror: “what sort of monster do you think I am?”

Yet, I’m not making this up: people not only do these things, they celebrate them, smiling those weird TikTok smiles of self-certainty that invite their followers to join them in their soul-devouring delusions. All of which raises the question: are they evil? Are people who do evil in a deluded culture evil themselves?

I don’t think they are—not all of them, not altogether. George Washington was a man of excellent character, committed so wholeheartedly to the principle of liberty he gave away a kingdom that it might be free. He knew slavery was an immoral institution. Yet, according to his biographer Ron Chernow, the Virginian landholder “suffered from a conceptual blind spot about slavery, tending to regard it as a fair economic exchange.” He “could be shockingly oblivious to [his slaves’] hardships.” When they escaped, he paid good money to have them hunted down. He “could not conceive of a slave being the agent of her own fate or running out of a simple hunger for liberty”—the very liberty he loved.

It is just so with abortion now. I’ve known many a woman of genuine virtue who snuffed out her children in the womb while in the moral fog of our intellectual atmosphere. I’m sure it’s often the same with the current gender affirming butchery. The fact is, evildoers like Shakespeare’s Richard III who are “determined to prove a villain” are the exception rather than the rule. As a friend recently remarked to me, “even Hitler thought he was doing the world a favor.”

So then if evil is evil, and if people can do evil without being of evil intent, the evil must be a thing apart from them. These people are not really mad after all; not mad as the mad are mad. Yet they do in good conscience what any healthy heart would recognize as indefensible. The evil then must be a power that has gotten into them—a conscious power, since nothing is evil that has no consciousness and thus no will with which to choose the good.

This is the only way of understanding it that makes redemption and forgiveness possible—even of the worst, even at the last. How could we ever learn to love our enemies if we could not see that they had fallen prey to an enemy who is mightier still?

I know that belief in the devil and demons is not popular among the intelligentsia. Seriously, it is so out of keeping with the materialist narrative of our age as to sound philosophically disqualifying to the sophisticated modern ear. But many truths do sound that way, you know. That’s the whole point.

All I’ll say is this: if there is no devil, if there are no demons, if there are no conscious powers of evil seeking entry to our souls through our broken places, the world behaves very strangely—very strangely and precisely—as if there are.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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