A dialogue written by the Marquis de Sade during the years 1782-83, while imprisoned in the Bastille, and roughly contemporaneous with The 120 Days of Sodom. De Sade believed the work lost, and so did not include it in his official list of works he wished published in 1788, but it resurfaced later and gained some notoriety. It is certainly one of his earliest attempts at displaying a coherent political philosophy. It is rather short, and far from perfect, representing rather a distillation of his embryonic beliefs on government and natural law; letters written to his wife from prison mention his readings of Lucretius, Voltaire, and a desperate plea to be sent the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all of whose ideas leave behind more than trace elements in the dialogue.
The dialogue may as well have been patterned on some of the simpler Socratic Dialogues of Plato; a man lies on his death-bed and, spurred by the attendant priest's urge to confess his sins and take his last rites, begins a debate on the supremacy of logic and natural law over the hobgoblins of religious superstition and blind faith. In true Platonic fashion, the dying man's arguments dominate the arguments, using the priest's short objections at most to effect a progression in the discussion.
The structure of the dialogue is as follows:
- The man repents, not of his religious transgressions, but of his failure in taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by nature; blasphemy.
- There can be no faith in a supreme Creator, since he is not proveable by reason, and so the tenet of free will leads inevitably to a logical simplification of understanding to its most basic form, Nature; God, on the other hand, would be a complication of understanding, a product of ignorance.
- The universe, however, is regulated, in its most basic form by cause and effect; the example of a spark igniting gunpowder, which is a necessary chain, but does not stem from divine wisdom. So, an all-mighty Guide is impossible, since events occur through logical process.
- Concession for the sake of argument that if God exists, he is worshipped under many forms; each prophet has the possibility of being equally valid, since each depends on faith (Q.E.D. unreasonable), and so all, as a means of attaining understanding, is equally worthless.
- Rather, however, than admit anarchy, man's relationships, his understanding of society, must be built on the logical benefits to society as a whole (Rousseau); so natural law is for man to live in accordance with how he expects to be treated and thus treats others (a modified Golden Rule) - allegiance to a King is thus justified, since he represents a human means of preserving natural order in society. As an example, Jesus Christ's death was fully justified, since his actions caused a disturbance in the societal order. This is not an argument against crime, but a justification for its punishment.
- At last, without God, without an afterlife, natural law must permit a man to enjoy his time on earth. In the only hint of sex in the story, the dying man has six beautiful women waiting for him to tend to him before he dies. He convinces the priest to join him, and, swayed by the pleasure and his argumentative failure, the priest converts to Reason.
Certainly, this is not a particularly sound argument, or a particularly lengthy one; I'm sure each of you can find several flaws in the reasoning. It displays, however, the earliest form of a trend which would continue throughout de Sade's writings: a persistent adherence to a personally coherent philosophy of life (really a rejection of a particular set of ideals), heavily influenced by prominent philosophers of his day, but never formally presented. Rather, his philosophy forms the back-bone of exemplary narratives, a implication woven into case-studies and highlights of human relationships in their most absurd and base forms.