Two hundred and thirty-one years ago this month, King Louis XVI of France lost his head. His execution by guillotine was a precursor of the Reign of Terror, a 10-month period from 1793 to 1794 when French Revolutionaries executed nearly 17,000 of their countrymen. Tens of thousands more died in prison or were murdered without a trial.
The French Revolution, one of history's most profound examples of the power of ideas, erupted out of the Enlightenment. In the mid-18th century, philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot effectively argued that human reason and scientific inquiry, rather than religion, were the true path to progress and greater freedom. Diderot's hostility to Christianity also spilled over into his views of the nobility. After all, if there were no God then King Louis could not have been "divinely appointed." And if the king had no sacred claim to power, he had no right to live in outrageous luxury at Versailles while the French people were living in famine.
Some took these ideas further than others. In 1789, a few days before a mob stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, one of its longtime prisoners was transferred to a mental asylum. In his cell, he left a manuscript that would eventually be published under the title "120 Days of Sodom." The author was the infamous Marquis de Sade.
De Sade thought his novel to be the "most impure tale ever written." It depicted graphic scenes of sexual violence, torture and murder. It was also, to the utter horror of de Sade's contemporaries and modern historians, semi-autobiographical. De Sade spent most of his life in prison or mental asylums because of his crimes against vulnerable young women and men, and his name is the source of our modern word "sadism."
More than an awful story, his book was a philosophical proposal. While Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot denied the existence of God, they still defended many distinctly Christian virtues, including the goodness of self-sacrifice and the dignity of the poor. De Sade, on the other hand, did not share these philosophical inconsistencies. According to author and pastor Andrew Wilson in his book "Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West," de Sade simply had "no time" for Christian morality:
"[De Sade] thought we should admit that there is no natural basis whatsoever for loving other people, forgiving them, or showing compassion. 'The doctrine of loving one's neighbor is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature,' [de Sade] explained. Virtue, likewise, is 'just a way of behaving that varies according to climate and consequently has nothing real about it.'"
A century after de Sade, another philosopher described in stark clarity what a world without God would look like. In his "Parable of the Madman," Friedrich Nietzsche described the death of God as "unchaining this Earth from its sun." In terms of personal morality, the Marquis de Sade got there first. Like Nietzsche, he was willing to explore the realities of his evil ideas in practice.
Though even the most radical sexual revolutionaries today would hesitate to claim de Sade as their intellectual forefather, they must. Before Darwin, he embraced a world where the strongest survive and most brutal thrive. Before the sexual revolution, he explored sex as only a means of pleasure, with no regard for the dignity of people or their bodies. His disgusting depictions of torture foreshadowed the horrifying medical experiments that would be performed by the Nazis in the 20th century. His open hatred for Christianity (he called Jesus "a scoundrel, a lecher, a showman who performed crude tricks") anticipated an argument common today that Christianity is not only anti-intellectual and anti-rational, but plain evil.
For de Sade, freedom was pure license without the constraints or consequences of morality or even, for that matter, biology. This is only thinkable in a world without God, and therefore a world without any design or moral order. Those who argue for such a world have neither cause nor moral means by which to denounce the despicable behavior of de Sade or, for that matter, of Jeffrey Epstein and the men exposed when court documents were unsealed earlier this month.
Thankfully, despite the terrible ideas of the Enlightenment and their consequences, the world remains securely chained to its Sun. In the real world, the freedom to be fully human is grounded in the way God made us. Thus, true freedom is always hemmed in by virtue. Among the many benefits of this worldview is the ability to fiercely repudiate the degeneracy of the Marquis de Sade, and to do so from sound philosophical footing.