Kant and de Sade: The Modern Recalibration of the Monstrous and the Demonic

Demons and Monsters

With regard to the imagining of who we are, and who we could become, 1794 was no ordinary year. This was the year in which the ever-reliable Immanuel Kant, whose walks in Konigsberg were such that you could set your watch by them, wrote a strange and spectral book called Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone, a book that seemed at once to recall the thinker of a few years earlier while also presenting a stranger who was more familiar with evil than anyone—including his erstwhile self—might have guessed.

If Kant surprised himself by feeling compelled to write about “radical evil” in book 1, he shocked Goethe who, feeling betrayed, decried what he judged to be an inexplicable regression to the hateful Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Goethe was only somewhat right in linking Kant’s view of radical evil to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and if right at all perhaps only by accident in that certainly Kant intended to debunk Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and any of its many offshoots, including those of the Reformers. What Goethe intuited rather than reasoned out was that Kant was saying something quite different from what he had said before: evil is not simply the aggregate of acts that fall short of the pure moral law, rather it has a deep ground in the self: morally bad acts express this ground rather than being the result of it.

1794 also was another year in the life of a troubled Marquis in a very troubled France which had just experienced the terror and its culmination in the execution of Robespierre. The apostle of absolute freedom, Marquis de Sade, blessed by 20th century French intellectuals from de Beauvoir to Foucault, was now subject only to the loud noise of his insatiable desire, which was different than (yet echoed) the earlier non-stop noise of his fellow inmates in the Bastille melding with the bellicose noise of the street outside that issued in his release and that of all the denizens of the asylum. No more now than then could he stop writing. Since being incarcerated de Sade wrote one prolix book after another as if he wanted to not only write the encyclopedia of transgression, but add to its lexicon.

This means a number of things:  his texts of horror and especially 120 Days of Sodom are continuous with the encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert in attempting a complete imaginative mapping of the cultural and social discourse and human behavior, while being its inverse in terms of the valuation of reason and will and of the values of equality and fraternity. Even more importantly between the Encyclopédistes and de Sade there is a clear difference between the kinds of discourse and behaviors regarded as the proper object of veneration.

In the case of the Encyclopedists there is an emphasis upon the discourse of science and the inculcation of the behavior of setting aside of illusions, especially religious illusions. In the case of de Sade the emphasis is upon the production of pornography as the science of violation, rather than titillation, and, in the terms of behavior, the justification of the sovereignty of the few over the many, the sanctioning of a new aristocracy of the masters who dare to torment and torture those who fall into their hands. Needless to say, no less than the Encyclopedists, de Sade was no friend of Christianity, which he regarded as hopelessly muddled and hypocritical, and the main instrument of the inculcation of the conventional morality that he vowed to overthrow.

Kant and de Sade

What brought the two together—the sage of Konigsberg, who elaborated one of the most stringent forms of the ethics of duty in the history of philosophy, and an aristocrat who not only exercised no control over his sexual desires, but thought that no such control could be demanded of exceptional selves—was a set of questions that Enlightenment modernity had conveniently set aside, particularly after Rousseau’s successful intervention in philosophical discourse and his uplifting of both conscience and the native goodness of human being. There was the framing question for both of whether human beings are naturally good as Rousseau had suggested and whether evil might be natural after all, even if one were to dismiss with prejudice Christian notions of sin and inherited guilt.

Already this is enough to suggest that a critical theorist such as Theodor Adorno is right when he speaks of the “Dialectic of the Enlightenment,” the way in which the overly sunny account of freedom and reason propagated by the Enlightenment gives way to, because it is simply repressed, acknowledgement of the lust for domination and the sanctioning of an opacity in reason with regard to the human good on a par with reason’s potential for technical accomplishment. In equal parts general human experience and the specific experience of the devolvement of French Revolution from liberty to terror convinced our two thinkers that much more needs to be said about human possibility than Rousseau had allowed and that much of this is dark and all of it systemic. But embedded within the general question about human capacity for good and evil was the narrower question of whether there were inbuilt limits to evil.

Goethe was too shocked and disgusted with Kant’s general account of radical evil to notice that Kant raised an even more disturbing question than whether a propensity for evil co-existed with a predisposition for the good, that is, whether human beings could be truly malicious, that is, will evil for evil sake. This prospect is unimaginable to Goethe, since it would have involved not only bringing back the world of Original Sin, but opening a door for the demons who are figures of the imagination in and through whom we learn who we are and who we can be. Faust’s Mephistopheles serves the role of dramatizing human temptation: he is not intended to sanction a world in which there are demons of plenipotentiary powers who interact with human beings, sometimes rule over them, and sometimes inhabit them, and all for the sake of the sovereign evil one, whose names also happens to be Satan, that is, the tempter.

Goethe is interested in the phenomenon of temptation as he is interested in the disorder symbolized by a Walpurgisnacht. Goethe is not invested in the reality of demons or a Witches Sabbath; they are symbolic realities called to check a shallow Enlightenment inclined to elevate the banal. In the case of de Sade, whose reading in philosophy tended towards the more materialist side of the Enlightenment, the question about demonic excess in evil, arguably, has an urgency it does not have in Kant who appears to raise it as a conceptual outlier in order to have presented a comprehensive coverage of the possibilities of human evil that have belatedly come apparent to him. Despite his new insights into a self whose will (Willkür) is deeper than reason, Kant remains at once professorial and academic. In de Sade the question (not admitted into circulation by the philosophes) is whether true sovereignty, realized through transgression, violation, and carnage inflicted by the heroic few is possible.

Questions in de Sade are never purely intellectual: he drools and salivates over them in anticipation of consequences. They are for him a call to action to exercise in reality or in fantasy absolute power over the bodies of others. These bodies are at once quivering flesh anticipating harm that gives pleasure to one who wants to torment them; forms of Cartesian extension, at once full and hollowed out with orifices, possible sites of intimating in pain, exhaustion, or death something more than matter, and always oracles of the power that is exercised over them. In a real sense the question of whether human beings have the capacity to behave in a demonic way is asked and answered in his own life. De Sade is the personification of the excess of evil that defines the demonic and such evil is also his mandate.

In the assumptive world of Kant’s Religion, which sidelines grace and disbars any number of Christian doctrines, for example, the doctrines of atonement or the Trinity, it is not surprising that Kant answers his disturbing question in the negative. Were he to have answered yes, he would be admitting demons back into his sanitized demythologized world. While avoiding such a return, which would strike him as belonging to a medieval Catholic and/or apocalyptic world, is an obvious incentive for ruling as he did, this is not the reason Kant provides his fascinated readers for whom demonic evil is unthinkable or a purged memory. The reason Kant gives operates within his anthropological frame of reference. The fact that human beings are finite has consequences both with respect to the kind and level of knowing and willing that can be ascribed to them.

Patently human beings are creatures who fail to demonstrate godlike omniscience and godlike pure will. Indeed, as embodied sensible finite entities subject to time and space, human beings lack would-be angelic qualities of cognition that can take things in at a glance and decide for or against the good once and for all. More specifically in Religion Kant suggests that the constraints on evil will are set by embodied existence in which human beings must deal simultaneously with the incentives of non-moral desire or inclination and what pure duty enjoins. The format is Augustinian, even if the content is not: we do bad when we decide in favor of the non-moral incentive, and we truly are bad when deciding in this way is the indelible pattern of our behavior.

In addition, Kant thinks that our natural sociality sets constraints on just how badly we will behave. While he agrees with Rousseau (and Augustine) that our social environment provides a natural breeding ground for bad actions and characters, sociality also serves to ameliorate evil, given the generally imitative character of human behavior as well as the prospects of social shame. While Kant’s arguments regarding the limitations of a purely evil or demonic will are cogent, they are peremptory, at best advisories not to pursue this question any further. Should there be minds that trespass it—and he fears that there may be some—then they have failed to be honest and serious philosophers who refuse to speculate. Book 1 of Religion definitely gives the impression that Kant has raised a question for which he is not necessarily a match.

It is best to think of de Sade’s thought as belonging to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, even if can be seen to embarrass it and show its shadow side. He is influenced by the sensationalism of Helvetius and is overall a materialist who abjures Christian faith and exposes religious belief as craven fear rather than a misplaced separating out of the material and the spiritual in the one and only world in which we live, sense, feel, and know. For de Sade a select band of people are demonic both by nature and aspiration. That this claim is confusing at best and contradictory at worst does not seem to bother de Sade in either Julie or Justine which are pastiches of Rousseau’s Julie and Émile respectively. There are male and female demonics in both texts who are prepared to defile and destroy any individual or set of individuals, but who, nonetheless, are in a competitive relation with each other and continually try to outbid each other.

Like the denizens of hell in Dante’s Inferno relations between these individuals constitute a kind of inverted Eucharist in which each is against all and quite prepared to consume everything, not only each other, but even the refuse of each other. Each aspires, but not everyone is able to realize, the utter destruction of the world. This aspiration is not checked by the possibility that I myself may turn out to be a casualty. The fact that this is so suggests that, from the point of view of de Sade, the universalization protocol of Kant’s categorical imperative is useless: despite what Kant suggests I can commit to a horrible maxim that anyone can torture anyone else, not excluding me. Kant assumes a modicum of self-interest and commitment to self-preservation that de Sade thinks belongs to the Christian and bourgeois worlds of morality.

It is true that one of the achievements of this pair is to debunk the Enlightenment view that evil is merely accidental. In Kant’s deciding against his earlier more Rousseau–like self and in de Sade’s absolute renunciation we receive from within the Enlightenment itself a corrective. Far more important, however, is the opening up of the demonic in secular discourse and its ascription not to beings of a different metaphysical order, that is, demons as understood in the Christian tradition, but rather to a particular capacity in human beings to will evil as such. Kant essentially denies that human beings have this capacity, even as he suggests that were this capacity ascribable to human being, it would be universal in principle.

It is in light of the logic of Kant’s method, rather than his substantive view, that we best grasp how Schelling makes allowance for the universal possibility of the demonic in human beings, even if he thinks that the human demonic is empirically exceptional. In contrast, de Sade seems to suggest that the demonic is constitutively exceptional. Although de Sade’s materialist commitments invite him to say that the demonic is the authentic disclosure of human nature, he does not go that route. Instead, he suggests that some are “aristocratic” by nature. It is opinions of this sort that incline even his supporters to suggest that de Sade’s anthropology has Gnostic features.

Modernity and a New Kind of Monster

In either case, to be engaged in thinking in any way of the demonic in human beings is, in effect, also to rethink the notion of “monster” as that label was applied to human being in the modern period. In his account of human being in Les Pensées Pascal unveils the fracture in human being defined by their loves, and in a hyper-Augustinian manner points to the constitutive doubleness of human beings and their radical incoherence. It is on this basis that Pascal calls human being a “monster.” Monster functions as a general descriptor and is not intended as a category that defines human nature as such. There is enough goodness in human being, manifest in the love of God and neighbor, to indicate that this monstrousness is not the original state, and by the end of part 1 of Les Pensées Pascal makes it clear that the ascription of “monster” only applies to human being—although it applies universally with the exception of Christ—in the fallen state. Suggesting that monstrousness is irredeemable absent divine intervention, in this case the revelation of God in Christ, Pascal does not give thought to human beings embracing and exaggerating the incoherence and disaggregation.

Pascal’s subject, in line with Montaigne and other French humanists is on those tactics and strategies we adopt precisely to avoid this recognition, whether by means of sheer diversion or through our atrocious vanity capable of making the achievements of others my own. Beyond this Augustinian recognition of incoherence that in time and history serves as the ground of evil what is opened up by Kant and actually added by de Sade is the prideful acceptance of this monstrousness, its conscious exacerbation, and its flinging in the face of any order, conventional, natural, and divine. Acceptance and self-conscious exacerbation effectively marks the generation of a new form of monstrousness, the invention of a new kind of monster.

If we grant the difference between the view of the demonic that makes its appearance in the wake of Kant and de Sade and any form of thought that moves in the orbit of Augustine, then can we also say that this view of the demonic and the monstrous is truly radically new? There is the challenge presented by Shakespeare in his depictions of Iago, Lady Macbeth, but especially Richard. Iago’s envy is truly a hyperbole; Lady Macbeth speaks to her acts as perturbing nature. Nevertheless, neither really moves beyond the economy of human nature, but presents it as corrupted. Iago provides a cold serpentine version of human envy that has various temperatures. Lady Macbeth disturbs nature not so much through a heinous act that corrupts it, but through a regicide that involves the breaking of a taboo, even more a desacralization of the order of things: the hierarchical order of things is dismantled and nature as such is wounded. Her madness is simply its most conspicuous manifestation. The deformed Richard, who hates the world because and through his deformed body, plausibly represents the real challenge in Shakespeare to the thesis of invention of a new kind of monster.

In Richard III the title protagonist embraces what he takes to be his fate, that is, to be a monster, the instrument of evil. Compared with this figure what then is truly different in Kant’s opening up of the demonic and a new monstrousness and de Sade’s embracing of both? I suppose that if one were to emphasize one thing it is that the embrace of evil as excess no longer has even a residual sense of the value of the customs or nature being contravened. Whereas Richard III condemns himself in his transvaluation of nature, none of the heroes or heroines of de Sade do. They joyously embrace their contradictions, of being merely matter yet having intelligence and will, the acceptance of their being given as both demon and monster, yet having an aspiration towards being such. This is the new that is introduced our conceptual and imaginative economy.

Not that we are not—without being demonic and without having the vocation to be demonic—monstrous enough. Goya speaks of the monsters of reason let loose in the Spanish Civil War, and does so pace Adorno without ever thinking that we need go further than the disarticulated monster that Pascal the Augustinian has put before us. There have been wars upon wars that have piled up cruelties that cry to heaven, and speak to our pride, envy, avarice, and our potential for violence, and also the incoherence that is the ground or abyss from which contrary dispositions and injurious acts flow.

States have routinely done terribly things in the interests of their citizens; and ideologies have perpetuated conflicts for generations. And there the common human cruelties that occupy our private and communal spaces whose very familiarity gives them sanction. Yet in all of these cases, from a Christian theological perspective the Fall accounts for the huge gap between the world that we say we desire and the world we have constructed either in our actions or our failure to act.

It is true that the secular arrival of the demonic and a new version of monstrousness in modernity does not displace the symbol/concept of the Fall, nor will it ever have the same explanatory extension. This particular form of incoherence and disaggregation that celebrates itself perhaps still remains marginal and exceptional. Still, it has become an item in the vocabulary of evil. In one sense, it is just one piece of vocabulary. In another sense, it is different. It is a reflective; it hovers over the entire vocabulary, tries to sum up and expand evil towards the limits of imagination and beyond. Evil is both truth and vocation: there can never be enough of it, and never enough variety. Hell is pandemonium, but also the system that ties all evil dispositions and acts together as a form of infernal logos.

Editorial Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series by Cyril O'Regan on the monstrous in modernity.



Featured Image: Francisco de Goya, El aquelarre, 1798; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan