Education, Mastery and the Marquis de Sade

Ansgar Allen


Nihilism is not escaped by decree. Its subjective frameworks remain with us. To those educators who remain wedded, despite everything, to the idea of mastery – and this represents most of us – it is worth considering how an exit might look, one that operates through, rather than in spite of, the promise of mastery. This would be an exercise in Sade’s Reason, as Maurice Blanchot would have it. This would be an attempt to practice mastery without enslavement, passing through enslavement to its opposite. So let us imagine education as mastery, as its fulfilment, and see how that might look.


Educational alternatives; progressive education; alternative education; difference; educational theory; educational philosophy; home education; education policy

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References and Notes (in alternative house style for this paper only)

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 [1978]. p. 182.

Ibid. p. 183.

Ibid. p. 182.

See: Foucault, Michel. On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-1980. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 [1980]. p. 291.

Ibid. pp. 207-8.

Hunter, Ian. Rethinking the school: Subjectivity, bureaucracy, criticism. New York: St Martin's Press, 1994. p. xxi.

Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche's Word: 'God Is Dead'. In: Young and Haynes, editors. Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1943]. p. 160.

Blanchot, Maurice. Lautréamont and Sade. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004 [1949].

Sade, Marquis de. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and other writings. New York: Grove Press, 1965 [1795/1]. Sade, Marquis de. Juliette. New York: Grove Press, 1968 [1797]. Sade, Marquis de. The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings. New York: Grove Press, 1966 [1785].

Blanchot, Lautréamont and Sade. p. 39.

Lingis, Alphonso. Translator's Introduction. Sade My Neighbour. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991. p. x.

The educational intent of Sade’s work is not only modeled internally. Juliette, according to one footnote, is intended for lady readers: “Hot-blooded and lewdly disposed ladies, these are words to the wise, hark attentively to them: they are addressed not only to Juliette but to yourselves also; if your intelligence is in any sense comparable to hers, you’ll not fail to extract great benefit from them” (Sade, Marquis de. Juliette. New York: Grove Press, 1968 [1797]. p. 340.). Though it is a woman, Juliette, who is the libertine hero of the book of the same name, and though the book is addressed to lady readers, our heroine rarely encounters her match in libertine women, and finds she has much to teach most of the women she meets. So, for example, to Princess Borghese she remarks: “Among libertine women I have never encountered your superior… But there are…scores and scores of little habits, dirty and furtive ones, loathsome and ugly ones, crapulous and brutal ones, which, perhaps, my gentle dove, you are still to make acquaintance of” (ibid. p. 709.). For lessons in mastery, it must be pointed out, and with the exception perhaps of the sorceress Durand, Juliette looks more often, and more beseechingly to men. Thus despite Sade’s heroine, Juliette, we encounter in his work a form of mastery that owes everything to men.

Ibid. p. 181.

Saint-Fond, Juliette’s greatest sponsor, abandons her and has her quit Paris (and later France) leaving behind all she has acquired through his largesse and protection, the moment he detects her falter and recoil before his imagined crimes. And this is after so much success, after Juliette has given him so much cause to admire her grotesque affinity for libertinage. But for her moment of weakness, Juliette had otherwise reached that exalted and most libertine state of “numbed indifference”. It is at this point, once so much has been achieved in crime and horror, Juliette recalls, “that virtue makes a final effort inside us… this is the moment, beware of it, when long-forgotten prejudices reappear” (ibid. p. 548-9.). Juliette eventually rises to power once more, whilst Saint-Fond falls foul of her accomplice, Noirceuil.

Ibid. p. 285. Juliette is frequently upbraided by her teachers, but is on the lookout too for inconsistencies and weaknesses in those who instruct her. She questions Saint-Fond’s mastery on more than one occasion, for allowing himself to be in debt to others (ibid. p. 245.), and for allowing himself to believe in some form of afterlife (ibid. p. 370.). Meanwhile, she accuses Clairwil (who will eventually die by her hand) of a weakened atheism (ibid. p. 451.).

Ibid. p. 263.

There is little patience for teaching those who do not swiftly acquire libertine mastery. The libertine educator is, like the libertine Pope, so we are told, under an obligation “to make fools of the simple” (ibid. p. 757.). Fellow libertines wanton enough to deserve some respect, such as the Countess Donis who, Juliette narrates “was already almost a match for me in wickedness” do, however, still manage to incite Juliette to teach (ibid. p. 634.). This is because Juliette finds in those of similar accomplishment an opportunity for libertinage. In Donis she swiftly acquires a wealthy accomplice. If she also teaches Donis for a short interval, it is only so as to acquire a better partner in crime, and perhaps hone her own philosophy too, as she holds forth before a willing listener. But Donis is soon sacrificed having betrayed herself as still imperfectly libertine. Juliette has little patience for teaching. As she explains to her student and unwitting victim, any residual virtue “fairly turns my stomach” (ibid. p. 646.). Another student, Duchess Grillo, is tolerated for longer since she is at first a great source of pleasure. But as soon as she proves unresponsive to her teachings Juliette looses patience: “that was the moment I took the resolve to destroy her” (ibid. p. 722.). Princess Borghese is also finally despatched, after many libertine adventures by Juliette’s side. She is cast into a volcano because, in the end, she “lacked depth and rigor in her principles; timorous, still in prejudice’s grip, apt at any moment to give way before a reverse, and who, owing to nothing more than this one weakness, was unsuitable company” for a woman as corrupt as Juliette (ibid. p. 1019.).

This is unusual in the prolix context of Sade’s writing.

Sade. Juliette. p. 485.

Ibid. p. 159.

Gallop, Jane. The Immoral Teachers. Yale French Studies 1982; 63. p. 118.

Ibid. p. 126.

Kings are ridiculed accordingly: “In our day there is nothing more superfluous than a king.” Having become weak, their authority rests on “nothing solider than opinion”, which is fickle and will most assuredly betray them. These kings, seated at one remove and in luxury neglect, moreover, the “first virtue demanded of anyone who wishes to be a ruler of men” which is “knowledge of them”. Tucked away, “perpetually stunned and fuddled by their flatteries”, monarchs are not able to “sift nor scan” those they rule (Sade. Juliette. p. 568.). To master one’s subjects one must live among them and examine them most intimately.

Gallop. The Immoral Teachers. p. 122.

Hence “the most enjoyable crimes are the motiveless ones. The victim must be perfectly innocent: if we have sustained some harm from him it legitimates the harm we do him” (Sade. Juliette. p. 702.).

It suits the purposes of explanation to treat Man, God, and finally Nature in that sequence. But it must be remembered that Sade works away at each problem (the problems posed by Man, God and Nature) throughout his texts and in no particular order. This is, in other words, and as Jane Gallop argues, no simple dialectical arrangement (see: Gallop, Jane. Intersections: A reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. ). Sade’s attacks are too frenzied for that.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 7.

With regard to reason, Sade confronts the idea that a better use of reason, and better knowledge of and more thoroughgoing attempt to master our material existence ‘will make possible a better individual and social morality’ (Klossowski, Pierre. Sade My Neighbour. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991 [1967/1947]. p. 81.). As Pierre Klossowski argued, Sade foresees instead from reason ‘not the arrival of a happier era for humanity, but only the beginning of tragedy’, which he not only consciously and deliberately accepts, but also realises in his writing, making use of reason to monstrous effect (ibid. ).

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 20.

Sade. Juliette. p. 415.

Ibid. p. 14.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 20.

As the libertine Princess Borghese declares: “The stocks, the pillory, the scaffold itself would for me be a privilege, the throne of delight, upon it I’d cry death defiance, and discharge in the pleasure of perishing the victim of my crimes and over the idea that in future my name would a byword for evil, at whose mere mention generations of men would tremble… I see the abyss yawning at my feet, and jubilantly I hurl myself over the brink” (Sade. Juliette. p. 663-4.). Elsewhere Juliette says something similar: “There is nothing I fear less in the world than the noose… If ever a judge sends me to the scaffold, you will see me go forward with light and impudent step” (ibid. p. 1014.).

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 21.

Ibid. p. 24.

See: Sade, Marquis de. The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings. New York: Grove Press, 1966 [1785]. p. 362. And not only comparison is suspect, pleasure itself is problematic. The libertine should, in principle, be able perpetrate the worst crimes with the coolest temperament, without being fired up and into action by the atrocities occasioned: “Crime is the torch that should fire the passions.” Whereas the opposite (“passion firing her to crime”) is infinitely suspect. We are told that “the difference is enormous”, where the latter signifies, for the libertine concerned, that she is still plagued by a “ruinous sensibility” (Sade. Juliette. p. 475.).

Klossowski. Sade My Neighbour. p. 79.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. pp. 18-9.

Ibid. p. 25.

Cavarero, Adriana. In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 1995. p. 55.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 25.

Ibid. p. 26.

Though Simone de Beauvoir’s account is divergent in so many other respects, here there is agreement: Beauvoir, Simone de. Must We Burn Sade? In: Wainhouse and Seaver, editors. The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings - Marquis de Sade. New York: Grove Press, 1966 [1951]. p. 21.

Ibid. p. 29. This elision between the philosopher and the libertine is not exaggerated here. In Sade’s writing accomplished philosophy and perfect libertinage are virtually synonymous, where the most horrific crimes are only achieved through the most perfect philosophy.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols or How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin, 2003 [1889]. p. 46.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974 [1882]. §125.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 28.

Sade. Juliette. p. 20.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 28.

Sade. Juliette. p. 967.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 29.

Ibid. p. 31.

Ibid. p. 29.

Ibid. p. 31.

Ibid. p. 32.

Sade. Juliette. p. 782.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 32.

The study of Nature helps destroy one’s preconceptions concerning Man, God, Justice and so on; it is part of the process of their negation. The libertine must engage in “incessant, unwearying study of her; only by probing into her furthermost recesses may one finally destroy the last of one’s misconceptions” (Sade. Juliette. p. 611.). But the study of Nature also allows for the possibility of her own negation, or so the most accomplished libertine comes to believe.

Blanchot. Lautréamont and Sade. p. 35.


Klossowski. Sade My Neighbour. p. 92.

Ibid. p. 97.


Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]. p. 69.

Klossowski. Sade My Neighbour. p. 96.

Horkheimer and Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. p. 69.

Ibid. p. 65.

Sade. Juliette. p. 730.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. New York: Vintage, 1968.

See: Straehler-Pohl, Hauke and Pais, Alexandre. Learning to fail and learning from failure - ideology at work in a mathematics classroom. Pedagogy, Culture & Society 2014; 22(1). Some would argue that we should ‘make failure an option’, making it permissible for those who do not ‘fit’ to opt out of the normative order of an educational system they cannot bear. Such non-normative others are to be encouraged to follow other pathways to success (see Steigler, Sam and Sullivan, Rachael E. How to 'fail' in school without really trying: queering pathways to success. Pedagogy, Culture & Society 2015; 23(1). ). The problem with this kind of critique, I suspect, is that it would seem to perpetuate a belief in educational mastery by seeking to bleed out the effects of failure and diversify what it means to succeed. This admittedly generous, and typically progressive response to the presence of failure in education is problematic, in that it defers the problem of failure, and hence, despite itself, leaves education essentially intact.

Straehler-Pohl and Pais. Learning to fail and learning from failure. p. 81.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 [1883]. p. 36.

We work towards the ‘accomplishment of nihilism’, a phrase I borrow from: Vattimo, Gianni. The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2002 [1988]. p. 20.

Our ‘European’ education, that is, in the non-geographical sense. to be different...

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