The Libertine: Lessons in Liberty from the Marquis de Sade

By Zadok Day

My reaction to the formation of this blogging site was surprise, to say the least. “That’s a brave move for Liberal Youth,” I thought, “life lessons from the Marquis de Sade!” As far as historical figures worthy of influencing a liberal organisation for the youthful, the libertines aren’t the obvious choice. Moral restraint and self-control are key concepts in liberal philosophies, believing in giving the individual absolute control over their lives but also the responsibility to deal with the outcomes of their actions. The libertines, on the other hand, only survived their lifestyles due to unearned privilege if at all, the likes of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester satirising power whilst safe within its grasp in royal courts – very different to radicals of his age such as John Locke.

So why choose the libertines as inspiration at all? This blog takes as its strapline that “a libertine is one free from the restraint of social norms and religious morals”, suggesting arguments for policy movement in the party in these directions, yet Liberal Youth has not done this so far as I can see. There are no arguments for devolving power to the individual, no support for, say, the Hands Off Our Packs or anti-Minimum Alcohol Pricing campaigns – despite alcohol, at least, still being socially acceptable in public! Even existing campaigns for equal marriage lack genuine radicalism; where is the support, for example, for moving beyond the confusing and overly-cautious ‘consultation’ in favour of getting the government out of marriage altogether? It doesn’t even offer religious gay marriage, or civil partnerships for heterosexuals – equality and liberty not being so much balanced as forgotten completely.

Let’s not forget that as liberals we do not believe in vice for its own sake, but in giving individuals the freedom and responsibility to indulge as they see fit. It’s a doctrine that tells the state to mind its own business – why should, for example, an institution like the Catholic Church have any say whatsoever over whether people in love can marry? What business is it of anyone’s if consenting adults marry, drink, smoke or carry out any action on their own private property? Libertines would selfishly indulge in this themselves – liberals argue for the right of all to do so.

The Marquis himself is immortalised in pop culture as a debauched pervert, but being fair to the man, he was outspoken against a kind of state tyranny that we lucky westerners can only imagine, living during the French Revolution and its many Terrors. He even argued for electoral reform, surely making him an honourary Lib Dem! Yet what mattered most about the Marquis, and the lesson that young liberals of nowadays should take away from his invocation here, was not in what he said but in the reaction of the establishments of the time. He was declared insane, locked away from society for the sin of challenging its norms – yet he proved himself a thoughtful actor on the stage of liberalism from some of the quotations attributed to him:

‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.’

‘Social order at the expense of liberty is hardly a bargain.’

‘What is more immoral than war?’

By arguing for freedom for the individual, by pressing for liberties hitherto denied, we are up against establishments as outdated and set in their ways as those the Marquis faced. The libertines set us a good example, not in their actions but in their extreme persistence and their willingness to challenge authority. They said what was unpopular, and relished doing so – the best lesson for a modern liberal is to be as radical, as outspoken, as defiant in the cause of freedom. We may not be as nihilistic in action, but we can be as brave.

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2 thoughts on “The Libertine: Lessons in Liberty from the Marquis de Sade

  1. Speaking for myself rather than LGBT+ Lib Dems or the party, I do agree that a more radical reform of marriage would be preferable – get both the Government and the Church out of it, have a standard interpersonal contract enforced by contract law for domestic disputes which covers inheritance, power of attorney, pension entitlements and so on. This contract could be used by relatives, triads, and any other combination of people. If religions want to bless any particular combination, let ’em. The only thing we really need the State for is if we offer tax breaks to married couples (which we shouldn’t), or international recognition of relationships.

    However, one thing that makes me a Lib Dem is my belief in realpolitik, the art of the possible. While I find the above desirable, I’d rather shoot for what we’re likely to get in the few years while the only major party supporting equal marriage is in Government, than risk genuine accusations of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. The consultation may give us a bill which allows religious equal marriage and mixed-sex civil partnerships (it asks questions about them after all); if it doesn’t our MPs will submit amendments. Either way we will end up better off by 2015 than we were in 2010, rather than still aspiring to a perfect ideal.

    What’s that phrase again? “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”.

    PS: If you haven’t filled in the consultation yet, there’s a guide at http://www.abouttime.org.uk/

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