Dostoevsky vs. the Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), libertine, pervert, and pornographer, was also a pivotal figure in Western thought. His novels Justine (1791), Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), The New Justine and Juliette (1797) presented, for the first time, a philosophy of nihilism, and illustrated all its evil consequences and implications.

Sade’s philosophy flowed from his radical egotism, which led him to propound militant antitheism.1God’s nonexistence reduces the universe to a purely materialist Nature, a self-running mechanism; “the perpetual motion of matter explains everything.”2People are determinist machines, which annuls moral responsibility. You cannot help it, then, if you are sexually perverse or depraved.3There is no afterlife, so your conduct does not matter.4Merely the child of local custom, morality is relative to culture and geography, and therefore fictive.5Nature is our only ethical guide; humans are no more significant to Nature than insects. And since Nature uses matter from dead life forms to create new ones, crime, destruction, and death are necessary and pleasing to her. Therefore murder is good, and the mass murderer is the highest human type.6

Born isolated, the individual is solely important, with obligations to nobody and only selfish motivations. Each individual is pitted against all others. His only maxim is to “Enjoy myself, at no matter whose expense.”7Man tends naturally to dominate others and inflict pain, which he enjoys.8Ordinary people are utilitarian objects, the playthings of the wealthy, powerful and godlike libertines, who are utterly unloving.9Beauty and innocence inspire only diabolical cruelty. Since materialism makes pleasure proportional to stimulus, the greater your cruelty, the greater your pleasure.10Maximum selfishness and cruelty are therefore the proper course.

If there is no God, no hell, no right and wrong, no moral responsibility, no meaning or significance beyond your pleasure, then existence is meaningless. Nothing you do matters, others do not matter, and what you do with them—and to them—does not matter. Nihilism liberates. For the Sadean egotist, then, everything is permitted. Sade incessantly rationalized the most depraved and libertine sexuality, and every crime including cannibalism and murder.

Insatiable appetite and boredom goad Sade’s libertines to ever-worsening crimes, culminating in mass murder. They become so steeped in evil that repentance and righteousness become impossible.11Frustrated and enraged at reality’s inability to satisfy their unlimited desires, they repudiate their own determinism and crave universal destruction.12

As this dynamic of wickedness and Sade’s value-inverting views of cruelty and murder indicate, nihilism is ultimately Satanic. Rabid denunciations of God and Christianity, obscene sacrileges, and Satanic practices including the Black Mass pervade Sade’s novels. The central fact of the Sadean universe is not matter in motion but rebellious egoism’s demonic impiety, seeking transcendence through evil.

Sade greatly influenced Romantic and Decadent authors, such as Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Algernon Swinburne, and Rachilde.13He told them what they wanted to hear, his example and rationalizing philosophy liberating them to indulge and to express their obsessions with cruelty and perverse sex. Sade thus contributed to the growing pathology and nihilism in Western thought and culture.



One writer, however, devoted himself to opposing the Sadean, nihilist current of the nineteenth century: Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky knew of Sade. As Dostoevsky scholar Robert Louis Jackson has shown, references to Sade occur frequently in both his notebooks and his novels, e.g., The insulted and injured, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. Far from being a “Russian Sade,” as Ivan Turgenev posthumously characterized him, or a sadist or a sadomasochist, as Mario Praz and Sigmund Freud, respectively, claimed, Dostoevsky was appalled by Sade. In his notebooks to The Brothers Karamazov he wrote, “Swinish sensuality, with all its consequences, passing into cruelty, crime, the Marquis de Sade.” In Svidrigaylov, the debauched, repulsive victimizer of women in Crime and Punishment, Jackson rightly finds a “clear embodiment” of the Sadean philosophy and self-justifying libertine. Dostoevsky, he concludes, “appreciated the gravity of the moral and psychological questions raised by Sade,” but “rejected the Sadean worldview as amoral, disfigured and destructive of the moral and social fabric of men and society.”14

In fact, Dostoevsky did far more. Where the Romantics and Decadents self-indulgently embraced Sade as a liberator, Dostoevsky confronted and repudiated him, and reaffirmed the Christian worldview that Sade so ferociously rejected. Evidence in Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) makes clear that Dostoevsky had read Sade’s novels closely and pondered them. He drew on specific incidents in them, and addressed specific arguments. Dostoevsky shared Sade’s insight that egoism repudiates God and propounds nihilism in order to attain liberation for sexual license, crime, destruction, and murder. But where Sade gleefully preached this, Dostoevsky condemned it. His work reveals a steadily deepening critical engagement with Sade, culminating in The Brothers Karamazov.

At first, Sade was a marginal figure in Dostoevsky’s mind. The House of the Dead (1862), Dostoevsky’s novel about Siberian prison life, addresses corporal punishment. Some floggers, he observes, obtain “something that suggests the Marquis de Sade. . . . There are people who are like tigers thirsting for blood.” He describes how “Blood and power intoxicate,” and a dynamic of corruption turns such cruel specimens into tyrants who cannot revert to normal humanity.15This Sadean reference, however, is merely in passing. Likewise, in The insulted and injured (1862), Dostoevsky’s awareness of Sade clearly emerges in the scheming, avaricious Prince Valkovsky. His philosophy is one of extreme egoism, repudiating all obligations and ideals, seeing life as “a commercial transaction.” Regarding women, he likes “secret, hidden vice, a bit more strange and original, even a little filthy for variety.”16But Dostoevsky does not, at this stage in his career, pose Sadean egoism and nihilism as central problems, nor does he devote himself to answering them.

Two years later, in Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky’s treatment of cruelty and egoism is far more sophisticated. He scorns the optimistic argument that people misbehave only because they do not know their own interests, and would behave properly once this ignorance is dispelled. Optimists construe our interests as peace, freedom, wealth, prosperity, and such, and overlook man’s craving for one value that outweighs them all. Equally erroneous are those who believe that modern civilization will make man more peaceful. in fact, it has merely made him more sensitive, to the point where he will find “pleasure in bloodshed.” Citing Cleopatra, who stuck pins into her slave girls’ breasts and “enjoyed their screams and contortions,” Dostoevsky argues that in the perfect world of nineteenth century progressives, in which science has taught that man has no free will and all problems can be solved, people might practice cruelty out of sheer boredom. in such a world, man commits stupid, even self-injurious acts simply to prove that he is not a determinist puppet, since his greatest desire, the overlooked value trumping all others, is for “an absolutely free [original italics] choice.” Man’s greatest failing, Dostoevsky adds, is a “constant lack of moral sense.”17

Put in another way, Dostoevsky now sees man much as Sade does: self-willed, desiring unfettered free choice, prone to commit irrational acts to transcend determinism, lacking moral sense, and a potential sadist. Moreover, “progress,” blinking man’s need for moral order and spiritual fulfillment, is lethally wrong-headed, inciting sadistic transgressions. Dostoevsky is beginning to come to grips with modern man’s predicament—and with Sade.



In Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, spiritual warfare and Sade’s worldview are now Dostoevsky’s central concerns, suggesting that as his vision matured and deepened to focus on man’s predicament in working out his destiny in modernity’s impious milieu, his awareness of and alarm at Sade’s impiety and its implications grew apace. God and Satan clash through the battle between Christianity and Sadean nihilism. Crime and Punishment’s central situation—the murder of an old woman pawnbroker and her sister by the student Rodion Raskolnikov, and his subsequent, saving involvement with Sonia Marmeladov, leading to his confession and imprisonment in Siberia—is a microcosm of that conflict.

Like the Sadean egotist and Sade himself, Raskolnikov is isolated from others. Virtually friendless, he spends most of his time brooding in his dingy room, and when in the streets he is oblivious of his surroundings. His fellow student Razhumikhin observes his sense of superiority to everybody else, and that Raskolnikov is sometimes “cold and inhumanly callous.” His Sadean egoist craving for moral liberation is established early (Chapter 2): if man is not a beast, then morality is mere prejudice, “and there is nothing to stop you from doing anything you like, and that’s as it should be!”

It emerges that Raskolnikov had previously published an essay expounding a social philosophy exactly like Sade’s, dividing society into “ordinary” persons, who must suffer abuse and have a “duty to be docile, for that is their vocation in life,” and the “extraordinary,” who are all actual or potential “destroyers” and who, being extraordinary, “have a right to commit any crime.” All those who are extraordinary “must by their very nature be criminals.” Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, and Napoleon were all criminals, because they “transgressed the ancient laws.” This formulation follows Sade’s technique of rationalizing crime and cruelty by giving lists of famous lawgivers or rulers who authorized crime. indeed, all the same names except Napoleon’s appear in Sade’s lists in Philosophy in the Bedroom.18

Raskolnikov wants to be an “extraordinary”—i.e., one of Sade’s self-divinizing elite. He admires Napoleon, “A real ruler of men [original italics], a man to whom everything is permitted.” He later tells Sonia that he killed the old woman because he “wanted to become a Napoleon.”19

Raskolnikov shows close parallels with Justine’s surgeon Rodin. His first name, Rodion, is similar. And both men rationalize their crimes on exactly similar utilitarian grounds. Rodin and his colleague Rombeau plot to kill and dissect Rodin’s fifteen-year-old daughter in a medical experiment. Rodin declares: “Only think of it! you sacrifice one, but you save a million, perhaps; may one hesitate when the price is so modest? . . . is not the purpose of [capital punishment], which [is] commonly found so wise, the sacrifice of one in order to save a thousand?” Before the murder, Raskolnikov overhears a student discussing murdering the old woman and taking her money, rationalizing that he could do great good thereby—thoughts that were occurring to Raskol-nikov himself: “Well, don’t you think that one little crime could be expiated and wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life you will save thousands of lives from corruption and decay. One death in exchange for a hundred lives—why, it’s a simple sum in arithmetic!”20

In a further Sadean touch, Raskolnikov consistently reduces and dehumanizes the old woman to a repulsive object, referring to her repeatedly as a “louse.”

Yet Raskolnikov is not completely Sadean. Unlike Sade’s libertines, he has not totally quit humanity and is not loveless. He is intermittently kind, and tries to protect his sister Dunya from Arkady Svidrigaylov, a landowner who pursued her sexually when she worked as a governess on his estate and is now pursuing her again. Here Dostoevsky anticipates Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s argument that “even within hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”21This bridgehead of good leaves Raskolnikov open to grace, to conversion through Sonia’s Christian love.

Like Sade’s Justine, Sonia personifies virtue. The daughter of an alcoholic father and a tubercular mother, Sonia has become a prostitute in order to support her family. Like Justine, she retains her purity of soul despite brutal exposure to depravity and evil. But there the resemblance ends. Through Sonia, Dostoevsky answers Sade. Sonia’s Christianity is not liberal, sentimental, and indulgent, but stern and demanding.

When Raskolnikov rattles off his Sadean dehumanization of his victim, Sonia will have none of it, and her repudiation disconcerts him:

“But i only killed a louse, Sonia. A useless, nasty, harmful louse.”
“A human being—a louse?”

“i know—i know it wasn’t a louse,” he replied, looking strangely at her. “But i suppose i’m just talking a lot of rot, Sonia,” he added. “i’ve been talking rot for a long time. it isn’t that—you’re quite right. . . . i have an awful headache now.”22

Dropping his rationalizations, Raskolnikov tells Sonia that he wanted “to murder without casuistry, to murder for my own satisfaction, for myself alone.” Like Sade’s libertines, he sought transcendence through transgression. He wanted, he says, to learn something about himself: whether he was part of the egoist elect or “a louse like the rest. . . . Whether i can step over or not. . . . Whether i am some trembling vermin or whether i have the right [original italics]—” Again Sonia responds with an instantaneous, fearless, categorical rejection: “‘—to kill? Have the right to kill?’ Sonia cried in horror.” Raskolnikov answers with annoyance, then, Sade-like, attempts to shift the blame (on the devil), but she refuses to let him evade responsibility: “And you killed! You killed!” Her insistence breaks Raskol-nikov’s defenses; he collapses in despair, begs Sonia to leave him alone, then asks her what he should do.23

Sonia exhorts Raskolnikov to confess his crime and “accept suffering and be redeemed by it.” This, she insists, is his only hope for salvation from radical isolation. Sonia does this at extreme risk; Raskolnikov could have angrily murdered her. Meek, gentle Sonia is “bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). in her Christian love she repudiates Raskolnikov’s evil, risks his wrath, demands repentance and conversion—then extends the true compassion of suffering with him. At the end, her patient love and kindness finally win Raskolnikov over. Through Sonia, then, Dostoevsky repudiates Sade’s reductionism and dehumanization. He reaffirms the Christian moral restraints which Sade rejected, and holds out the hope of redemption and conversion through love.

Another confrontation between Sadean egoism and virtue occurs between Svidrigaylov and Dunya. Svidrigaylov personifies Sadean libertinism. He struck his wife with a whip and, Mrs. Raskolnikov believes, murdered her; pursued servant girls; and brutally violated a deaf-and-dumb fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girl who then hanged herself. in conversations with Raskolnikov, Svidrigaylov asserts his belief that women enjoy humiliation and boasts of his seduction of a virtuous lady. Fifty years of age, he is engaged to a girl not yet sixteen, yet he is still pursuing Dunya. An authentically Sadean lust for profanation is integral to Svidrigaylov’s monstrous sexuality; he compares the face of his young fiancée to that of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and finds her innocent selflessness tempting. Echoing Sade’s libertines’ unrepentance in evil, he laughs at the thought that he is a miserable sinner.24

Anticipating Raskolnikov’s reproaches in their first conversation, Svidrigaylov raises the possibility that he had fallen in love, which he “can’t help,” thus “everything is explained in the most natural way.” That being so, perhaps he is the real victim. Besides, reason is merely the “slave of passion.” He invokes a “natural tendency” to explain his conduct, and pins his hopes on “anatomy.” Svidrigaylov elaborates in their final conversation that he sees no reason to restrain himself with women, and that his vice is “something permanent . . . founded on nature and not subject to the whims of fancy; something that is always there in your blood.”25

Here, again, Dostoevksy is clearly following Sade closely. The appeal to nature to explain sexual misconduct is Sadean. Moreover, much of Svidrigaylov’s self-exculpatory talk recapitulates the monk Clément’s speech in Justine, declaring that a man with perverted tastes is “sick” and deserves sympathy, and that “the study of anatomy,” when perfected, will “be able to demonstrate the relationship of the human constitution to the tastes which it affects,” and that one’s moral and legal transgressions would be explained by physical causes such as the “degree of pungency in the blood.”26

When Svidrigaylov makes his final attempt on Dunya, she resists promptly and effectively. She fires a revolver at Svidrigaylov, grazing his temple. He desists and permits her to go. Here, then, is another answer to Sade: the innocent, particularly women, the libertine’s favorite targets, have a right not to be victimized and to resist evil.

Through Svidrigaylov, Dostoevsky warns that Sadean egoism offers its practitioners only death. Svidrigaylov sincerely wants Dunya’s love, but his relentless, vicious selfishness so repulses her that she spurns his final entreaties. Trapped in isolation, foiled in his bid for a love to save him from himself, Svidrigaylov despairingly commits suicide.



The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s last work, is steeped in awareness of Sade, and is his greatest effort to confront and answer Sade’s demonic impiety. The central situation, the murder of Fyodor Karamazov by his illegitimate son Smerdyakov, for which his son Dmitri is wrongly blamed, is prompted by the liberating antitheism and nihilism at the core of Sade’s philosophy. Here Dostoevsky elaborates his representation of various aspects of the Sadean soul and worldview.

Ivan Karamazov gives Dostoevsky’s most extensive presentation of Sade’s thought. Personifying the Sadean philosophe, ivan, as paraphrased by Peter Miusov, presents Sade’s philosophy early in the novel:

. . . there was no law of nature that men should love mankind . . . any love on earth . . . was not owing to a natural law but simply because men have believed in immortality . . . the whole natural law lies in that faith . . . if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. . . . for every individual who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law . . . egoism, even to crime, must become, not only lawful but recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome.27

The summary formulation, Sade’s formula for liberation—“if there is no God, all things are lawful”—is the novel’s central thematic problem and appears repeatedly. There is no God and no immortality, ivan declares, only “absolute nothingness.” Like Raskolnikov, ivan manifests Sadean isolation, intellectual pride, and chilling detachment from others. Early on he tells Alyosha that it wouldn’t take much for Dmitri to murder his father. “God forbid!” Alyosha replies in horror. Smiling, ivan asks why God should forbid it. “One reptile will devour the other. And it will serve them both right, too.” ivan’s Sadean appeals to determinist Nature, his belief that man is a natural egoist wishing evil on others, his refusal to put moral bounds on his desires and imagination, and his nihilist devaluation of human life, emerge when he tells Alyosha that men decide who is worthy to live on “grounds much more natural” than worth, and that everyone has the right to wish for another man’s death. “Why lie to oneself since all men are like this and perhaps can’t help being like this.”28

Echoing the lovelessness of Sade’s libertines, ivan opens the chapter preceding “The Grand inquisitor” by confessing to Alyosha that he has never understood how one can love one’s neighbors. He then discourses on man’s natural cruelty, closely following Sade. ivan’s discussion of child-flogging, and the dynamic of sadistic pleasure, are clearly inspired by the numerous child-whipping scenes of Justine and Juliette: “there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. . . . it’s just their [children’s] defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets the tormentor’s vile blood on fire.” Like Sade, ivan sees cruelty and sadism as inherent in human nature: “in every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain. . . .”29

Yet ivan is not wholly Sadean; his inability to grasp love springs from revulsion at cruelty and sadism, and at the sufferings of the innocent, and he rejects the Sadean utilitarian rationalization of cruelty to the innocent to achieve a greater good.

Just as Svidrigaylov complements Raskolnikov, the divinity student Rakitin—self-serving, avaricious, cynical—complements ivan. Rakitin declares that one loves only for selfish reasons and that “fools are made for wise men’s profit.” He wants to write an article proving that Dmitri “couldn’t help” murdering Fyodor because his environment corrupted him. Visiting the imprisoned Dmitri, he expounds a Sadean materialism and determinism to debunk Christianity, telling Dmitri that one sees and thinks because of nerve fibers in the brain, “not because i have a soul, and am some sort of image and likeness.” What will become of men, Dmitri asks, without God and immortality? “All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?” Rakitin’s response encapsulates Sade: “A clever man can do what he likes.”30

The turbulent libertines Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov portray Sadean sexuality. Drunken, lecherous, unabashedly aware of his own evil, Fyodor finds a young girl’s beauty and innocence attractive, but only as an invitation to cruelty. He makes her his second wife and subjects her to cruelty and degradation. Her deep piety provokes only malicious desecration of her ikon of Our Lady: “You believe it’s miraculous, but here, i’ll spit on it and nothing will happen to me!” Fyodor refers to young men who flog girls sentenced to be whipped, and the girls themselves, as “a set of de Sades.” Having offended the holy elder Father Zossima, Fyodor tells Alyosha that if there’s a God he will have to answer for it, but if there is not, the fathers are not entitled to anything. Like Sade, he wants Christianity suppressed “that Truth may prevail.”31

Dmitri admits his love of vice, “the dishonour of vice,” and cruelty to Alyosha. “Sensual lust is a tempest,” he declares. He abandons his fiancée Katerina out of sexual obsession with Grushenka, after whom his father also lusts. He engages in drunken frolics, attacks his father, and assaults and batters Fyodor’s old servant Gregory on the night of Fyodor’s murder.

For all his passions and follies, Dmitri is alert to rationalizations for what he wants to do. He fastens immediately on ivan’s formulation that if there is no God, anything goes. He is receptive to Rakitin’s Sadean materialism, and voices Sade’s moral relativism: “Goodness is one thing with me and another with a Chinaman, so it’s relative.”32

Smerdyakov represents the murderous criminality in Sadean egoism. From boyhood on he is silent, sullen, and withdrawn. When Gregory attempted to teach him Scripture when he was twelve, Smerdyakov mocked the Creation narrative. Not only an atheist but also a sadist, Smerdyakov enjoyed hanging cats as a child and, before Fyodor Karamazov’s murder, tells the boy ilusha to put a pin in a piece of bread and throw it to a hungry dog, who eats it and runs away squealing in pain. During ivan’s visit after the murder, Smerdyakov says to ivan, “You [original italics] murdered him. You are the murderer! i was only your instrument, your faithful servant, and it was following your words i did it.” His motive was to steal money to begin a new life, but the idea took root “chiefly because ‘all things are lawful,’” which ivan had apparently expounded to him frequently. ivan was right, he tells him, to preach that if there is no God, virtue neither exists nor is necessary. “So that’s how i looked at it.”33

Sade’s libertines both rationalize and commit crimes, especially murder. in splitting these roles, giving ivan the first and Smerdyakov the second, and making ivan liberate Smerdyakov and authorize him to murder Fyodor Karamazov, Dostoevsky achieves a microcosmic portrayal of the civilizational menace of both Sade himself and of other intellectuals propounding nihilism to receptive criminals, already perpetrators of minor crimes, whom nihilism can liberate and encourage to worse transgressions.

Madame Hohlakov’s malicious daughter Lise completes The Brothers Kara-mazov’s gallery of Sadeans. As is clear to anyone familiar with Sade, Lise is a montage of the female libertines of Juliette. Her side of the conversation during Alyosha’s final visit to the Hohlakovs is a condensation of their outpourings and deeds:

I would like someone to torture me. . . . i want disorder. i keep wanting to set fire to the house. . . . And how bored i am!. . . . Let me be rich and all the rest poor. i’ll eat cake and drink cream and won’t give any to anyone else. . . . if i am ever poor, i will murder somebody, and even if i am rich, i may murder someone. . . . i want to do evil. . . . So that everything will be destroyed. Oh, how nice it would be if everything were destroyed! . . . Everyone loves crime. . . . secretly they all love [evil]. . . . [She tells of a man who crucified a four-year-old boy.] He said that the child moaned, kept on moaning and he stood admiring it. That’s nice! . . . i sometimes imagine that it was i who crucified him. He would hang there moaning and i would sit opposite him eating pineapple jam [Juliette’s libertines sometimes feast while children are tortured, impaled, etc. in their presence]. . . . i hate everything! i don’t want to live, because i hate everything. . . . i don’t love anyone.34

The elder Zossima’s life and teachings (Book Vi, “The Russian Monk”), which Dostoevsky wrote to refute atheism and deemed his work’s culmination,35present Dostoevsky’s fullest Christian answer to Sade. Zossima’s own story is of conversion from Sadean egoism to Christian saintliness. in youth, he was a rich army officer who saw his men as “cattle”; a drunken, dissolute rake bent on gratifying his appetites; conceited and self-absorbed. He provoked a duel with a man who had married a woman he wanted, and the night before the duel cruelly smote his orderly in the face. The next morning the beauty of Creation, the memory of his brother Markel, who died a saintly death during Eastertide at seventeen, and a powerful remorse (a sentiment which Sade excoriated) combined to work a metanoia on Zossima. He begged his orderly’s forgiveness, refused to shoot back in the duel, and left his regiment to become a monk.

Through Zossima’s mysterious visitor and the elder’s teachings, Dostoevsky repudiates Sade’s radical individualism and freedom as peddling empty promises. The extreme individualist achieves not “fullness of life but self-destruction,” for he ends up not in self-realization but in solitude and “self-destructive impotence,” isolated and fearful of adversity. Construed as liberation to multiply and gratify desires, freedom only enslaves us to our appetites.

Point by point, Dostoevsky answers Sade with polar opposites. Sade preaches impiety towards God and others; Zossima preaches piety towards both. Sade sets each against all; Zossima preaches the spiritual brotherhood of mutual respect and benevolence. Sade propounds radical, self-absorbed isolation; Zossima preaches that we are one another’s keepers. Sade’s libertines’ ceaseless self-assertion leads to frustration; Zossima gives witnesses to the peace that flows from piety. The libertines’ bustling, frenetic, self-absorbed lives shut out divine grace; Zossima’s calm and contemplation let it in. indeed Sade ferociously rejects grace; Zossima stresses openness to grace and conversion through it.

Beauty, a very important vehicle for grace, is a major concern of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky makes its significance clear early, when Dmitri tells Alyosha that beauty is “terrible and awful,” un-fathomed and unfathomable. its role in man’s life depends on how he responds to it—his conflicting, coexisting capacities for idealism and corruption—and what he deems beautiful. Most people find “beauty in Sodom.” Beauty is mysterious. “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

For Sade, beauty is only an incitement to lust and profanation, an invitation to evil, and it functions thus for Fyodor Karamazov. For Zossima, by contrast, beauty is one of God’s most important witnesses, an incitement to reverence. in Russian religious thought beauty plays a crucial role in conversion. The beauty of Creation, Scripture, churches, ikons, and liturgy evokes umilenie, a compound of tenderness and reverence. A grace which leads to awareness of God and inspires awe, piety, and belief, umilenie figures prominently in the conversions of Markel (who had previously left Orthodoxy) and Zossima himself. Properly apprehended, beauty is theophantic, a source of grace leading to conversion. As Dostoevsky wrote in his notebooks, “Beauty will save the world.”36

A second vehicle for grace, Zossima argues, is “precious memories” of beauty, sacred Scriptures, good persons, and so on, which, recalled later, may play a decisive salvational role. At the novel’s end Alyosha too invokes “sacred memories,” which will keep one safe until death, and may be a means of salvation and also prevent evil deeds.37

Where Sade preaches transcendence through transgression, Zossima exhorts his followers to transcendence through love. The reward is the “spiritual joy” which is given only to the righteous. By contrast, Sadean egoism leads to hell. “Fathers and teachers, i ask: ‘What is hell?’ i maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Zossima’s final paragraph, describing loveless souls in hell, perfectly describes Sade and his libertines: beings “proud and fierce even in hell,” despite knowing and contemplating the truth, “fearful ones” who have given themselves totally to Satan and his “proud spirit.” Such souls have chosen hell; in cursing God and life, they condemn themselves, with only “vindictive pride” to sustain them. Spurning forgiveness, hating God, “they cry out that the God of life should be annihilated, that God should destroy Himself and His own creation. And they will burn in the fire of their own wrath forever and yearn for death and annihilation.”38

Like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov holds out hope of conversion and salvation. Markel and Zossima experience conversions. Under the impact of his arrest, Dmitri is transformed from spiritual unawareness and a debauched life to deep concern for the thematic issues of the novel and to love of God. And when Dmitri falls ill after his conviction for his father’s murder, Lise Hohlakov is among those who succeed in getting him lodged in a separate room in the prison section of the hospital, and she sends flowers for ilusha’s funeral—hints that a “bridgehead of good” exists even in Sadean souls, through which grace may operate.

Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy was unquestionably decisive in shaping his response to Sade. Orthodoxy was the branch of Christianity least contaminated by contact with an impious Enlightenment rationalism. His Christian vision unimpaired by this grace-resisting dust, Dostoevsky was able to observe modernity with an outsider’s independent critical perspective and penetration. Moreover, Ortho-doxy’s stress on beauty, umilenie, grace, charity, and humility39made it the polar opposite of Sade’s radical irreverence. This made Dostoevsky, when he encountered a worldview which apotheosized what was anathema to Orthodoxy, uniquely equipped to detect its Satanic essence, and to answer it.

To sum up, Dostoevsky presents Sade’s nihilist egoism, warns of the lethal consequences, gives Christian repudiations of Sade, and presents Christianity as man’s only alternative to Sade. Dostoevsky rejects the third alternative of the philosophes and their secular humanist successors: that man can be good without God and that altruistic social service is a viable substitute for Christianity. in his view, secular humanism cannot generate the piety, love, and umilenie, which alone can save us from plunging into Sade’s abyss.

Tellingly, he voices this repudiation through the transformed Dmitri. Altruism, Dmitri observes, handily rationalizes self-seeking acts such as Rakitin’s toadying, gold-digging courtship of the wealthy Madame Hohlakov: “They have this social justification for every shady thing they do!” And it is an inadequate fetter on evil. When Rakitin tells Dmitri that one will show love for humanity “more simply and directly” by keeping the meat price down than through philosophy, “i answered him, ‘Well, but you, without a God, are more likely to raise the price of meat, if it suits you, and make a rouble on every penny.’ He lost his temper.”40

Of the writers of his age who read Sade, Dostoevsky alone took Sade’s measure and strove to parry his terrible threat to civilization. in this he resembles Winston Churchill, alone in perceiving the cosmic menace in Bolshevism and Hitler. And just as only a Churchill could cope with Hitler, only a thinker of Dostoevsky’s profound Christian piety and discernment could answer Sade’s demonic genius. Dostoevsky emerges as a great hero in the spiritual warfare underlying history.


  1. The Marquis de Sade, Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York, 1968), 29–42; The Marquis de Sade, Justine, in Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings, trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (New York, 1966), 496–497; The Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, in ibid., 209–211.
  2. Juliette, 43.
  3. Juliette, 14–16, 43–50, 267–268, 541–542, 677; Justine, 603.
  4. Juliette, 402.
  5. Philosophy in the Bedroom, 217–218, 327; Juliette, 89.
  6. Justine, 518–519; Philosophy in the Bedroom, 237–238, 329–332; Juliette, 49, 67, 415, 765–769.
  7. Justine, 492, 604, 607, 608; Juliette, 52, 99, 145, 176–177, 780.
  8. Juliette, 316–317.
  9. Justine, 487, 608–610, 668–669; Juliette, 173–178, 208, 243.
  10. Juliette, 340–341.
  11. The Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom, in The 120 Days of Sodom and other Writings, comp. and trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (New York, 1987), 329, 495–496, 545; Juliette, 524, 525, 548, 579, 967–978, 1012–1188.
  12. The 120 Days of Sodom, 364, 470, 545; Juliette, 579, 700, 781–782, 1039.
  13. See Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, trans. Angus Davidson, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford, 1970), and A. E. Carter, The idea of Decadence in French Literature (Toronto, 1958).
  14. Constantin V. Ponomareff, On the Dark Side of Russian Literature, 1709–1910 (New York, 1987), 145–171; The Romantic Agony, 419–420; Robert Louis Jackson, “Dostoevskij and the Marquis de Sade,” Russian Literature, Vol. iV, No. 1 (January 1976), 27–46.
  15. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1915), 186.
  16. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The insulted and injured, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1956), 237–239.
  17. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. David Magarshack, in Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (New York, 1968), 279–287.
  18. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. David Magarshack (Baltimore, 1966), 275–278, 291; Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, 300, 316.
  19. Crime and Punishment, 419.
  20. Justine, 552; Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 84–85.
  21. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956, Vol. 2, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York, 1975), 615.
  22. Crime and Punishment, 430.
  23. ibid., 432–433.
  24. ibid., 296–298, 487–493.
  25. ibid., 296–298, 300, 487–493, 482.
  26. Justine, 602–603.
  27. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, n.d.), 72.
  28. ibid., 136, 138.
  29. ibid., 218–227.
  30. ibid., 325, 534–535.
  31. ibid., 22–23, 132–133, 129.
  32. ibid., 107, 72, 538, et al.
  33. ibid., 487, 572–573.
  34. ibid., 526–531. Examples of Sade’s libertines feasting while children are tortured and murdered: Juliette, 266, 740–741, 1112–1113.
  35. George A. Panichas, The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (Chicago, 1985), 162.
  36. Beauty and umilenie: George P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, Vol. 1: Kievan Christianity (Cambridge, Mass., 1946), 371–376, 393; “Beauty will save the world”: Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art (New Haven and London, 1966), 40.
  37. “Sacred memories”: Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 699.
  38. ibid., 298–299. 39. The Russian Religious Mind, Vol. 1: Kievan Christianity, 390–393.
  39. The Brothers Karamazov, 535, 538.

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