Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Masano Yamashita

Second Advisor

Elisabeth Arnould-Bloomfield

Third Advisor

Christopher Braider

Fourth Advisor

Martha Hanna

Fifth Advisor

Catherine Labio


Even though Sade’s reputation as an “athée exacerbé”1 seems to dominate the critics, this dissertation argues that his atheism is not as obvious as it seems. Through an analysis of the correlation between language and religion in the marquis’ work, this study demonstrates that it is through his mistrust of language that Sade presents his ideas. While his libertines seem to profess the superiority of atheism, their discourse is undermined by their rhetoric. Through the use of sophisms, Sade is able to present the dispute between philosophers and apologists, which dominated the second half of the XVIII century, as sterile.

The presentation of the libertines’ materialist ideas is equally problematic since the moral relativism they express is incompatible with the foundation of the Enlightenment’s ethical values. Moreover, Sade’s libertine novels profess the refusal of any acknowledgment of an ethic based solely on men, while his pessimism towards human nature puts him closer to the apologists. By undermining the foundations of any secular ethic, Sade places himself against both philosophers and apologists who, for once, agreed on the idea that virtue was the truest way to happiness.

Sade’s novels therefore undermine both apologists and philosophers’ ideas by showing their contradictions. By presenting all of the prevailing religious thoughts of his time, Sade multiplies them in order to reduce them to binary notions that ultimately cancel each other out. Sade uses atheism to underscore the contradictions of his time. He presents a world in which all reference points have disappeared and in which every discourse seems to be a deception waiting to be exposed. Confronted with the unequivocal representations of both the philosophers and the apologists, whether triumphant or disparaging, Sade proves that one needs to push back with skepticism.

The discourse on religion in Sade’s work could therefore be summed-up by the dying man: “You compose, you construct, you dream, you magnify and complicate; I sift, I simplify. You accumulate errors, pile one atop the other; I combat them all”2.


1 Minois, Georges. Histoire de l’athéisme. Les incroyants dans le monde occidental des origines à nos jours, Fayard, 1998, p. 400.

« Exacerbated atheist », my translation.

2 Sade. Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man. Books on Demand, 2016, p. 4.