Essay: Sade, the Prophet of Modernity

This piece is a revised version of something I published, so far as I can figure about, some twenty years ago.

My father believed in progress almost to the end of his life, when changing his mind would scarcely have made any difference.  Men who repent in old age, as I have come to understand, are something like the 80 year old cancer patient who decides to quit smoking or the libertine reformed by impotence.  Like most liberals, my father regarded traditional institutions as so many barriers to man’s continued improvement, and yet, like most good men who are liberals, his head was contradicted by his heart: He despised the British monarchy, but he was willing to fight to defend the rights of the Stuarts.  

Liberals are almost always wrong in their principles, but that does not make them, automatically, bad men.  I do not think my father necessarily believed in the institution of marriage per se, but he was intensely loyal to his own wife, and he despised men who broke the marriage bond.  He disliked any display of nationalism and viewed the flag-waving, oath-taking chauvinism of the 1950’s with contempt, and yet at the outbreak of WW II he enlisted more than once in the Marines, though each time the irregularity of his diphtheria-scarred heart betrayed him to the medical examiners.  His thirst for risking his life for his country had to be slaked by serving as an engineering officer on merchant ships doing convoy duty, sometimes undefended, back and forth and up and down the Atlantic.  

Although he made no complaints against homosexuals, he loathed actors (among other effeminate men), especially actors who came to imagine that they were as tough as the heroes they portrayed.  I can imagine him coming to me now and asking me what had happened to American men, that so many had gone homosexual or had become so effeminate that they drove their wives into lesbianism; what sort of judges and legislators we had that they could even conceive of the possibility of “gay” marriage.  What would any of us, looking our liberal parents and grandparents in the eye, say of such things? 

Let us begin by stating what was obvious to my father.  The problem does not lie with homosexuality per se or with homosexuals.  My childhood piano teacher, for example, was the only well-known homosexual in my hometown.  He was also one of the few Communists and, although he left school in the 6th grade, he was the only person in god-forsaken Superior who had read Goethe--and in German.  My father, defending his friend from the usual insults in a barroom, took on several men who held his arm against a red-hot stove until it burned the skin and flesh off.  I have always believed that he was unquestionably right to defend his friend, my teacher, who did not prey upon the innocent or corrupt the uncorrupted.  

We all have moral demons to grapple with, even the saints.  In my father’s case it was the curse of the Irish, which he successfully managed throughout his life, and arrogance, which he never mastered.  The private miseries of the joyless “Gay” are not my problem, and in a healthy society, which upheld positive ideals of the masculine and the feminine, homosexuals would always constitute a fringe element, as they did in the 1950’s, when they were confined not to their closets--that is the lie they tell now--but to their own social sphere.  A Christian moral dictator, if he were sensible, would not try to eliminate or persecute homosexuals, any more than he would try to eliminate gambling, prostitution, or fornication.  Restrictions to discourage vice are another matter, but Tacitus’ definition of a wise ruler is still a good one: “To know all, but not to follow up on everything.”

The “queer” (to use their own favorite term) we shall always have with us.  Living, as I have lived, in Charleston and San Francisco, I have numbered more than the usual amount of homosexuals among my teachers, work-mates, friends, and acquaintances.  Some were otherwise honorable people, like my French professor who once begged me to get him out of a bar before the young hustlers enticed him into a compromising situation.  Others were not.  I once taught in a classics department with an effeminate and obviously homosexual married colleague.  Because he was poorly trained and unbearably silly (giving papers on Catullan echoes in the song “Venus”), I avoided him, but I told my wife repeatedly that he would come to a bad end.  I did not know how bad.  He was ultimately convicted of molesting his son on two continents.  Some of his colleagues  defended him, arguing that he should retain his position in a society that takes college students abroad.  After all, they said, there is no evidence that he molested anyone outside his immediate family.  I wish I were making this up, but that is the state of the humanities in American universities today, where college teachers who die of AIDS have awards named in their honor.

Our problem, I repeat, is not with homosexuality per se or with homosexuals.  In nearly every known society, some number (often quite small) of human beings with a Y chromosome will fail, for one reason or another, to become fully men.  With some the failure takes the form of effeminacy and timidity, but in other cases males who are outwardly as tough and virile as an NFL quarterback will find other males, either some of the time or all of the time, sexually attractive.  

In some societies, passionate relationships between men are permitted, up to a point, though they are often circumscribed by ceremonies and restrictions.  These customs may become so complicated that it is difficult, even impossible to know to what extent actual sexual relations were permitted.  Among young Athenian males in the Fifth Century, for example, there was a fair amount of hanky-panky, though the ideal was stated more in terms of passionate friendship than of physical consummation.  But, whatever they did nor did not do with each other in their late teens, most Greek men expected to marry and beget children, and, if erotic art, love poetry, and ribald comedy are correct, men who cheated on their wives chased women more often than men.  

For the Athenians, heterosexuality was a mainstream and everyday necessity, while homosexual relations were occasional, restricted to youth and young manhood, and optional.  “Gayness,” as it is known today in America, that is a primary or exclusive orientation toward other men, was viewed as bizarre and unwholesome.  Such people would be warned not to attend meetings of the assembly (in other words, they lost their political rights) on pain of death.

Our problem is not even with the “gay rights” agenda promoted by homosexual organizations.  Most people would love to exploit their problems to secure special privileges.  In America today, lame people have rights, short people have rights, to say nothing of people who claim to be allergic to peanuts or perfume or a steady job.  As annoying as the whining of the privileged masses can be, it is no worse (considering the general collapse of civilization) than an annoyance.  

In the parallel case of the “women’s” movement, the problem with feminism has little to do with individual women trying to get better jobs or higher salaries they do not deserve, but with the feminist ideology that denies the reality of what they call “sexual identity” and the special roles that men and women are called upon the play.  Similarly, the problem with the movement to legislate “gay marriage” is not with the few homosexuals who foolishly want to take on the legal and economic burdens that the anti-Christian USA government imposes on married couples, but with the ideology of homosexualism, an ideology created and sustained by far more heterosexuals than homosexuals.

I have neither the interest nor the stomach to trace the history of the homosexualist ideology.  Part of it clearly derives from the Renaissance Hellenism, which was not merely a discovery of the Greek language and literature, but the deliberate use of ancient Greek culture as a weapon against the Church.  The Medici family, which supported the Neo-Platonist conspiracy against Christianity, nourished every vice, and it is no accident that the last of the ugly lot, so memorably described by Harold Acton, lay in bed all day in a drunken stupor, rousing himself only to observe the sexual antics of the ragamuffins he hired to enflame his imagination.  

The men of the Enlightenment were fornicators and adulterers but not, for the most part, homosexual.  Odd things went on at the Palais Royal, but still odder is Voltaire’s famous statement about sodomy: that once makes you a philosopher, twice makes you a pervert.  Why in the world would an act of sodomy constitute a philosophical act?  Precisely because a heterosexual finds it disgusting.  It breaks down an important barrier between the world of normal experience, restricted by categories of sex, age, status, and nationality, and the completely open world of undifferentiated individuals advocated by liberal intellectuals since the 18th century.  

Voltaire’s statement has to be read in a wider context.  Repellant acts are often a requirement in initiation rituals: Aspiring gangbangers may have to commit a murder, and initiates into the Hells Angels were given a particularly repulsive erotic (heterosexual) chore to perform.  The greatest of the philosophes, the Marquis de Sade, took the Enlightenment to the ultimate conclusion.  God did not exist; religion and morality were invented to repress mankind; therefore, rape, torture, and multi-sexual orgies were all part of a program for liberating the human spirit from the shackles of Christianity.  Like his disciples today, Sade opposed capital punishment and favored abortion--the opposite of the historic Christian position. For Sade as for liberals today, abortion and homosexualism are merely different aspects of the same campaign to destroy the connection between sex and procreation.  

Feminism is another, and women can only be fully liberated if they kill their children.  Some men, however timidly, continue to draw the line at eliminating their genetic future, but heterosexual American males who cannot have an abortion themselves and would not dream of encouraging a wife or daughter to kill a child can, nonetheless, take part in the Sadean revolution by breaking down the barrier between masculinity and femininity. I cannot be the only older man in America who finds most young men unbearably epicene.  Even the macho louts who pinch waitresses and harass women on the street pouf their hair, pour on perfume, and talk with a voice as drained of virility as any NPR announcer.

When was the last time you heard a young man’s voice on NPR.  (Bob Edwards was an old guy like me.)  When was the last time you saw a major film with a manly male under 50?  Who are the stars today?  Pick them at random: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Leonardo da Caprio, Elijah Wood.  Elijah Wood?.  What film genius decided to portray Frodo as a testosterone-deprived homosexual?  (No, I haven’t seen the movie.  There are a lot things I have not done and do not intend to do, and you probably do not want me so much as to name them.) None of these celluloid gentlemen is virile enough to qualify for the position of eunuch in a seraglio, but they, presumably, are inspiring the erotic dreams of the Wal-Mart clerks, Methodist pastorettes, and high school English teachers who go to movies.  

“Metrosexual,” for a while, was the codeword used to destigmatize and celebrate the effeminate and the epicene, and soft-voiced metrosexuals are everywhere displacing men, as in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.  They are everywhere on television, selling cars, wooing batchelorettes, pontificating on the political events they do not understood, posing as ministers of the Gospel.  

Most of the girlie boys on TV are not homosexuals, but they present a problem that is far worse.  Homosexuals, after a certain number of years, are what they are, and their choice (for most of them) is being gay or being celibate.  Of course, they were not predestined by their genes or childhood, but each of us is the sum total of experiences, our own and our ancestors’.  “I am a part of all that I have met,” declared Tennyson’s Ulysses, and if Ulysses were one of the nice guys on Queer Eye, he would have a hard time turning himself into Gary Cooper.

  But, the epicenes and Ganymedes are self-created out of fear.  Fear of conflict, fear of social disapproval, fear of women, fear of being men and fear of having to take the responsibility that men have to take.  

Perhaps their fathers never took them fishing or gave them a pair of boxing gloves.  Whatever the reason, whether it is out of fear or wilderness-deprivation, or--what is more likely--because they have willingly signed on to the Left’s Sadean agenda, the metrosexuals are promoting homosexualism in ways that no homosexual can.  My own conclusion is that we should leave the Gays alone to their own world and save our anger and disgust for the high-voiced, soft-palmed, hair-waved, non-judgmental, unthreatening unmale non-persons who will soon be putting the last remaining men onto tribal homelands.  

We might start with the girlie boys who bray so loudly for wars they will never fight in. Since so many of the “chicken-hawks” have never landed a bass or shot a duck or decked (or been decked by) an enemy, they might benefit from a treatment of shock-virility.  Perhaps some outdoorsmen from the North Woods could take them on a deer hunt, or they could go down to Florida and spend two weeks with one of the surviving Florida Crackers, learning to drive a truck, fish, and drink like a man. 

These fanciful suggestions, it goes without saying, would accomplish little, even if we could find some Brown graduate willing to make the experiment.  Human life is not a Hollywood morality play in which city slickers are taught to be tough by an old-fashioned rough-neck.  It is not the lack of physical virility that is the underlying problem—though it certainly is a problem—but the moral feebleness and spiritual emptiness that sends technically male and technically female young Americans to look for fulfillment on dating sites and get their thrills from commercial rituals and manufactured adventures at Disney World or its thousands of clones.  Short of conversion to an ancient religious tradition, tere is only one solution for their problem, and that is the solution that awaits us all, the just and the unjust, the male and the unmade.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

21 Responses

  1. Clif McGhar says:

    Interesting article, and I’m always sidetracked by something significant I never heard of while reading your articles: “…the Renaissance Hellenism, which was not merely a discovery of the Greek language and literature, but the deliberate use of ancient Greek culture as a weapon against the Church.” I of course had heard of the revival of Greek ideas, education flourishing during the Renaissance as Europeans engaged in again, but I never was taught to associate it as an attack, or antagonistic movement against the Church. I never catch up.
    Thank you Dr. Fleming.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I probably should make a number of things clear. Not all Renaissance Humanists were advancing an anti-Christian agenda. Petrarch, who more or less founded the movement, was a sincere and increasingly pious christian, as were, later, Erasmus and Thomas More and many others. However, by the time of the first Medici ruler in Florence (Cosimo the Old), some were cultivating a neo-platonism that was always threatening to turn into neo-paganism. The line from the Greek scholar George Gemistus Plethon to Marsilio Ficino and his patron Cosimo is clear, and, although the brilliant Pico della Mirandola eventually turned away from his pagan pursuits, it is precisely his very openly pagan “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” which has influenced later ages down to and including the conservative Russell Kirk, who praised it as an important conservative document.

  3. Dot says:

    Has anyone heard of Frederick Buechner? I had not until recently. He was a writer and pastor and recently passed away at the age of 96. I think he should be called America’s pastor.

  4. Clif McGhar says:

    Thank you for clarifying that Dr. Fleming

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Please confine off-topic questions and comments to the Forum. That is what it is for.

  6. Vince Cornell says:

    I was marveling about how little masculinity could be found in any of the Hollywood stars (well, in the males, at least) just the other day. I couldn’t think of a single modern actor that came across with even a tenth of the masculinity of someone like Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper or Ward Bond or even Jimmy Stewart. But, then, those men back in the day actually led men into battle or held actual jobs before becoming an actor or been in situations where they had to make serious decisions and live with the resulting consequences. Many if not most of them still wound up in a bad way, which, for a toxic occupation in a toxic culture, is not surprising, but what have the young actors of today done that even comes close to real living? Tom Cruise has never actually led anyone into battle and had people’s real lives resting on a decision he had to make under extreme pressure. People like Chris Pratt or Brad Pitt or the others have pretty much lived pampered lives and know little of anything that hasn’t come to them through the fake world of Hollywood or the bizarre jungle of social media.

    Hollow Men, indeed.

  7. JD Salyer says:

    If I recall rightly de Sade was locked in the Bastille almost up to the moment it fell. Supposedly he tried to rile up the mob outside by shouting down to them through his window that the guards were massacring the prisoners.

    If so, what a perfect emblem of the modern world, indeed: A manipulative, sociopathic pervert telling lies to drive the rabble into a frenzy of indignation.

  8. Harry Colin says:

    Our society, and the use of that word stretches credulity, is awash in fantasy of the cheapest kind. I think it substitutes for the adult, and specifically manly virtues. Recently, while scrolling through the piles of excrement that my cable system sends my way, In came upon a “football tournament;” not an actual series or real contests, but only a collection of squirrelly -looking nerds playing video football games. So what we have now is people watching others playing a video game. Even Poe nor Lovecraft could dream this up.

    A few years ago I read that Raymond Burr was asked by some legal association to speak at a banquet. He politely declined, saying in effect, “I’m not a real attorney, just an actor!” Alan Alda, however, a more accurate representation of our current crop of acting heroes, was eager to speak to a meeting of physicians to share the wisdom he acquired practicing his lines.

  9. Michael Strenk says:

    I have met some gentle souls among homosexuals, at least one of whom I am proud to call a friend, but I’m afraid that for every one such person that I have met, I have met ten who meet Mr. Salyer’s description of de Sade; vicious, violent, corrupting, opportunistic, perverse in every way possible. I have not even traveled in circles that one would consider to be the usual stalking grounds of such people. They do their worst work among normal people, priding themselves on their ability to corrupt. To wit, when I was about thirteen I was touring the nation’s capitol with my family. While my parents were engaged with a map, I was standing somewhat apart surveying the scene, looking at the place and people. My eyes happened to fall on a little man in a tweed sport coat when he suddenly looked at me, startled, as if I had been staring at him, inviting him. He proceeded to follow us for miles. I finally told my father who angrily told me that no one was following us, all the time the man was boring holes in me with his eyes. My father finally took notice and he managed to dupe him in the subway into thinking that we were going one way that required him to go through the turnstile and into the crowd while we filtered out another way through the crowd. Teenagers are often insecure in many ways, at least I was, and although I very much liked girls this demon looked at me as if he knew everything about me secret and hidden. He had obviously done this before and, no doubt set up the whole scene. He may have been following us long before our eyes met, waiting for the opportunity. It didn’t help that neither of my parents saw fit to ever mention the subject again, in fact my father seemed to be embarrassed that any son of his could attract the attention of such a creature. I understand that more children disappear without a trace in the greater D.C. area than anywhere else in the U.S., at least before the current border crisis.

    Another time, in my 20’s, I was sitting at the bar in a usual haunt, occasionally chatting with the barmaid, who was a friend, waiting to see who came in. A young man, seemingly normal, an Air Force vet (or so he said) sat down next to me and we got to talking politics. I had impoliticly suggested that the untimely demise of the then president (Clinton) would only do the country good. The conversation moved on and he started taking about his confusion about men and women stemming from experiences he had as a boy. I reassured him that he was not gay, that a lot of boys had similar experiences and to put it out of his mind, hoping to end the subject. He went on saying that he couldn’t and then, incongruously, saying that as a reserve officer he had a responsibility to turn me in for making threats against the president. Seeing where he was going with this I finished my drink, told him to go ahead and report me, waved to the barmaid and left. The whole society now seems to be organized around such real and manufactured kompromat.

    I could go on with at least a half dozen more such stories. I honor Dr. Fleming’s father for standing up for his friend and Dr. Fleming for protecting his professor. It is a very difficult subject. I avoid homosexuals where ever I can without being overtly rude. They have too much baggage and it is too boring constantly having to block their evil traps. Of course, as the society as a whole has degenerated, homosexuals have been encouraged to go ever further in their efforts for satisfaction, especially as society now seems to tolerate and even encourage their efforts to corrupt our young.

    I agree that too many young men these days give the impression of being up for any sort of companionship where ever their real proclivities lie and from chit chat on construction sites (of all places) among too many of them I’ve come to the conclusion that too often they are. We live in a opportunistic society. De Sade would be pleased.

  10. Allen Wilson says:

    I agree with Mr Strenk on this subject. His experiences have been very similar to mine, minus being stalked like that. Considering the character of Dr Fleming’s professor and that of his father’s friend, even though they may have been a cut above the average homosexual of their time, it could be that even among homosexuals, so many of whom were already so perverse and disgusting back then, there has been a degeneration over the decades, in line with the general degeneration of the population as a whole. As both the less and less normal men and the homosexuals degenerate, the eventual disappearance of the distinction between homosexual and normal would be a likely result. It’s enough to make one not want to bring children into the world, especially if they will be groomed in a government school you can’t keep them from being sent to.

  11. Vince Cornell says:

    While my personal experience with homosexuals is fairly limited (thinking back, I can only remember one young sailor on one of my ships that everyone knew about but nobody said anything, it being the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and I can’t remember having any issues with that sailor), I will say that the Lavender Mafia that has worked its way into the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy and is currently doing its best to destroy what remains of the Catholic Church . . . . there’s not a fire hot enough into which I’d cast those evil sodomites and protectors of sodomites. At least not in this world. When folks like Weakland are praised by folks like Martin, S.J., when folks like McCarrick wield so much influence, and folks like Mahoney and McElroy are honored, without any hint of shame . . . . it makes someone like me extremely sympathetic with the old practice of burning heretics at the stake.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Discussion seems to have gone got off the rails on the subject of homosexuality, which is only a tangential side issue.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    One reason I am not terribly interested in homosexuals is that qua members of their erotic minority they are lackeys of the regime that exploits them to divide Americans, as they exploit racial and religious minorities. There are many vicious things going on in this latest trans-gender phase of the sexual revolution, but one of them surely is to convert potentially strong independent people into dependents of the state, which depends on them for support. Herodotus and Aristotle, long ago in their depictions of tyranny, said clearly that the tyrant’s goal was always to protect the powerless–women, aliens, the poor, the ignoble–and to eliminate the competition offered by the competent, the noble-minded, the well-born, and those of independent means.

  14. Vince Cornell says:

    I just finished listening to Fr. Hugh Barbour’s talk on this topic from the 2019 Summer School (Men who are Friends). The level of manipulation being pushed on people who would otherwise grow up to be normal, functioning men and women is insidious but has only grown exponentially since 2019.

  15. Vince Cornell says:

    Sorry – I forget to mention . . . And Fr. Barbour’s talk is available for purchase in the Fleming Foundation store!

  16. Robert Reavis says:

    I don’t pretend to know who “they” really are who are pushing
    “to eliminate the competition offered by the competent, the noble-minded, the well-born, and those of independent means.”
    I have some pretty good ideas but regardless of getting into all of that, I must say from a lifetime of observations, a lot of prominent members of the old WASP culture ( like current prominent leaders of the Catholic culture) sure did their fair share of assisting in their own destruction.

  17. Dot says:

    Two speakers at a liberating faith service used gender identity before speaking. One. a male, identified himself by saying, “my pronouns are he and his or him”, the other a female proclaimed, “my pronouns are she and her”. So obviously they were straight. The ultra-left has infiltrated everywhere, and we have an election coming up. We must be the laughingstock of other countries.

  18. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should imagine that any organization that would sponsor something called a “liberating faith service “ would welcome trans-genders with open—at the very least —arms. As we used to say, you pays your money and you gets your choice.

  19. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming, the liberating organization used to be a church but recently dropped the church and now is called – – Community. I believe now that we no longer are a Christian nation, and it began in the 19th century with the women’s suffrage movement. See The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848 – 1917. I thought it started much later than that with the National Organization of Women.

  20. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Feminism probably goes back to the late 18th century, found an English guru in Mary Woolstonecroft, mistress of the philosopher Godwin and mother of Mary Shelley, and began its march through American institutions in the middle of the 19th century. Much of The Politics of Human Nature is a systematic refutation of feminist ideology, and some of the curious history of women’s liberation will be taken up in volume three of Properties of Blood. NOW etc was and is a trivial collection of losers and lesbians playing out a script they not bright enough to read.

  21. Dot says:

    I just ordered Properties of Blood.