You are not worth more than an oyster …

Researching several dicta of Marquis de Sade I came across this one:

“The life of the most sublime of men is to nature not of greater importance than that of an oyster.”

This dictum only appears in the third version of Justine (1797), a version which has not been translated into English, the translation above is mine.

Stillleben mit Austern und Zitrone (1881) by Josef Lauer

The dictum, I found out afterwards, resembles a dictum by the British philosopher David Hume, who wrote in his work “On Suicide” (1777):

“the life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster”.

The only difference is that Sade added the notion ‘sublime’ to the statement, making the extra point that even outstanding men are not worth more than an oyster. It seems that the likeness between the two dicta is too great to be coincidental.

I have not been able to find out whether Sade actually read Hume. The text by Hume precedes that of Sade by 20 years, so technically he would have the had time and the opportunity, but in fact, I’m not even sure Sade read English. I know that he had read The Monk and other gothic novels, but possibly he read them in a translation.

I went looking for paintings of oysters that could illustrate this post and found two.

One by Manet. One by a certain Josef Lauer. The Lauer one is very fleshy and sexual. The one by Manet is less fleshy and less lively, but more more stylized, in fact, an incredible painting.

Oysters (1862) by Manet