Build on Sand: Moral Law in Rousseau’s Second Discourse

Eve Grace, “Build on Sand: Moral Law in Rousseau’s Second Discourse” in The Challenge of Rousseau, edited by Eve Grace and Christopher Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Rousseau is no moralist.

It is, to be sure, in the name of virtue that Rousseau first indicted the dangerous dreams of a Hobbes and a Spinoza (FD, 20). There is no doubt that he condemns civilization outright as an inexorable march toward corruption and misery, or that he invokes, and continues to evoke, moral fervor, exciting indignation at the rapacity of the powerful and abuse of the weak. So forceful is his denunciation of these ills that love of justice is often taken to be the core of his thought, and moral order the essence of the benign Nature he hymns. Indeed, Rousseau himself very much seems to indict the Enlightenment in the name of the conscience, that inner voice of a natural moral law that is the only foundation for “true philosophy”; he seems, then, to present natural law as the polestar by which to guide our otherwise aimless reason (FD, 20, 22; E, 448–52; J, 183–4; SD, 27). What Rousseau finally means by “true philosophy” remains a difficult question; yet it is one that may not be felt as the challenge it is, so long as his account of the conscience is understood to be a matter of subjective feeling rather than careful philosophical analysis. The following, then, is an attempt to reopen that question by endeavoring to show that for Rousseau, the existence of natural law is not a self-evident fact, but rather a critical problem that he is inviting us to explore.