The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing

Douglas P. McManaman
November 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart. Helen Keller

One of the most famous of Pascal's Thoughts is the first line of #423 (Lafuma edition): "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing". It is a line that does not impress unbelievers; to them, it is entirely non-falsifiable, a cowardly shield erected against all possible criticism. Believers, on the other hand, appreciate it almost immediately.

Is there any way to render an account of such a principle? I believe there is; what follows is an attempt to do so.

The first point I would like to lay down is that it is the human person who understands, not the intellect (I know by means of the intellect). Moreover, the human person has not just a mind, but a mind, a heart, and a network of emotions. Thus, it is not my mind that knows and my heart that loves, rather, it is the person who knows and loves by means of the two powers of the intellect and the will (heart). This is what I really mean when, for the sake of convenience, I employ expressions such as "the mind knows" or "the heart loves", etc.

Reasoning is the third act of the intellect. It presupposes judgments (i.e., John is a man, or that cat exists, etc.), and judgments presuppose the simple apprehension of universal ideas (i.e., man, rational, risibility, being, identity, otherness, etc.). Reasoning is both deductive and inductive; it draws out necessary conclusions from given premises (i.e., All men are rational; John is a man; therefore, it follows necessarily that John is rational), and it infers probable conclusions that are larger than what is contained in the premises (i.e., 25% of the fruit I have purchased in the last few months from this grocery store was rotten; therefore, 25% of all the fruit in this grocery store is rotten).

There is more to reasoning than this, of course; but it should be evident at this point that reasoning is not the only way the mind comes to know. For example, first principles, such as the principle of identity or non-contradiction, are not the result of reasoning, because reasoning requires these principles in order to draw conclusions. I know immediately, intuitively, that "each being is what it is" (the principle of identity), and unless it is true that "each being is what it is", I cannot reason to any conclusion. Thus, reason does not prove the first principles; it requires them in order to prove anything at all.

Hence, there is a mode of knowing that is "other than" reasoning per se . Pascal seems to refer to this mode of knowing as "heart knowledge". He writes: "It is just as pointless and absurd for reason to demand proof of first principles from the heart before agreeing to accept them as it would be absurd for the heart to demand an intuition of all the propositions demonstrated by reason before agreeing to accept them" (#110, Lafuma).

But I would like to move in another direction, and so what follows is not an interpretation of Pascal, but an exploration of the claim using Pascal as a springboard. It seems to me that there are certain natural behaviors that are beyond the capacity of "the reasoning intellect" considered in itself, behaviors that almost everyone understands because they understand with more than their "reason" considered in itself. For example, consider the person who, upon seeing his baby niece or nephew, gets down on all fours and begins babbling in front of him/her like a baby, making funny faces, or playing peek a boo, etc. From a purely rational point of view, he's acting like an "idiot". However, love does such things; love moves a person to act like a bumbling "idiot", and this behavior is a region that reason on its own, without the heart's lead, would not venture into; for there is nothing by which it could be led to do such things.

Now if "love does those things", it must mean that it sees something that the "reasoning intellect" by itself does not quite see. It is this "seeing" that I would like to explore more fully. There are other human behaviours, however, that I believe fall into this category of acts that seem to exceed the reach of "reasoning" considered in itself. I believe forgiveness, in particular forgiveness of a brutal crime that has left a wound that cannot be healed, is a behavior that the reasoning intellect by itself will not and cannot venture into. Try to persuade someone of the "reasonableness" of forgiveness, someone who, for example, is convinced that forgiveness dishonors those who were murdered (or unforgiveness honors them). Why should that person forgive the one who murdered his loved one? What he did cannot be undone, and many others are made to live with the painful wounds left by his brutality, for these are wounds that time does not heal.

When I talk with students about forgiveness, I find myself trying to persuade them of the "reasonableness" of doing so by pointing to the health benefits of the act of forgiveness, that harboring unforgiveness inevitably leads to intestinal disease of one kind or another, etc. Essentially I am arguing that you ought to forgive "for your sake" (the sake of your own health).

But how do I argue for the "reasonableness" of forgiveness not for your sake, but for the sake of the perpetrator? The latter kind of forgiveness, purely gratuitous forgiveness, is sheer gift. There is nothing he has done or can do to deserve it. The more I am forced to think of it, the more I tend to believe that this gratuitous forgiveness - for his sake and his sake alone - is a region that is outside the scope of the reasoning intellect considered in itself. Reason by itself, without the heart in lead position, cannot find a "reason" for doing so, and so forgiveness appears reckless to the rationalist who puts "the reasoning intellect" in lead position. There are many reasons that one can put forth in favor of forgiveness that refer back to the self, possibly the common good of the community, but purely gratuitous mercy offered for his sake and his alone is a region into which only the heart can take a person. In other words, love does such things.

When the heart takes a person there, his reasoning mind is taken there too - led into the fog, so to speak. The mind of such a man comes to "know" what exceeds the capacity of his reasoning, but only when he is brought into this region by the heart. Prior to this point, the heart sees (has its reasons) what reason considered in itself cannot see, and only after this point is the intellect exposed to a new realm in which are found "the best and most beautiful things in the world", one of which is gratuitous mercy and forgiveness.

Another behavior that I believe falls into this category is trust. Indeed, the reasoning mind can provide "reasons" to trust others, like the doctor or the pharmacist, the mechanic, or the teacher, but the reasons refer back to the self: i.e., I need to trust my doctor, pharmacist, mechanic and teacher, etc., because my knowledge is limited and I couldn't live without such trust, i.e., I wouldn't drive, I wouldn't learn anything, and I'd be perpetually sick, etc. But trusting that another has received my love, which I offer to that person for that person's sake, and who says she loves me in return for my sake, is something else entirely. My intellect is limited, it is in the dark in the face of the mystery of love, and it is the heart that leads it into this dark region. Reasoning cannot take the lead here, unless we are talking about self-love, that is, loving another for what that person does for me; for such love is "calculating" and thus rational. But think of marital love, a genuinely selfless love that chooses to entrust one's entire self to the other for the rest of one's life. Such love is risky, and it can only rest on trusting the other, that he or she will continue to receive my love, and vice versa. The reasoning intellect by itself cannot take a person into that territory; it is love that does such things

It is a very interesting experience teaching the fundamentals of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation to a group of students that includes many non-Catholics, such as Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, the doctrine itself is an article of faith and thus transcends the entire range of human knowing (i.e., purely natural intuition as well as reasoning), but a Christian is able to make some sense out of it, and what enables him or her to do so is "the heart", because God is love, and love does such things, like the adult who babbles like a baby and makes funny faces for a baby who has not reached the age of reason and does not understand. Trying to explain the Trinity and the Incarnation on a purely rational level, to those who have not chosen to believe it, often leaves them unmoved, for it inevitably comes across to them as bizarre.

So how does it work that the heart sees what the reasoning mind does not see? Perhaps it works like this: initially, the mind knows the other as another self. I know the other is basically good and naturally wills his own good, as I naturally will my own good. It is now up to me whether or not I choose to will his good as I will my own, and if I do so, it is now up to me to decide how intense will be that love for him. The reasoning intellect has no place here; rather, it is the intuitive mind that is at work here. I am alone with myself, and I see preconsciously but intuitively what kind of person I can be, and so I choose what kind of person I am going to be. I see, again preconsciously and intuitively, that "the good" is larger than this individual instance of the good that is me--you are basically good and will your own good, and so does he, and she, etc. I can be the kind of person who utters a silent 'yes' to that fact, or the kind of person who utters a silent 'no' to it. In other words, I can make myself the exclusive center of my own existence. When I do so, the reasoning or calculating intellect is free to take the lead in all matters. But when I refuse to do so - because I have uttered a silent 'yes' to the good as such (not merely my own private good), thus willing to see myself as one good among many - , I dispose myself to enter realms that are risky, realms where only the heart can take a person.

That silent 'yes' uttered preconsciously is a 'yes' to God, who is Goodness Itself, and that silent 'yes' will be the groundwork from which all subsequent acts of mine will spring and receive their life. Those acts that "the heart does" are easily recognized as extensions of that initial 'yes'.

An intellect that demands an account from the heart before it follows the heart into these new and strange territories will never get it from the heart, because the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Indeed, it is the mind that knows, not the heart (will), but it is the heart that moves the person into a territory that is dark to the reasoning intellect. In the beginning, it is the mind, aware of the movement of the heart that loves gratuitously, that sees something, sees the other as another self and the heart freely chooses to will the best for the other as it naturally wills the best for itself.

The reasoning intellect ought to take the lead insofar as it exhorts the heart against violating reason - for love is not below reason - , but when "reasoning" is in lead position in all matters, it limits the heart to what is knowable via the reasoning mind alone. But it is the heart that decides otherwise, that is, decides to break away from the narrow strictures of reasoning and to venture into a region that is risky and rather dark to the mind at first, for it is a heart that knows its size, its littleness, a heart that refuses to make the self "all there is", for it is a heart that says 'yes' to the ever expanding grandeur of the reality.