The Heart Has Its Reasons That Reason Does Not Know

The reason of the heart is instinctive recognition of truth, goodness and beauty.

Unknown, “Blaise Pascal,” ca. 1690
Unknown, “Blaise Pascal,” ca. 1690 (photo: Shutterstock)

There is a famous phrase from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées that often gets taken out of context and used to promote sentimentalism and the supremacy of the emotions, but Pascal’s original point is one of profound philosophical and theological truth.

The work as a whole was never finished by Pascal, who died when he was only 39 years old, already having made discoveries and contributions in the fields of mathematics and physics. The unit for pressure is named after him. The Pensées are the notes he made for a book of apologetics in an age that deified rationality and began to look at humans as little more than complicated machines.

The famous statement is this: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

It is easy to see how this remark can be used to assert the futility of reason and the reliability of the emotions or to argue that the heart rules over the head. “Just follow your heart” might be a modern rephrasing of the way Pascal’s statement is often used.

They key for understanding the true meaning can be found in the immediate context. A couple of sentences later, Pascal writes, “I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being.” What is the reason of the heart? The instinctive recognition of truth, goodness and beauty.

Far from being mere sentimentalism, this is a statement about the very nature of the human person and what we were made for. The heart is not merely the emotions. Instead, it is the center of the person, more like the will than the passions. The heart is the core of the human. 

That central, unifying capacity of man, by its nature, is attracted to “Universal Being” — i.e., God. Our built-in love for God is not a conclusion at the end of an argument or even an idea that is presented to the mind, but a perpetual and unavoidable attraction to Goodness, Truth and Beauty, all of which are only various ways of referring to God himself, Universal Being.

St. Augustine said, “My weight is my love.” He is pulled toward what he loves. Pascal is saying the same thing.

The intellectual reason does not know this reason of the heart because this attraction is not a function of the mind. We know truth with the mind. We love the truth with the center of our being, what Pascal calls the heart. 

When the philosopher Edith Stein spent a holiday at a friend’s house, she pulled a book off the shelf, spent a whole night reading it, and was convinced of the truth of Catholicism when she put it down. The book she read was St. Teresa of Ávila’s autobiography, and when she finished reading it, she said to herself, “This is the truth.” Edith Stein became a Carmelite nun and was killed in a concentration camp because of her Jewish heritage. She is now known as St. Teresa Benedicta. Her recognition of the truth was a reason of the heart. She instinctively, by her love for Universal Being, knew the truth by its beauty in the life of St. Teresa of Ávila.

The reasons of the heart and intellectual reason are not mutually exclusive. Both should work in harmony. Both should refine each other. As each one grows, both should be more attuned to recognizing truth, goodness and beauty. 

The philosophical point here is that all humans desire what is good. The will is naturally moved to what it perceives to be good. That is the basis of all ethics. The challenge for philosophers, of course, is to discover what is the highest good. In Thomistic philosophy, the good and being are the same thing. For created things, to exist fully is good. It is best for a thing that it be completely and perfectly what it is as God created it to be. St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” 

Our Catholic faith instructs us that the Summum Bonum (Highest Good) is nothing less than God. Nothing is better, then, than Universal Being, God himself — not just another thing, but the very Act of Existingness. This is what the heart, if it can recognize it, is inexorably attracted to.

This does not mean that the heart is infallible. The heart must be formed, just as the mind must be formed, and the two work together. Jesus told us that if we are obedient to the Father, then we will be able to recognize true doctrine (John 7:17). I think Jesus meant a “heart-reason” recognition where a good person hears the truth and says immediately, “Yes, of course. That simply must be true.” Christopher Sevier wrote, “What we love says a lot about our character.”

The heart has its reasons, and those reasons are no mere whim of the passions or sentimental reaction. It is the attraction of a person’s core to the good, the true and the beautiful, as far as it can be discerned by that heart, because we were made for God.