The Heart and the Head

by Chris Canniff


Philosophers, poets, and priests are each great sources of wisdom because each one lives out a calling to understand the human person more deeply.  They do this in unique ways, but they ultimately reflect on the same enigma, one that lies at the core of the mystery of human existence: what is the relationship between our will and our intellect, our heart and our head?

Saint Augustine was a passionate philosopher.  Dante Alighieri was a magnificent poet.  Pope Benedict XVI is a humble and wise priest.  Each one gives us something to reflect on.


St. Augustine: “I should love and seek and win and hold and embrace not this or that philosophical school but Wisdom itself, whatever that might be.”


In medieval artwork, Augustine was almost always depicted holding a burning heart in one hand and an open book in the other.  In him, we see that great synthesis of the powers of the heart and the head.  In this quote of his, we see how he brings the two together.  The object of his life is Wisdom.  He knows that the first step in coming towards it, though, is not an intellectual exercise but a foundation of love for this object.  Then can he seek and win and hold and embrace it.


We also note that his object is something more real and more concrete than a passing ideology.  He pursues Wisdom itself.  In the end, he concludes that this truth, which he loves and which he has now found by the added means of his intellect, is a person.  It is the God of Jesus Christ.


Dante Alighieri: “All sweetness, all humble thought / are born in the heart of him who hears her speak, / and he who first saw her is blessed. / How she looks when she smiles a little, / can not be spoken of or held in mind, / she is so rare a miracle and gentle.”


It is a beautiful thing to have a person in your life whom you love enough that their happiness is yours, that just the thought of their face with a smile on it brings a smile to your face, even if you are not with them.  An encounter with beauty, like Dante’s encounter with Beatrice, strikes the heart in ways that the mind, the head, struggles to comprehend.  On the level of the heart, a level deeper than the intellect, one can intuit something about that mysterious quintessence of the beloved that moves the lover and draws them in.


Dante saw Beatrice as no one else did.  He was a poet who had a mystical insight into the reality of who his beloved truly was.  He only saw her in this way, but he believed all those wonderful things to be true of all people.  Love for one person expands our outlook so that we may better love all people.


Pope Benedict XVI: “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person.”


This incisive line from Benedict cuts to the very center of our inquiry.  He speaks plainly of the heart, and when he speaks of the mind, he means what we mean by the head.  And so, his message about the two is quite clear.  They must be united, and the calling of each human being is to walk that path toward their union.


The heart seeks love, and the head seeks truth.  The drama of life is the struggle to find each.  The joy of life is to have found both.

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