Friday, January 20, 2012

My Reason Tells Me ...

The war between love and reason takes many forms. Psychologists divide their subjects into "thinkers" and "feelers". (Why does Psychology have a way of sounding SciFiesque?) Miss Austen writes about two sisters who embody untrammeled feeling (Marianne) and all-constraining rationality (Elinore). Mr. Bolt has his most reasonable of heroes throw reason out the window at the key moment of his trial. ("Finally, Meg, it's not a matter of reason—it's a matter of love.) Miss Sayers has her internally-conflicted heroine demand, in a moment of weakness, what people are supposed to do who "are cursed with both a heart and a head"? Mr. Chesterton has his Heart (Adam Wayne) and Head (Auberon Quinn) literally tear London to shreds in their struggle for primacy.

Of course, all those authors (with the possible exception of Robert Bolt) knew better than to suppose that love and reason are genuinely opposed—in fact, the very point made by Austen, Sayers, and Chesterton is that the imbalance or disunion of the two leads to tragedy. But the good sense of good novelists aside, the common perception today is that one must make a choice between the two qualities. One is either a thinker

or a feeler,

Now guess which one I identify with ...

just as "Every little boy and girl / That's born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative."

To which, and despite my strong ideological persuasion, firmly backed by Austen et al., I say, "Bunk!" The head and the heart, as all the wise once knew, were both in pursuit of the same goal. The head and the heart, or love and reason, both seek to know—the use of that one same word for their primary activity is telling—their object. Prudence seeks to choose methods for pursuing its object, justice seeks a right relation between its objects, mercy seeks to do good to its object,—the list of virtues goes on. But both love and reason seek the object itself for its own sake. They are not in conflict, much less at war; but there is perhaps a contest between the two, as there might be between two scientists from different disciplines looking for a solution to the same practical problem, or between two spies whose strengths lie in different skills. If life were a Western movie, it would look a lot like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and Reason would look like Jimmy Stewart while Love looked like John Wayne. (Yes, I know Stewart got the girl. Hollywood doesn't always make sense.)

But even this notion of "friendly competition" between love and reason seems to avoid the very real question that remains after the paradigm of conflict is rejected as an appropriate description of their relationship. If Reason and Love really are like two men in pursuit of one object—that would be the Good, not the girl—then the problem remains: which of them is more likely to win h—excuse me, It?

The winner can't be reason. Reason alone has, paradoxically, no reason to pursue anything. The desire for truth—the specific form of the good that is the natural goal of reason—is not in and of itself a reasonable thing. "All men by nature desire to know," says Aristotle; but if a man claims that he lacks that desire, you can't reason him into admitting that he has it.

By a similar process of reasoning, it is clear that (for now, anyway) the winner can't be love. The desire for the good, be it truth, or God, or a job, or a pretty girl, is based on an apprehension of the thing desired as a good. In some cases, that apprehension is immediate; but in most cases, some process of reasoning is necessary in order for the desire to really take root. Reason helps to give love definition; reason explains our desire for the good—does not explain our desire away, or remove the mystery of the good, but explains that part of our insufficiency which leads us to desire the good. At the very least, the pursuit of the good apprehended requires a prudential exercise of reason.

And yet ... and yet ... "If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, ... and if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

It seems that in heaven a definite order between reason and love, or knowledge and charity, exists; an order in which to have reason without love is to have ... nothing; in fact, an order in which to have reason without charity is to be—nothing. Reason does not walk the streets of heaven; but this is not because of the deficiency of reason, but because of the divinity of love. Finally, it's not a matter of reason—reason will have to do for the time, for here and for now—but finally, nothing can be a matter of reason.

On earth we have been given many things that are intended to help us find our way back home. Faith and hope are supernatural helps towards keeping on that way; reason is a natural help. But faith, hope, and reason are all means of keeping in touch with the invisible. Faith says, "I know God exists, though I have not seen Him;" hope, "I know God is good, though I am not yet saved." Reason says, more laboriously, "I know God exists, and that he is good, though I can't tell you much else about him." Faith and hope famously are said to become useless in heaven; likewise reason. If you have never been to England, you rely on argument and authority to know that it is, and what it is like. Once you are in England, there is no more need for argument: you see the hills, touch the soil, breath the air. Once you have seen God "face to face," there is no more need for argument either—no, not even the possibility of argument. The Good is apprehended directly, and the soul knows and is known by way of love.


  1. Three words: Protestant intellectual tradition.

    I really think that reason got a bad rap in G.B. in part because for a few centuries it was made to uphold some slightly odd beliefs and pretty petty conventions.

    Remember in Paradise Lost, Milton essentially claims that the first sin was lust? Consider also the strictures against women in English society from Cromwell through Victoria. (I'm not saying woman's role as conceived now is correct, just that they had an opposed problem then...)

    It seems to me that "What One Is Reasonably Supposed To Do" would often come into conflict with proper expressions of love.

    Add to this the relatively stoic character of northern Europeans. They are by nature less inclined to overt expressions or accessions of love.

    In fact, you are of course quite right that there oughtn't be a conflict here, and in the Catholic tradition I think you don't see this issue as much.

  2. Mm. Yes, you have a point about PIT. The only thing I'd say, is that while many Protestant theologians didn't quite get the relation between reason and feeling right, that was not (I think) the fault of Protestantism so much as it was the fault of the age, and one of Protestantism's causes.

    As for the Victorians ... ! The funny thing is that they were both horribly uncomfortable with emotions, and almost unbelievably sentimental in their literature--with the result that their lovingest characters (Dickens' Little Nell is the classic example) tend to be crashing bores. But then--divorce love from reason, and reason goes crazy and love goes cold.

    I think the classic example of the UNITY of love and reason in the Catholic tradition, incidentally, is Thomas Aquinas. One of the most brilliant reasons ever ... who takes a chunk of of his great book ... to prove that love is the greatest thing in heaven and on earth.

  3. Yes, St. Thomas (whose feast is tomorrow!) certainly came to mind as did Dante.