BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (52) – What about the heart?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have talked of many things about man, but we have not spoken a word about the “heart.” The term is so bound up to human nature that a “heartless person” might hardly be considered human. Sacred Scripture mentions it more than a thousand times. Yet it is not found among the faculties/powers/potencies (senses, appetites, intellect, will) that St Thomas speaks about. The reason for this is that the term “heart” is analogical. It is used to different realities with the common meaning of something in the depth of man’s being. Let us take up these different meanings.

The heart represents the whole range of human emotions: love and hate (cf Tobit 4:13); joy (cf Deuteronomy 28:47 ; 1 Samuel 2:1 ; Proverbs 15:13,15; Psalms 13:5); pain and sorrow (cf Psalms 13:2; Proverbs 15:15, John 16:6); fear (cf John 14:1); ambition (cf James 3:14); anger (cf I Maccabees 2:24); hope (cf Ecclesiasticus / Sirach 14:2); discouragement (cf Joshua 2:11); or courage (cf II Maccabees 1:3).

But that’s not all: the heart does not only refer to our emotions. The heart can also represent the intellect. “The heart not only feels, it knows and understands…. Our Lord reproaches the scribes: ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’ (Matthew 9:4)”  (St Josemaría, Christ is Passing By, 164)

In addition, the heart can also represent the person’s will that “directs its whole being, soul and body, to what it considers its good” (Christ is Passing By, 164) and determines the choices that he makes: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).

It can also represent the whole person. “When we speak of a person’s heart,” St Josemaría says, “we refer not just to his sentiments, but to the whole person in his loving dealings with others. In order to help us understand divine things, Scripture uses the expression ‘heart’ in its full human meaning, as the summary and source, expression and ultimate basis, of one’s thoughts, words and actions. A man is worth what his heart is worth….” (Christ is Passing By, 164)

The term “heart” also refers to the conscience, “in the biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church,  368).

But what do we mean by “conscience”? Is it a feeling? No, it’s not.

To understand what conscience is, we need to go back to the three operations of the intellect: (1) simple apprehension, (2) judgment and (3) reasoning (see “Bite-size Philosophy” no 7). Conscience is the act of the intellect when it judges whether an action is good or bad. We know that the second operation of the intellect (judgment) leads us to affirm or deny something of another thing, e.g., “The cat is black” (affirming), or “The cat is not white” (denying). When that act of affirming or denying concerns the goodness or evil of an action, then it is called “conscience.” For example, when I tell myself, “I am telling the truth,” or “I am not doing what I am supposed to be doing right now,” or “I am taking something that belongs to somebody without his permission” (stealing), and so on, my conscience is at work. These judgments are acts of my conscience.

Just as one can be misinformed or can misjudge, one can also have a mistaken conscience because of ignorance or error. Just in the same way that the intellect has to be formed and educated, the conscience also needs to be formed and educated.

FEATURED IMAGE: Goh Rhy Yan at Unsplash

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