affectivity feelings

And How is Your Heart?

11:50:00 AMAnna Smith


I have a dear friend who is known for slipping an unusual, disarming question into ordinary catch-up chatter. After we’ve exchanged the usual small talk pleasantries and sugared and creamed our coffee, she locks her intense blue eyes on mine and casts her line into the depths. “How is your heart?”  The first few times she asked this question I squirmed and dodged her gaze. Did she want a health report, a barometer read of my fluctuating daily mood, or was she asking for something deeper? As our friendship grew, I realized that she genuinely wants to know about the 
movements of my heart because she believes that they have real value. I began to realize that there is something within me that she believes mattered immensely, something that I had belittled, diminished, and felt a vague sense of shame about, namely, my heart.  

The complexity, mystery, and lack of total control we have over our hearts can tempt many to dismiss their value. It is easy to deny intellectually what we know intuitively: that it would be as impossible to live without affectivity as it would be to live without a physical heart. In The Heart, Dietrich Von Hildebrand argues that the heart is the “real self” of the person, able to express the depths of his personality in a way that the intellect and will cannot. Unfortunately, so many of us have become habitual doubters of our heart. We are taught alternately to discount our feelings, glorify them, or regard them as neutral, until we hang our spinning heads and decide that it may be simpler, more prudent, and even more moral to ignore our hearts. We wonder if there is actually any valid meaning to draw out of the maelstrom of emotions and movements that toss our hearts about?




Perhaps the conundrum of the heart has subconsciously daunted philosophers; because, although it dominates many of our experiences, the heart defies complete analysis and control. Perhaps their inability to dissect the heart prompted philosophers to leave its exploration to the poets and turn their their energies toward the more cut-and-dry study of intellect and will. Fortunately for us, one philosopher gave deep consideration to man’s heart, defining it as the “root of all affectivity” and recognizing it as the “core of [man’s] sphere.” According to Hildebrand, the heart is either ignored or misunderstood because of the fatal assumption that all feelings of the heart have the same objective value. He argues that, just as there are distinctions in the quality, rank, and structure of thoughts and ideas, there are also such distinctions and gradations in movements of the heart. We use “feelings” to describe experiences as distant from each other as an exclusively bodily experience, i.e., a toothache, to momentous emotions, such as the grief felt at the death of a loved one. It is essential to understand the degree and differences in value among affective experiences in order to avoid the natural tendency to either overvalue or undervalue feelings. If we ignore these differences we run the risk of confusing genuine affective responses. We may take lust for love or compassion for sentimentalism and respond by stifling the fullest, healthiest affections of our hearts.

In Hildebrand’s philosophy, bodily feelings, such as physical pain or pleasure, and psychic feelings such as cheerfulness or depression differ in quality from “affective responses,” which are the highest expressions of the heart. Physical and psychic feelings are induced by physical or psychic causes and spring from a variety of factors. For example, a state of sadness or giddiness can come and go as a result of the weather, drinking, or the neglect of a friend. These non-intentional feelings, or passions, come upon us without our volition and pass when their causes do. They are dangerous if we attribute a rationality or validity to them that they do not possess. Thus, there is danger in blindly heeding the modern cultural command to “follow our hearts.”

According to Hildebrand, true affective responses are always rational because they imply a “meaningful conscious relation to an object.” In genuine affective responses, there are gradations in intensity, including the highest expressions of affectivity in which we do legitimately “lose ourselves.” Therein lies the power of the heart. Although a true affective response will never contradict our reason, it may go beyond our rational understanding and wildly exceed our intellectual expectations. There are objects, people, or experiences whose dignity is so great and beauty so exquisite that they demand such powerful responses. Deep grief, profound peace, and ecstatic joy can be perfectly fitting responses to truly objectively valuable moments that demand such reactions. Shaken, stirred, and overflowing, we “abandon the comfortable situation in which reason sovereignly oversees everything and in which his will is able to calculate coolly what he should decide.” Jesus, weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, is a perfect image of this.


Hildebrand’s analysis of affections is refreshing and relieving. Hildebrand, the champion of the human heart, defends its dignity and its affections. It is good to confirm that the deepest part of our being, the part that experiences and contributes to so much of our joy, sorrow, confusion, and fear, is valuable and capable of expressing truth. Like just about anything else in this world, we may fear or misuse its powers because we misunderstand it. To understand and to live out a true understanding of the heart is, I would venture to guess, the endeavor of a lifetime. But along the way it is good to stop and reflect on the state of the flame within is. It is good to ask: How is your heart?
Source: von Hildebrand, Dietrich. “Non-Spiritual and Spiritual Affectivity,” “The Heart as the Real Self.” The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. South Bend: St. Augustine Press. 2007. 20-40, 67-71. Print.


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