Volume > Issue > Hard Heart, Soft Heart, or True Heart?

Hard Heart, Soft Heart, or True Heart?


By Mitchell Kalpakgian | March 2000
Mitchell Kalpakgian is Professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa.

Where human feeling is concerned, the end of the 20th century is an age of extremes, with no reliable middle. We have heartlessness and we have sentimentality, with a void in between. We see all around us hard hearts and soft hearts. But where can one find — and how can one develop — a heart that is simply and truly human?

The crying need for a human heart is shown by one startling fact: Hardheartedness and softheartedness, working in strange tandem, have the same grotesque consequences. Hard hearts condemn infants to death by abortion and partial-birth abortion, and even argue for legalized neonaticide; soft hearts whimper about a woman’s “right to choose.” Hard hearts see no reason not to dispose of the old and the ill; soft hearts offer such people the gentle gift of “euthanasia.” Soft hearts are sure that kids “are going to have sex anyway” and kindly yearn to make it “safe”; hard hearts indoctrinate innocent schoolchildren into loveless contraceptive sex and perfunctory abortion. Soft hearts support no-fault divorce to resolve troubled marriages; hard hearts assert that a mere “lifestyle change” has no lasting trauma on children, women, or society as a whole. Soft hearts want population control by way of sterilization and abortion so that we will not endanger this or that species or forest; hard hearts want it so that the earth will not have too many people of the wrong kind or color.

The callousness of the hardhearted and the sentimentality of the softhearted both lead to what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man” in his famous book by that title. To think without feeling results in what Lewis calls “cerebral man,” a man who is mere spirit without a heart or chest; to feel without thinking results in what Lewis calls “visceral man,” a man who is guided by mere instinct or appetite rather than by right reason or moral sentiments. The hardhearted and the softhearted both function, Lewis explains, as “men without chests” and act devoid of an essential part of their humanity: “The head rules the belly through the chest, the seat…of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” Without the “chest,” that is, the heart mediating between cerebral man and visceral man, human beings treat one another as objects or like animals. They lose their discernment of those moral sentiments which originate in the “chest,” the source of magnanimity. The preborn become “fetal tissue,” the elderly become useless, unproductive burdens, the opposite sex becomes an object for pleasure. Without a human heart and the moral sentiments that spring from it, man loses his unity, balance, and integrity. “The Chest — Magnanimity,” says Lewis, “these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man.”

A vivid example of cerebral man is the character of Bitzer in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. In the novel a desperate father begs a favor from a former pupil, a favor that would allow his son to escape from a cruel prison sentence and begin a new life in a foreign country. The father urges his former pupil, Bitzer, to search his heart, to remember his indebtedness to his former schoolmaster, and to be influenced by the deepest sentiments that bond human beings: “‘Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down and miserably submissive to him, ‘Have you a heart?'” Bitzer replies: “The circulation, sir,…couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of blood can doubt that I have a heart.” When Mr. Gradgrind pleads with Bitzer to show mercy and have pity, Bitzer admonishes him in utilitarian terms: “what you must always appeal to is a person’s self-interest. It’s your only hold.” When Gradgrind appeals to the fond memories master and pupil share of the Gradgrind Academy, Bitzer’s harsh rejoinder is devoid of all sentiment: “My schooling was paid for — it was a bargain, and when I came away, the bargain ended.” Thus Dickens portrays the hardheartedness that elevates self-interest above pity, compassion, and friendship. Bitzer’s coldness is incapable of being moved, touched, or melted by any obligations of loyalty, thankfulness, or kindness; he is the “cerebral man” described by Lewis as destitute of “fertile and generous emotion.”

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