The Head and the Heart

A reading group I’m in recently read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.   It was great fun, and in thinking about the book, it occurred to me that one way to consider Palahniuk’s message was in terms of the Head versus the Heart.  The narrator of the book, the Ed Norton character in the movie, is all ‘Head’ following the rules, very practical, living life according to the popular formula for success.  And his life is passionless, boring, and lacks meaning for him.  Then Tyler Durden – the Brad Pitt character – comes into his life, spouting aphorisms of freedom, passion, rebellion,  and ‘Heart.’   The rest of the book CAN be understood as a battle between Head and Heart – reason and common sense and conformity to social values vs unrestrained freedom, spontaneity, and passion.  There are of course many ways to read and interpret this very clever and creative book, but this is one. More of my thoughts on Fight Club at bob’s books.

It also occurred to me that “Head vs Heart” can also be a construct for thinking about how we interact with our own world.  Head = dispassionate reason and logic, the practicalities of taking care of business, meeting obligations to others and society.  Heart = emotion, passion, capacity for joy, love, and sadness, for fulfillment in life, as well as existential angst and unhappiness.  Most of us are consciously or unconsciously seeking equilibrium between the two:  What is that equilibrium?  I think it is different for each of us, and different at different points in our lives.  Life and experience give us a better idea of our own personal ‘sweet-spot,’ but it is elusive.   And we must beware of becoming too comfortable if/when we think we’ve found our ‘sweet spot.’  A ‘disaster’ is always right around the corner. 

Particularly be careful of too much practicality, too much comfort and routine  – too much Head – in one’s life.  The ‘Heart’ is lying in ambush.

And when we are very angry, or depressed, or when we fall in love (or infatuation) our ‘Head’ is disempowered and its voice is weak and ineffective against the ‘logic’ of the Heart.

Have you ever fallen ‘in love’ with someone who you KNEW was not the right person, or ‘a good idea?’ And noticed how ineffective the Head is in talking you out of those stars in your eyes?

 “The Heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.” (Jacques Benigne Bossuel)

I  think that one of Palahniuk’s key messages in Fight Club is the danger of imbalance, the danger of sliding toward an extreme on either end of the Head-Heart spectrum.  The Ed Norton character represents the modern extreme of conformity to social norms; Brad Pitt and Tyler Durden the extremes of passion and rebellion.   A more nuanced view of too much ‘Head’ can be found in Remains of the Day – the excessive worship of professional competence and achievement,  about which I wrote earlier in this blog.   This Head-Heart dichotomy has been a theme of philosophy and literature for millennia.

The Greeks and Romans insisted that the Head rule the Heart.  This was a key theme in both Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies, both of whom believed strongly that reason must rule emotion if one is to  understand the world and live ‘the good life.’  The Roman Stoics took this idea even further, insisting that reason can also tell the heart how to feel, and with an act of will, our mind can force the heart to do its bidding and have attitudes and feelings that protect the human being from the vicissitudes of a world we can’t control.  The Existential philosophers of the 19th and 20th century roundly rejected that view, and argued that passion, commitment, and rebellion against conformity are what give life meaning and value.  Nietzsche in particular, railed against Socrates and the Stoics, and argued that each of us should follow our heart to find our own meaning and place in life – regardless of what ‘the herd’ claims ‘makes sense.’   He claimed that in the truly free man, the Heart must rule the Head. Reason and practicality he saw as the hand-maidens of social convention and ‘herd mentality.’   Ayn Rand however embraced reason in her objectivist philosophy, which argues for ‘enlightened self-interest.’  Her philosophy (I believe) echoes and reinterprets Aristotle, and even the Stoics, claiming that the ‘proper’ application of reason is very non-conformist and liberating.  You decide.

OK, so what? 

So far, I’m playing a ‘Head game,’ examining what Palahniuk was trying to say, looking at various possibilities, connecting them to other authors and intellectual constructs.  The ‘Heart game’ would be to ask that ‘existential’ question, “How does this apply to me and my life?”  Is Palahniuk accusing me, and can I defend myself?   As I was reading Fight Club, I kept reading between the lines, ‘j’accuse, j’accuse, j’accuse!’ (French for ‘I accuse (you)’ and a common expression in some literature). 

And so, I ask myself,  “Where am I on that Head-Heart continuum and am I happy with that place? “ Today?   In general?   The answer would be my response to ‘j’accuse.’

And where are you, dear reader?  Too comfortable?  Is the heart lying in ambush? Or perhaps comatose?   Or is the Heart passionately leading a pointless, and destructive crusade, and the Head is either silent, or shouting futilely ‘wake up- you idiot!’  Or are you (I hope) dancing around the sweet spot of balance –  what Aristotle might have (but didn’t) refer to as ‘the golden mean?’

You decide.  Or do you?  It is, after all, your life.


For insightful quotes on ‘the Heart,’ go to: 

For interesting quotes on ‘the Head,’ go to

7 thoughts on “The Head and the Heart

  1. I loved this one. It seems that the Head v Heart fight plays out within leadership as well – only now you’re choosing for other people’s lives, not just your own. In my class I see a bunch of Type A future leaders use their Head when dealing with people and their Heart when facing their student/ mid responsibilities.


  2. Anne and Kim : Thanks you for bringing up the leadership implications of this ‘construct’ – when, as you point out, you’re choosing for other psople’s lives, not just your own. Finding that ‘sweet spot’ of dispassion and reason AND passion and emotional engagement is the holy grail of good leadership. It is individual and context dependent. Great point -thanks Bob


  3. Bob,
    Thanks for another great though piece. I always like to see if I can get the two (Head and Heart) aligned- they don’t necessarily need to be in opposition. With some work and balance, we can use our Head to realize our Heart’s desire, or allow our Heart to prevent the Head from causing our self-destruction. I suppose “alignment” is much like “balance,” but I like the idea of structuring your life and goals in a way that allows you to bring everything you have to bear towards completion of yourself as a Realized Person.


  4. Thanks TJ – I agree – ideally they are working in the same direction – aligned as you say. But I continue to believe there is a tension – a constant tension. Aristotle believed that with a life-time of practice and ‘habituation’ we could train the heart to want what the head knows it ought to: Healthy food, exercise, moderation in our apetites, art and mental stimulation, etc. I DO buy his view, but not completetly – I still think there is an animal nature in us that can only, perhaps should only be, partially tamed. Fight Club is a great book to play with that idea -though clearly, Tyler Durden went off the deep end… Bob


  5. Hi Bob, great article. For me the key is heart. Heart = Soul and Head = Mind…we have to lead with skill and cunning from our minds, but we better do it from the coordinated depths of our souls or people will not follow. That’s what the problem is with most of our Congress today..they want us to buy into their words only, but we are perceptive enough discern that their heart and soul are headed in a different direction and they merely seek to deceive us into doing what they want and not what is best. Keep writing the great stuff my friend!


    • Gerry – Thanks for your comment and you bring up a great point that I hadn’t considered – the point of what existentialist authors refer to as ‘authenticity.’ This is the objection many of them have to those who say we should live our lives based on what our head tells us is right. The Heart is certainly more ‘authentic’ but there are clearly dangers in following only the Heart. This Head-Heart construct is really only a metaphor. I agree with TJ above in seeking alignment – another way to look at it is to think of the head putting boundaries on the Heart – and then letting the Heart run within those boundaries. If I lived my life only from my heart, none of the co-eds here at USD would be safe!


  6. Cheers Bob, we worked together mainly ST-4, R-R; BTRON,etc My name is Jim Schombs, Ret. SEAL,CWO2. Retired in 2002. I was hit with a blood clot to the brain in 2000. Gave me a massive Thrombotic stroke, and turned my world around! I am taking it day by dat , doing some Free Lance article writing for DMN, or wherever needed. N writer to teach Leadership skills, The Frog’s career path , and things like L-L, to help them to understand the potential A.O; from history and prior conflicts.get this media blitz on our business and ‘Confidentiality, as it was even 20 years ago!
    We are trying to find out if this has even been approved? Is there any chance in you checking this out wothNSWSOCOM,Tampa,Fl?
    We would like our secrecy back, and all of the groupies to leave any story telling to us, the realdeal! I am happy that you are well. What do you think about this compromise of our TTP, and possibly screwing a future mission up from some C.I. System that was put in the direct swimor entry path?
    Thank you,r,
    Jimbo, For hire if you can use another writer or R&D.My cell is:(757)754-5504


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