The Old Head-Heart Opposition, Resolved

Talking about conversion stories in the comments to this post, reader Catherine H. tells her own story and references the quip, often attributed to Churchill, that goes “A man younger than 30 who’s not a liberal has no heart and a man older than 30 who’s not a conservative has no brain.”

[This quote is bandied about in a few different forms — with the ages changed and “republican,” “socialist,” etc. in place of “liberal” and “conservative,” — and is sometimes attributed to G. B. Shaw and sometimes to François Guizot. I don’t really care, and you get the general idea. I’m not particularly interested in discussing the provenance or the exact wording.]

It’s a witty saying, and it seems to me very true in its way. Of course it overstates things, but that’s the nature of the catchy saying, no?

One problem with this saying, though, is that implies a hardening of the heart as one grows older and wiser.

I had heard this saying (or some  similar formation) from my grandmother when I was age 20. My grandmother is a conservative of the old-school American type (with its emphasis on free enterprise, local and state control, and minimal regulation coupled with “harsh” enforcement of the law). She is also a white Californian who has lived there since before the World War II era, and who has seen her own town go from almost entirely white and crime-free to more than 50% Mexican, and has seen a corresponding skyrocketing crime rate, plummeting value of her own home. She’s an old woman, and she doesn’t mince words.

Grandma was always saying things about the Mexicans, at a time in my life when even mentioning that group of people felt vaguely racist to me (I had been trained to say “Latino” or “Chicano” or whatever, but never to call a Mexican a Mexican). Grandma always complained about how the universities were run by professors who were communistic, which would have been hilarious if it weren’t so embarrassing to hear her say it. As a university student at the time, who was being shown the deep wisdom of Marx and Adorno, I knew that grandma just didn’t get it.

So when Grandma told me a version of the “heart/brain” quip, I rolled my eyes and chalked it up to her being an old bat. And when I reflected on it later, I realized that even if it were true (which of course was absurd to even consider), I would rather have a heart than a brain.

(I would still rather have a heart than a brain, but just wait… I’m getting there.)

To someone of my mindset at the time, the quote seems to say, “When you are young, you care about people, and want to work your hardest to help them. When you grow older you realize that only fools help other people, and that the smart thing to do is to look out for Number One.”

Or: “Having a heart is foolish. Being smart equals being heartless.”

This seemed to me like a failure of spirit, and I silently vowed never to fall victim to it. I doubled down on my liberalism.

Of course, I merely describe the psychology of my thinking at the time, not the accuracy. I’m sure any reader can point out exactly where I went wrong. A better reading of the spirit of the quote would go something more like this:

“As a young person it is natural to feel your heart go out to those less fortunate, and you are vulnerable to being manipulated on the basis of these emotions to embrace foolish people/programs/policies. When you grow up, unless you are stupid, you learn that the happiness and well-being of people is hindered, not helped, by these programs and people. Being kind is not a matter of mere emotion, but a matter of discretion, foresight, and humility before human nature and the nature of the world.”

But that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, now does it?

What’s really interesting to me, though, is that as I’ve grown older and (infinitesimally) wiser and (quite a bit) more conservative, something I never would have predicted has happened. My changing views have not resulted in the sacrifice of the heart for the head — as discussed above. But more than that, they have augmented my heart. My heart has grown.

My compassion for those less fortunate is more, not less, than it was as a hard-left leftist. (And I was hard left, my friends.) I feel more open to those around me even as I’ve grown more likely to shun their behavior; and more like a member of a grand human community even as I’ve come to reject New World Order projects like the UN or universal socialism.

As a leftist, I was nominally compassionate but actively selfish. My blood was sprinkled through with the cement dust of resentment, and it made me dry and hard and grey inside. But of course, in my book, to give up that hard left position was to become heartless and start talking about the Mexicans.

I guess I was half right. I’m not heartless now… my heart feels more alive than any time since I was a small child. But I guess I do talk about the Mexicans from time to time. Oh well… c’est la vie.

Er, I mean, asi es la vida.


9 comments on “The Old Head-Heart Opposition, Resolved

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    ‘I feel more open to those around me even as I’ve grown more likely to shun their behavior; and more like a member of a grand human community even as I’ve come to reject New World Order projects like the UN or universal socialism.’

    The secular humanist believes in the Brotherhood of Man. The Christian humanist believes that there can be no Brotherhood of Man without the Fatherhood of God.

  2. Marcus says:

    That’s a very good distinction you make regarding the famous quip. I become much more empathetic the older I get (more experience has equaled greater understanding and forgiveness on my part), but the more conservative I get in my day to day political opinions.

  3. bgc says:

    Given the number of unrepentant Leftists who are immune to actual or any conceivable experience, I presume that humans are not evolved to change their opinions after age 16-18 (when brain development pretty much stops and maximum intelligence is reached).

    In the kind of stable societies humans inhabited throughout history, we would have spent our youth learning what we needed to know for the rest of our lives.


    The great thing about Leftism for the young is that it very easily enables them to feel superior to everybody older than themselves – all they have to do is adopt the latest language conventions. Anybody who says Hispanic is automatically morally-superior to anybody who says Mexican – and this superiority is not affected by anything else.

    What people actually do makes no difference.


    Another example: a Climate Change ‘denialist’ is automatically worse than someone who believes in Anthropogenic CO2-generated Global Warming – it does not matter how much the AGW advocate damages the environment through their activities – to be a denialist or even a skeptic nullifies all possible actual, practical virtues.

    For the Left, a rich, self-indulgent, globe-trotting blowhard AGW activist (fill-in the names…) is presumed to be qualitatively morally superior to a low-tech, self-sufficient, low consuming farmer/ craftsman/ hermit who voices denialist sentiments.


    Leftism encourages a moral calculus based solely on expressed opinions.

    Moral purity means simply expressing the currently (politically) correct moral opinions and only these opinions.

    There is no such thing as hypocrisy on the Left, because actions are of no consequence. Public discourse comes first, second and last.

    • outofsleep says:

      This is a very powerful comment. I’ve read you explaining this basic operation before in “Thought Prison,” but I can’t recall being quite so impressed by the force of it. Thank you. This belongs on the front page; I will think it over and comment and post a reply.

  4. Proph says:

    Personally, I’d rather have a brain than a heart. A strong brain can allow you to at least discern and emulate the demands made by the heart.

  5. outofsleep says:


    “I’d prefer to have a big heart rather than be ruled by head/ mind or body: the old Harry (Potter), Hermione, Ron distinction…”

    I’d rather be Gandalf (heart) than Saruman (mind) or Radagast (something of a “body” character in that he is too wrapped up in the natural world to bother with the doings of men and elves). All three are “mind” beings, as wizards and masters of lore, but only Saruman lets his mind rule the rest of him.

  6. Wyandotte says:

    Well, I never thought I’d be criticizing my own kind (white western), but I see this either/or as one of “our” main problems. We are generally so bothered by ambiguity or any kind of messy mix.

    I recall reading in so many child care books the warning, “Mother, you can’t take care of that baby properly if you don’t take care of your own needs first.” Yes, first. (Mind you, there’s exceptions. As always. God’s way of showing us that he’s really the one in charge.)

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