Love, cheese, and dead French philosophers

A triologue of three French philosophers on the intersection of intellect, love and how to educate our souls.

By Nathan Cheever

I’ve picked up reading Blaise Pascal’s Pensées lately and this statement made me wonder:

“The greater the intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men."1

Do you agree?

Intelligence corresponds with an ability to see, perceive, and find things. And not just regular objects, but qualities such as uniqueness, originality, and worth. Failing to see difference in men could mean one is more prone to prejudice and bias. Lacking the ability or desire to account for variety, they cling to mental models that are comfortable to them but that produce inaccurate generalizations. This ignorance forestalls access to and appreciation of the spectrum of qualities. It’s like a full high-definition televised football game slowly changing to standard-definition, then to grainy scan-lines, then black and white. Ignorance is the ultimate reduction.

But is this principle right? Is the logic sound? If we try swapping out “men” for wine, music, or poetry, this seems to work well. I am at least ordinary in my appreciation for cheeses and wines. My palate wouldn’t know Pinot noir from a Chardonnay, or a Camembert from a Cotija. With zero knowledge of the subtle features I am barred from enjoying the world of wine and cheese2 to their fullest.3

Before 2020, you could say my knowledge and appreciation of Beethoven was, to use Pascal’s word, ordinary. Then I listened to a lecture by Leonard Bernstein4 on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” and I learned, at least a small part, the magnitude Beethoven’s genius. After that I explored some of his piano sonatas and I was hooked.

This was part of my education. Not one of facts, quizzes, or tests but one of seeing. Bernstein gave me eyesight to know the strangeness, craftsmanship, and gigantic power of Beethoven. I could now begin to see his originality whereas before, with my ordinary understanding, I couldn’t find much difference between him and other Classical composers. My newfound understanding moved me from a passive listener into a lover of his music.

As I write this, I realize that people like me saying they love classical music or opera can come off as pretentious. I used to roll my eyes at theater kids in high school who announced their love for drama and opera in syrupy speech. I thought they pretended to love opera to look sophisticated. But perhaps they were onto something. Yes, ostentation is annoying, but at least they loved something beautiful, or wanted to.

Some 280 years after Pascal, another French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, wrote: “Between love and intelligence, there can be no real divorce."5 Only when intelligence itself is reduced to a cold, calculating, machine-like nature can intelligence break from love, just as the total degradation of love makes it a mere mechanical and carnal exploit. Marcel says that the highest expressions of love “cannot fail to meet” with the highest expressions of intelligence. They move together.

I agree with Marcel. So let’s revisit Pascal’s idea with a one-word substitution from Marcel:

The greater the love one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.

This checks out. If a man loves greatly and deeply, he surely would know those whom he loves intimately. As the Beatles put it, “To Know Her Is To Love Her.”

But there is more. With this small change, suddenly it’s not a mediocre brain that makes you ordinary but a mediocre love. If this is right, and I believe it is, great love in a person makes them not only able to find value in others but willing to. Perhaps that is the genius of love that reason alone cannot reach – the why to look for good in others in the first place.

Yet another French philosopher6, Louis Lavelle, described love as “a pure attention to the existence of the other.” That could almost describe an intensive study for an exam, couldn’t it? Or a scientist in their lab, or a mentor working with a mentee. Or two people falling in love, or a parent listening intently to their child.

So what is this connection between love and intellect? I believe it comes down to this: whether to learn something or to love something, you have to give of your most precious possession: your full consciousness, your full attention. How we attend to the other affects what we see, what we learn and how we love.

  1. Pascal, Blaise. “Pensées”. Encyclopedia Brittanica Great Books Collection, “Pascal”, #33, pg. 173 ↩︎

  2. I still love the taste of cheese though, even if I don’t know exactly what kind it is. ↩︎

  3. And I’m fine with that for the time being. ↩︎

  4. Bernstein: The 1953 American Decca Recordings On Spotify ↩︎

  5. Marcel, Gabriel. Man Against Mass Society. pg. 7 ↩︎

  6. YAFP ↩︎