Imagine that you are an accomplished young woman, walking into a campus coffee shop toward the end of your senior year. Your eye catches a cute guy sitting across the room, talking to his friends. You smile inwardly, then get down to studying.
After a while, you get up for another coffee—and he gets in line behind you. He strikes up a conversation. Apparently you know some of the same people. You order, and move over to wait. You’re trying to check your texts, but your ear picks up his voice like a radio signal, louder and clearer than it should be. You wonder whether you should ask your friends about him.
“No!” screams your rational self. Why would you want to start a relationship—especially now, when you’re graduating and have your dream job lined up halfway across the country? You didn’t get where you are by letting a nice pair of eyes distract you. This is crazy.
Or is it? When we read classic literature with our students, love-at-first-sight stories appear everywhere. Students usually find such episodes bizarre and dismiss the characters in them as foolish. They bring up stories of friends whose lives were derailed by drunken hookups, roommates who let high-school sweethearts drag them down, or that dude down the hall who can’t get over some pointless infatuation. But such judgments often miss the mark—for it is frequently the most capable characters who are susceptible to this supposed weakness. Authors such as Dante and Plato tell of sudden encounters with beauty that cause people of great intelligence to change the course of their lives.
Today, young people equate intelligence in matters of love with skepticism of beauty and caution about getting in over their heads. Online life—where pretty faces are ubiquitous, fleeting, and unworthy of trust—teaches them that appearances deceive. So when students who want to be sensible pursue relationships, they do it methodically. They confine romantic concerns within the timeline of their careers, make checklists of desirable characteristics, and deploy dating-app algorithms. They trust the data more than they trust their eyes.
Wariness has some benefits, as young people appear to be less impulsive today than in the past; teen pregnancies have declined. But it also has downsides. Though successful young people are less likely nowadays to get caught in cycles of indulgence and regret, they are often afflicted with what Yuval Levin calls “pathologies of passivity,” struck by a debilitating indecision that paralyzes them on the threshold of adulthood. Love at first sight is nothing if not decisive. Might the old stories have something to show us about love that we have lost?
Consider Shakespeare’s Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It. Rosalind divulges her love for Orlando within minutes of meeting him. Her cousin wonders whether she has lost her mind. But Rosalind is no twit—she is Shakespeare’s most astute heroine. While exiled to the Forest of Arden, she secures her own marriage, facilitates several others, and bests the melancholy philosopher Jacques in a battle of wits. When she first sees Orlando, she quickly perceives what her heart has longed for, finding signs of good character in the spare but decisive evidence of a few expressions and deeds. In Rosalind’s story, Shakespeare suggests that the capacity for love at first sight is the mark of a certain kind of intelligence: the intelligence of the eyes, which allows us to perceive the depth in the surface. Such intelligence can discern the truly beautiful, and respond to its sudden appearance with confidence.
At their first meeting, Rosalind sees that Orlando bears himself gently toward her but courageously toward an opponent in wrestling. Here might be a man who could both care for and protect a family. She discovers that Orlando has lost favor with the powerful, as she herself has, and she observes that he bears this misfortune with pluck. She learns the name of his father—a good man, whom her own father much admired. Perhaps the son will mature into such a man. Rosalind can make such conjectures because she has confidence in her eyes, which perceive the glimmer of reality through appearances. Like Plato, she believes that beauty is not a deceptive distraction from the real business of life, but the sign of the true, the mark of the good.
To respond with confidence to the beautiful does not mean blindly following gut feeling. Though Rosalind takes her first impression of Orlando seriously and treasures her vision of sharing his life, she also questions that vision. She tests Orlando playfully but relentlessly during their time in the forest, quizzing him on the strength of his love, probing his ability to keep promises, and holding him at a distance until she has seen further proof of his courage and mercy. Falling in love at first sight does not make Rosalind jump into bed with her beloved; it awakens an ardent desire to know whether he really is as good as he seems.
Rosalind could not have found Orlando by algorithm. The intelligence she employs to make this match is not the calculative reason of the brain, but the perceptive wisdom of the heart. Pascal famously wrote, “the heart has reasons which reason does not know.” The great mathematician was not denigrating what we can learn through geometric proofs. He was explaining how we can perceive truths that cannot be arrived at by deduction—facts about the world from which thinking should begin, rather than contestable propositions at which thinking might arrive. The heart, Pascal argues, has its own reasons.
Think again about that guy in the coffee shop. How would you figure out whether your heart’s inclination toward him might have good reasons? What was it exactly that caught your eye? Was it the way he combed his hair? Was it that he combed his hair? Was it the way he talked to his friends, or to the lady behind the counter? Was some part of you thinking that you might want to be talked to like that. . . for the rest of your life? The same part of you might have perceived, in a flash, something more important to your happiness than that job you always thought you wanted.
The intelligence of the heart can help you think more seriously about whether to pay attention to that guy than can the colder kinds of logic that govern résumés as well as dating apps. What would a lunch date be like? Would you laugh? Learn new things? How would it be to host a party together? Plan a trip? A wedding? How would he react to a positive pregnancy test? Can you imagine him horsing around with kids on a playground? What will he say when you make a huge mistake? How will he respond when his parents die? The intellectual power of the heart takes the mind’s daydreaming seriously, lets it conjure its visions, and then questions them to see whether they check out.
This is a sophisticated kind of reason—the kind it takes to read a soul, to capture the lineaments of character, and then to divine how a young and appealing person might traverse the landscape of adulthood. It is the kind of reason that allows you to consider whether another person’s life is an adventure to which you might want to bind your own. The stakes are high, indeed incalculable, because binding your life to another’s will alter not only your trajectory but your very self. This prospect can be unnerving, yet the heart longs for such transformations. For the desire to be transformed is no small part of what it is to fall in love.
How can the “you” who is single and childless imagine what it will be like to be a “you” who is married and mothering? As the economist Russ Roberts points out, this change in perspective cannot be fathomed by the pedestrian methods we often employ to think through our choices. We can tally the costs of diapers, lessons, and college, and weigh them against the benefits of hugs, good grades, and a friend in old age. But this calculation ignores how your desires, habits, and night thoughts will be transformed by marriage and children into those of someone you’ve never met before, who will go by the name “mommy.” To see from her perspective, cost-benefit analysis will not suffice.
The literature of the past suggests that those who let themselves be captured by what delights their eyes are sometimes rewarded with insight that exceeds what we can learn through our dismal arts of calculation. Plato, in the Phaedrus, tells a story in which an encounter with a beautiful person ignites a “divine madness” that inspires both the love of virtue and the quest for truth. In a glance at Beatrice, Dante sees a “god stronger than I, who comes to rule over me.” He pledges to work out the meaning of that glimpse of the divine in his poems. Letting a sudden encounter with a pretty face determine one’s life work might seem crazy. But Dante’s genius flourished precisely because he submitted his efforts to the God of love, who leaves traces in the world that many ignore, but that animate those who cultivate the intelligence of the heart. Gratitude for beauty in the given world, as Matthew Crawford recently suggested, should be understood as a “faculty,” a power that allows us to grasp our “true situation.”
Many young people today fear that they will be deceived by appearances or thrown off course by their impulses. They are wary of dubious forces, without and within, that might wreak havoc on their carefully constructed lives. This concern is not unreasonable, as falling in love at first sight is not always wise. Lydia Bennet is indeed a fool, and Romeo and Juliet’s romance ends in tragedy. But with Americans marrying ever later and loneliness on the rise, we should worry less about how excessive desire may lead the young into folly and more about how excessive caution relegates them to the couch, with only their screens for company.
It would be a mistake for the young woman in the coffee shop not to inquire further about that guy. In trying to be mature, she would stunt the development of a sophisticated form of human intelligence. The heart has its reasons, even if it takes reason some effort to perceive them.
Jenna Silber Storey and Benjamin Storey are senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute.