Nous: The Concord of Gnosis,
Theoria and Theosis
Theoria and Theosis
The Western Understanding of Nous.
According to the 18th century German Philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, reality is divided between phenomena and noumena, that is, the realm of time, space and matter and its relation, if any, to the unknown realm of the spirit. All knowledge is rational, the result of the synthesis of a priori concepts of the reason (Erkenntnis) and “the manifold of sense perception” or “experience.” “In the order of time,” he declared, “we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all our knowledge begins” (“De Zeit nach geht also keine Erkenntnis in uns vor der Erfahrung vorher, und mit dieser fangt alle”) (1).
For Kant, the apex of modern philosophy, the quest for “knowledge” is the quest for theoretical or rational certainty. Ironically, his enterprise was initiated by the very thing he undertook to analyze — reason (Vernunft). He commenced the examination of this “problem” without a “critique” of the principles of ratiocination inherited from the history of Western philosophy, and without resorting to the Biblical God, the Christ of Faith, and the wisdom of the Church fathers.
Nevertheless, Kant, as so many of his contemporaries, understood that the philosophical study of knowledge was insufficient to assure happiness and hope. He therefore posited God (the source and assurance of them), immortality of the soul (the reward for virtue), and free will (the ability to make decisions concerning the others). For Kant, the moral order depended on the existence of God, an idea which he may have learned from Voltaire’s proclamation, “If there is no God we will need to invent one.” His book, The Critique of Practical Reason, was a serious attempt to provide a moral law contingent upon subjective principles.
If nothing else, Kant led European intellectuals to the conclusion that if there was truth it was not to be found (if it was to be found at all) in phenomena, but in the self, that is, confidence in feeling and intuition. Beauty inspired the introspection that led to apprehension of truth — not only philosophy, but music, art and poetry. The Romantics had deceived themselves, thinking their subjectivism was the antidote to Kantian Idealism. The Romantics were as much the servants of logic as the rationalists they ostensibly despised.
Whatever label is applied to modern thinkers, it is certain that their mind-set prevented them from appreciating the fact that acquisition of truth depends on the nature and condition of man which, according to the Scriptures and Fathers is fallen; and that his recovery — including his “mind” (2) — is impossible without grace and faith. Human nature needs to be “reborn,” something modernity has never understood. Among some philosophers and psychologists, there was flirtation with the idea of “noetic knowledge,” but it came to nothing. They never understood it. Thus, in 1902, the American thinker, William James, sought to define it — as is the way of the post-patristic West. He clumsily described it as “states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. There are illuminations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain, and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.” He could not help presenting Nous in familiar conventions of thought.
Kant and the Western theological and philosophical tradition were right about the noetic sphere, but not for the right reason. A false concept of God and crypto-Greek anthropology accounts for their ignorance. The Nous or intellectus are not anti-rational, but supra-rational, the highest faculty of the soul whose very purpose is to communicate with God and spiritual things. The Nous is not the function of the soul which formulates abstract concepts by which to reach a conclusion achieved by deductive thinking; rather Nous is able to comprehend spiritual or noetical realities on account of the soul’s reconstitution and its relationship to God in Christ (2).
Moreover, the “mind” has its own form of cognition — Gnosis, that is, the intuitive or immediate apprehension of things spiritual and divine. Gnoseology is not epistemology which is concerned with the nature and scope of human knowledge; nor with the metaphysics it presupposes. Gnosis is the “knowledge” of the “greater mysteries” of existence, divine and human. It is the action of the dispassionate Nous in the state of meditating on spiritual truths, especially God Himself (Theoria). It a practice resulting from prayer, fasting and worship, involving a culture of “watchfulness” (nepsis) or “guarding the mind” or “heart” against the malignancy of sensual images and illusions — always under the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The contemplative achieves success only in a state of “quiet” (hesychia) whether within himself or the world around him. In this practice the mind also has the assistance of reason; it acts as the sentinel against the invading sensory and illusory images. The end of this spiritual process is complete transformation of human nature, that is, deification (theosis) or salvation.
The Scriptural Concept of Nous
Let us see what the Scriptures say about the Nous (mind) (3) — or what is the same thing — the pneuma (spirit) or kardia (heart) — sometimes rendered into English as “understanding.” They are synonyms. In Deuteronomy 6: 6, God commands the Israelites to keep what He has taught them “with all their kardia...”
Let us not forget Psalm 50:10, “Create a clean kardian within me, O God, and renew a right pneuma in my inward parts.” We recall, too, the allusion to the inner man mentioned in Mark 2:8, “And immediately when Jesus perceived in his pneuma that they reasoned within themselves. Why do you reason these things in your kardias? ” Luke tells us that Mary exclaimed, “my pneuma has rejoiced in God my Saviour (Lk.1:47). The Lord described the unbelievers or “fools” to be “slow of kardias” (Lk.24: 24); and others He was able to “opened their ton noun” (Lk.24:25).
Saint Paul warns the Romans that they will escape the world only by the renewing of their Nous (Rm.12:2). In 1Cor.1:10, he urged Christians “to be joined together in the same noi;” or, in the words of Saint Ignatios of Antioch, “an undivided Nous” (Epistle to the. Ephesians, 20). In that way, the Apostle observes, the believer’s Nous becomes “fruitful” (1Cor.14:14). God, he admonishes them, “shall judge the secrets of your kardias” (14:25). It shall be worse for him if he ignores his election in order to “walk in the vanity of the noos as the Gentiles do.” To the Philippians, the Apostle writes, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, shall keep your kardias and thoughts (noemata) through Christ Jesus” (Phl.4:7), etc.
Christians must always be aware that they are not ordinary men and women, but rather “commendations” to the world, an “epistle,” so to speak, not written with ink, but with the Holy Spirit who writes “on the fleshy tables of the kardia” (2Cor.3:3). Consequently, they have a Nous access to spiritual (noetical) realities not available to the “natural man” who cannot receive the things of the Spirit. As a member of the Church, the believer has the Spirit and therefore “the noun of Christ” (1Cor.2:16);
Patristic Understanding of Nous
Because all human beings have been created in the image of God, they likewise possess a soul with the faculties of Nous (heart, spirit), will, and reason. According to Pseudo-Makarios, “mind” or “heart” is “the eye of the soul” (Spiritual Homilies 6: 8). Also, “the heart governs and reigns over the whole bodily organism, and when grace possesses the ranges of the heart, it reigns over all its members and its thoughts. For there, in the heart, is the mind and all the faculties of the soul” (15:20). Elsewhere, he draws on a Platonic metaphor to identify “the mind as charioteer, harnessing the chariot of the soul as it holds the reigns of its thoughts” (40: 5).
In Paradise, the Nous of Adam was able to ascend to the Theoria of God by exercise of his pristine will, illumined by divine grace. We shall never know how close he might have come to the unapproachable God. Obedient first parents would have been deified and, if we may believe the 14th century Byzantine writer, Kallistos Angelikoudi, the range of the sinless soul would have been unlimited, infinite. Put another way, deification is the result of “illuminating energy” which is everlasting (4). Saint Gregory of Nyssa says that deification also involves endless learning. The greater the nearness of the soul (hence, the Nous) to God, the more profound and full is its knowledge (Gnosis).
It is this process of infinite growth to which the Christian seeks to revive. The major obstacle to salvation is the condition of the Nous. The “mind was at first pure and saw its Master, being in honour,” wrote Pseudo-Makarios, “but, now, because of its banishment (from Paradise), is clothed with shame, the eyes of the heart being blinded, that it may not behold the glory, which our father, Adam, beheld before his disobedience” (Spiritual Homilies, 45: 1). Then, Christ came and they, who follow Him, have cleansed their souls and body and received their sight (ib., 3). He is the “noetic Moses” who has delivered us, the new Israel, from “the bondage of darkness, for the Egyptian spirits” (ib., 47:7).
When the mind is completely freed from the passions, writes Saint Maximus the Confessor, “its journey is straight ahead to the contemplation of created things and from there to the knowledge of the Holy Trinity” (5). There can be no progress where the heart is impure, that is, dominated by the passions. The degree of advance depends on the extent to which the passions have retreated. Victory for the soul relies upon “guarding the mind” or “inner watchfulness” (nepsis), declares Saint Philotheos of Sinai in his Forty Texts of Watchfulness (6). This “noetic work is the true philosophy.” He cites Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart (kardian) with utmost diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life” (ib., 9). He urges the struggler (“initiated mind”) keep away from sensual pleasures and to acquire virtues (ib., 27) (7).
If the mind or heart is to be protected from or purged of the passions, watchfulness demands “purest prayer” and “tears” before it may receive “warmth of heart,” “illumination and the vision of heavenly things” (8). Saint Peter of Damascus adds that “the counsel of the holy fathers is that during prayer,” we must keep the mind free from all shapes or colours and concentrate on the words uttered.” Furthermore, part of the “noetic work” is hope in the Lord, a hope that separates from the love of material things. They bring evil and evil darkens the mind (9). He also reminds us that, along with watchfulness, the remembrance of death protects the mind against the influences of the devil.
Saint Peter advises that “every bodily activity — by which I mean fasting, vigils, psalmody, spiritual reading, stillness (hesychia) — is directed towards the purification of the mind (Nous).” But purification can never be achieved without “inward grief” (10). Within the struggle for purity of the mind comes the power of Gnosis, the knowledge about which the holy Fathers, Scriptures and Gospels speak. With Gnosis the mind outlaws forgetfulness and ignorance. This knowledge reminds it of the difference between the soul’s goal and diabolic pitfalls that await the unwatchful mind and its faculty of reason. Dispassion (by which the mind has emerged from the realm of matter and material things and the tranquil encounter of noetic realities), Gnosis brings to the mind purification of the mind, that is, contemplation (Theoria), the anticipation of union with God in the heavenly Kingdom.
Here is the true meaning of theology. It is not a science, the systematizing of religious ideas, a rational explication of revelation, but rather to make the mind divine — as far as that is possible — a transcendent state where God Himself might instruct it. In other words, contemplative, therefore, wholly “mystical” (11). The theologian must be pure of heart under which he receives the Gnosis by which he may contemplate the Divine. He is, according to Saint John Cassian, “a man seized with the urge to have knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devotes all his gathered energy to this one task. While they still live in the corruption of the flesh, they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside. And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Saviour held out when He said, `Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God’." (12). Thus, theology is finally the work of the Nous, not reason.
1. Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Leipzig, 1920, Einleitung, 35.
2.. What Saint Ilias the Presbyter calls the “initiated” (epoptes), Gnomic Anthology, 63 (Philokalia, vol. 3). As Saint Gregory the Theologians has it, “to philosophize about God” is not for all men, but only those “who have been previously examined, and are past masters of contemplation and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or, at the very least, are being purified…free from all external outward defilement…unconfused by vexatious or erring images…and who discerns the straight road to the Divine” (First Theological Oration. 3).
3. In Latin, intellectus (commonly, understanding) is the equivalent of Nous. So it is rendered in Philokalia (London, 1979- ), the G.E.H Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware translation. It is a dimension of the anima (soul) which is sometimes a synonym for heart (cor), spirit (spiritus), mind (mens). For example, custodiat corda vestra et intelligentsia vestras in Christo Iesu (Phil.4:7). Among the Greek Fathers, some prefer Nous, some kardia, others pneuma. Whichever their choice, the meaning is virtually the same: the action of inner man, the human spiritual centre, the force within the soul determines his understanding, man’s contact with noetic reality, and with grace (uncreated energy) of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of his ontological regeneration, body and soul. It is always supra-rational. The word “noetic” or “noetical” is the adjective of Nous.
4. On Union with God and the Life Theoria, 3 (www.greekorthodoxchurch.org).
5. The Four Hundred Chapters on Love I, 86 (in Saint Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Trans. by G.C. Berthold. New York, 1985).
6. Philokalia (vol. 3). He cites Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart (kardian) with utmost diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life” (ib., 9).
7. In his Gnomic Anthology, Ilyas the Presbyter states that reason assists the mind in its combat with the passions; but if its warnings are ignored, reason becomes a “thorn in the flesh” (Philokalia, vol. 3), 50.
8. Theophanes the Monk, Ladder of Divine Graces, p. 67 (Philokalia [vol. 3]).
9. A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, pp. 88, 102 (Philokalia, vo.3).
10. Ib., p. 119.
11. The theologian is a mystes (initiated) who is alone worthy to contemplate God and spiritual things. Theology is mystikos.
12. Conference I, 10 (John Cassian: Conferences. Trans. by C. Luibhed. New York, 1985.
*It should be noted that St Makarios of Egypt did not write the Spiritual Homilies, and so far as we know, he never wrote anything. The "Saying of St. Makarios" were known not to be authentic.