What is the Human Nous?
Chapter 1 from Patristic Theology
by Father John Romanides
The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing
of the human soul. The Church has always considered the
soul as the part of the human being that needs healing
because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ
Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the
physical heart there functions something that the Fathers
called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional
term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech
or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They
used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the
heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know
when this change in meaning took place, because we know
that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason
as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions
in the region of the heart.
So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity
essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason;
it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other
words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the
heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems,
for example, or anything else in the brain.
We should point out that there is a difference in terminology
between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the
nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the
Apostle Paul says, "I will pray with the spirit," he means
what the Fathers mean when they say, "I will pray with the
nous." And when he says, "I will pray with the nous," he
means "I will pray with the intellect (dianoia)." When the
Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word
"spirit." When he says "I will pray with the nous, I will pray
with the spirit" or when he says "I will chant with the nous,
I will chant with the spirit," and when he says "the Spirit
of God bears witness to our spirit," he uses the word "spirit"
to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the
word nous, he means the intellect or reason.
In his phrase, "the Spirit of God bears witness to our
spirit," St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God
and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what
St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during
the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous,
and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to
man"s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be
identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according
to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man"s spirit.
Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship
takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the
intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and
is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart. So when the
Apostle Paul says, "I prefer to say five words with my nous
in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my
tongue," he means that he prefers to say five words, in
other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others
rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St.
Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which
consists of five words, but at this point the Apostle is speaking
here about the words he used in instructing others. For
how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic
prayer is a person"s inward prayer, and others around him
do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with
teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We
teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way
that people communicate with each other.
Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however,
communicate with one another. In other words, they have
the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other
noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to
communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even
when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of
clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance,
they can sense both other people"s sins and thoughts (logismoi),
while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about
subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic
people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they
know everything that you have done in your life before you
open your mouth to tell them.
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- Romans 8:16.
- This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other
words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St.
Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from "In Behalf of the Sacred
Hesychasts" notes that "the heart rules over the whole human organism".
For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there."
From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term "heart"
does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term
nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of
the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the
nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary
for the hesychasts "to bring their nous back and enclose it within their
body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that
we call the heart." The term "spirit" is also identical with the terms nous
and "heart." Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
- Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: "Man has two
centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving
the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason
and the reason which knows the sensible world around us." The Person
in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of
the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
- 1 Corinthians 14:19.
- In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its
simplest form, which in English is translated as "Lord Jesus Christ, have
mercy on me" "TRANS.
- "Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up
a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts". Saint Paul also indicates
this when he says: "I had rather speak five words with my nous"." St.
Peter of Damascus, "The Third Stage of Contemplation," in Philokalia,
3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120]
and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
- With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, "If when
you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you
edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. " If it is not in order to edify his flock
that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching
and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God"s
gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue,
that is, by praying in the soul " you edify yourself, but your nous is
unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the
language of sacred teaching or edify God"s Church. If Paul, who of all
men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have
rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the
instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private
with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility
for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd"s
ministry solely to psalmody and reading." St. Nikitas Stithatos, "On
Spiritual Knowledge," in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.
From Patristic Theology - The University Lectures of Father John Romanides (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23. This book is distributed in North America
by Uncut Mountain Supply. Posted April 29, 2008.