The Saints: On the Nous

+ Definition of the Nous according to the Glossary in the five volume set of the Philokalia translated and edited by Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware:

“The highest faculty in man, through which — provided it is purified — he knows God or the inner essences or principles (q.v.) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the [nous] does not function by formulating abstract concepts and deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St. Isaac the Syrian). The [nous] dwells int he ‘depths of the soul; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart (St. Diadochos). The intellect is the organ of contemplation, the ‘eye of the heart’ (Makarian Homilies).”

* * *

“The passions of the soul are forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance. When the souls’ eye, the [nous], has been darkened by these three, the soul is dominated by all the other passions.”

+ St. John of Damascus (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 335)


Only he who has renounced the impassioned conceptual images of these things (worldly pursuits and possessions) has made a monk of the inner self, the [nous].

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 106)


“And that is why He says, ‘Sell what you possess and give alms’ (Luke 12:33), ‘and you will find that all things are clean for you’ (Luke 11:41). This applies to those who no longer spend their time on things to do with the body, but strive to cleanse the [nous] (which the Lord calls ‘heart’) from hatred and dissipation. For these defile the [nous] and do not allow it to see Christ, who dwells in it by the grace of holy baptism.

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 109)


“Stillness and prayer are the greatest weapons of virtue, for they purify the [nous] and confer on it spiritual insight.”

+ St. Thalassios (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 310)


“Love and self-control strengthen the soul; pure prayer and contemplation, the [nous]”.

+ St. Thalassios (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 310)


“For ignoble passions immediately attack an [nous] conceited about its virtue, just as an [nous] over-elated because of its spiritual knowledge will be permitted by God’s just judgment to lapse from true contemplation.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 212)


“the wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful experience of insight sufferings God often abases and humbles an [nous] conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When he [nous] perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretentious of the heart.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 211)


True self-restraint is unaffected even by the fantasies that arise during sleep. If the [nous] pursues these fantasies, this indicates that it still bears deep within itself the sickness of the passions. But if through grace it is found worthy to commune with God [over] the body during sleep, it remains unaffected by these fantasies and serves as a vigilant guardian of soul and body, both of which are at peace. The [nous] is then like a sheep-dog that keeps watch against the cunning wolves, not letting them ravage the flock.”

+ St. Theognostos (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 374)


[An Allegorical interpretation]: “Since man came into being composed of noetic soul and sentient body, one interpretation could be that the tree of life is the soul’s [nous], which is the seat of wisdom. The tree of knowledge of good and evil would then be the body’s power of sensation, which is clearly the seat of mindless impulses.”

“Both trees in Scripture symbolize the [nous] and the senses. Thus the [nous] has the power to discriminate between the spiritual and the sensible, between the eternal and the transitory. Or rather, as the soul’s discriminatory power, the intellect persuades the soul to cleave to the first and to transcend the second. The senses have the power to discriminate between pleasure and pain int he body. Or rather, as a power existing in a body endowed with soul and sense-perception, they persuade the body to embrace pleasure and reject pain.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 194)


“…our [nous], which is capable of of receiving unconditionally all spiritual knowledge, of transcending the entire nature of created beings and all that is known, and of leaving all ages behind it.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 180)


“Without faith, hope and love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13) nothing sinful is totally abolished, nor is anything good fully attained. Faith urges the beleaguered [nous] to press on towards God and encourages it by equipping it with a full range of spiritual weapons. Hope is the [nous’] surest pledge of divine help and promises the destruction of hostile powers. Love makes it difficult or, rather, makes it utterly impossible for the [nous] to estrange itself from the tender care of God; and when the ]nous] is under attack, love impels it to concentrate its whole natural power into longing for the divine.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 201-2)


“Faith encourages the beleaguered [nous] and strengthens it with the hope of assistance. Hope brings before its eyes this help promised by faith and drives off the enemy’s attack. Love kills the enemy’s provocations within the devout [nous], utterly obliterating them with deep longing for the divine.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 202)


“Every [nous] girded with divine authority possess three powers as its counsellors and ministers. First, there is the intelligence (note: not mere human reasoning but noetic knowledge). It is intelligence which gives birth to that faith, founded upon spiritual knowledge, whereby the [nous] learns that God is always present in an unutterable way, and through which it grasps, with the aid of hope, things of the future as though they were present. Second, there is desire. I t is desire which generates that divine love through which the [nous], when of its own free will it aspires to pure divinity, is wedded in an indissoluble manner to this aspiration. Third, there is the incentive power. It is with this power that the [nous] cleaves to divine peace and concentrates its desire on divine love. Every intellect possesses these three powers, and they cooperate with it in order to purge evil and to establish and sustain holiness.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 202-3)


“The [nous] is the organ of wisdom, the intelligence that of spiritual knowledge….Thus he who purges his [nous] of all sensible images receives wisdom. He who makes his intelligence the master of his innate passions — that is to say, of his intensive and desiring powers — receives spiritual knowledge. He whose [nous] and intelligence possess an unshakeable assurance concerning divine realities receives that faith with which all thing are possible. He who has acquired natural compassion receives, after the utter annihilation of self-love, the gifts of healing.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 217)


“Divine grace cannot actualize the illumination of spiritual knowledge unless there is a natural faculty (i.e. the nous) capable of receiving illumination. But that faculty (the nous) itself cannot actualize the illumination with the grace which God bestows.

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 238)


“Not even the grace of the Holy Spirit can actualize wisdom in the saints unless there is an [nous] capable of receiving it…a man cannot acquire a single one of these gifts with his natural faculties unless aided by the divine power that bestows them.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 238)


[How to receive grace]: “He who dispassionately seeks for what is divine will certainly will receive what he seeks. he who seeks with any passion will fail to find what he seeks. For Scripture says, ‘You ask, and do not receive, because you ask wrongly’ (Jas. 4:3).

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 238)


[Difference between the nous and intelligence]: “Seeking is the [nous’] first, simple, fervent movement toward its own cause (i.e. God). Investigating is the intelligence’s first, simple discernment of its own cause with the help of some concept. Again, seeking occurs when the [nous], spurred on by intense longing, moves spiritually, and in cognitive awareness, towards its own cause. Investigating occurs when the intelligence, through the operation of the virtues, discerns its own cause with the help of some wise and profound concept.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 241)


“Through the diligent practice of the virtues the natural intelligence is raised toward the [nous]. Through contemplation (i.e. inner prayer) the [nous] leads towards wisdom the man who aspires to spiritual knowledge. Passion, which is contrary to the intelligence, induces the man who neglects the commandments to descend to the realm of the senses, and the result of this is the [nous’] attachment to sensual pleasure.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 261)


“When the [nous] is drawn away from all created beings towards God, it does not observe their inner principles, but only contemplates God ineffably, being with Him by grace. For the [nous] that reaches up to God in ecstasy relinquishes its knowledge of the inner principles of both corporeal and incorporeal tings. For nothing sequent to God can be contemplated simultaneously with God.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 262)


“…then when the [nous] has been completely liberated from all impulsion towards created things, and is at rest even from its own natural activity, [the saints] offer it to God. Wholly united with God in this way, they are totally immingled through the Spirit with the whole God, since they have put on the whole image of the heavenly (cf. 1 For. 15:49) — so far as human beings can do this….”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 278)


“An [nous] in control of itself is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but that of a glutton is like a nest of crows.”

“A wise [nous] restrains the soul, keeps the body in subjection, and makes the passions its servants.”

“An [nous] that does not use its intelligence fails to chastise the soul, and so prevents it from acquiring love and self-control.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 322)


“…moral philosophy helps the [nous] to cut itself off from, and to go beyond, things pertaining to the flux of time. For when the [nous] has become free from its attachment to sensible objects, it should not be burdened any longer with preoccupations about morality as with a shaggy cloak.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 293)


“Certainly, to keep one’s vision intently fixed on divine things until the will acquires the habit of doing this requires considerable labor over a long period of time. The [nous] has to exert itself to oppose the downward drag of the senses; and this contest and battle against the body continues until death, even if it seems to diminish as anger and desire wither away, and as the senses are subjected to the transcendent knowledge of the [nous].”

+ St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 39)


“Supranatural (i.e. above nature) knowledge, on the other hand, is that which enters the [nous] in a manner transcending its own means and power…Such knowledge is infused by God alone when He finds an [nous] purified of all material attachment and inspired by divine love.”

+ St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 39-40)


“The fourth of the obstacles impeding the [nous] in its acquisition of virtue is the pernicious influence of unclean and hostile demons. It is impossible to speak of all the various snares they set on the spiritual father, making use of the sense, the reason, the [nous] — in fact, on everything that exists.”

+ St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 41)


[Relationship between nous and body]: “When you see that your [nous] reflects upon its conceptual images of the world with reverence and justice, you may be sure that your body, too, continues to be pure and sinless. But when you see that your [nous] is occupied with thoughts of sin, and you do not check it, you may be sure that before very long your body, too, will fall into those sins.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 91)


[Relationship between nous and body]: “For what the body acts out in the world of things (i.e. sins), the [nous] acts out in the world of conceptual images.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 391)


(Relationship between nous and the senses]: (When the nous is in control) “the law of sin cannot penetrate; for the link between the soul and the senses has now been broken, and the senses, limited to the world of sensible objects, can no longer function as a bridge conveying the law of sin into the [nous].”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 176)


[Relationship between nous and the senses]: “Again, he who does not limit his perception of the nature of visible things to what his senses alone can observe, but wisely with his [nous] searches after the essence which lies within every creature, also finds God; for from the manifest magnificence of created beings he learns who si the Cause of their being.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 189)


“It can sometimes happen that the [nous] is unable to advance to the apprehension of the noetic realities akin to it except by way of the contemplation of the intervening sensible objects (i.e. creation). But such contemplation is impossible without the senses, which are linked to the [nous], yet are naturally akin to sensible objects. As a result the [nous], on encountering the superficial aspects of visible things, may well become entangled with them, thinking that the senses-perceptions linked with it is its own natural activity. If this occurs, the [nous] will fall away from the noetic realities which accord with its nature and will grasp with both hands, so to speak, the corporeal entities which are contrary to its intelligence; and, because of the victory which the sense have gained over it, the [nous] will fill the soul with distress. For it will be seared by the whips of conscience because it has become the author of sensual pleasure and coarsened itself with thoughts of how to pamper the flesh. But if on the other hand the [nous] cuts through the superficial aspects of visible things as soon as they strike the senses, it will contemplate the spiritual essences of created things stripped of their outer forms. Then it will produce pleasure in the soul, because the soul will not be dominated by any of the sensible objects which are contemplated….”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 235-6)


“The contemplation of sensible things is shared by the intellect and the senses; but the knowledge of intelligible realities pertains to the [nous] alone.”

“The sense have a natural attachment to sensible things, and when distracted by them distract the [nous].”

“Devote your senses to the service of the [nous] and give them no time to be diverted from it.”

“When the [nous] gives its attention to sensible objects, withdraw your sense from them, bringing the objects into direct contact with the [nous].”

“A sign that the [nous] is devoted to the contemplation of intelligible realities is its disdain for all that agitates the senses.”

“When the [nous] is engaged in the contemplation of intelligible realities, its delight in them is such that it can hardly be dragged away.”

“When the [nous] is rich in the knowledge of the One, the senses will be completely under control.”

Prevent your [nous] from pursuing sensible things, so that it does not reap the fruits of (sensual) pleasure and pain which they produce.”

“When the [nous] devotes itself continually to divine realities, the soul’s passible aspect (i.e. desire and anger) becomes a godlike weapon.”

+ St. Thalassios (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 315)


“The [nous] becomes a stranger to the things of this world when its attachment to the senses has been completely sundered.”

“The [nous] cannot dally with any sensible object unless it entertains at least some kind of passionate feeling for it.”

“The [nous] is perfect when transformed by spiritual knowledge; the soul is perfect when permeated by the virtues.”

“The [nous’] attachment to the senses enslaves it to bodily pleasure.”

“The [nous] falls from the realm of spiritual knowledge when the soul’s passible aspect (i.e. desire and anger) abandons its own virtues.”

+ St. Thalassios (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 316)


“The person who has broken the bonds of his [nous’] fawning friendship for the flesh has slain the body’s evil acts through the life-giving Spirit.”

“Do not think that the [nous] is free from its attachment to the flesh so long as it is still troubled by the activities that pertain to the flesh.”

“Just as the senses and sensible objects pertain to the flesh, so the [nous] and intelligible realities pertain to the soul.”

“Withdraw your soul from the perception of sense objects, and the [nous] will find itself in God and in the realm of intelligible realities.”

“Intelligible natures that can be grasped only by the [nous] belong to the realm of divinity, while the senses and sense objects have been created for the service of the [nous].”

“The [nous’] role is to live in God and to meditate on Him, His providence and His awesome judgments.”

+ St. Thalassios (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 325)


“Let our intelligence, then, be moved to seek God, let our desire be roused in longing for Him, and let our incensive power struggle to keep guard over our attachment to Him. Or, more precisely, let our whole [nous] be directed towards God, tensed by our incensive power as if by some nerve, and fired with longing by our desire at its most ardent. For if we imitate the heavenly angels in this way, we will find ourselves always worshipping God, behaving on earth as the anger do in heaven. For, like that of the angels, our [nous] will not be attracted in the least by anything less than God.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 298)


“The passion of love, when reprehensible (i.e. sinful), occupies the [nous] with material things, but when rightly directed unites it with the divine. For the [nous] tends to develop its powers among those things to which it devotes its attention; and where it develops its power, there it will direct its desire and love. It will direct them, that is to say, either to what is divine, intelligible and proper to its nature, or to the passions and things of the flesh.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, 94)


“If, then, the Creator of everything that is beautiful is superior to all His creation, on what grounds does the [nous] abandon what is superior to all and engross itself in what is worst of all — I mean the passions of the flesh? Clearly this happens because the [nous] has lived with these passions and grown accustomed to them since birth, whereas it has not yet had perfect experience of Him who is superior to all and beyond all things. Thus, if we gradually wean the [nous] away from this relationship by long practice of controlling our indulgence in pleasure and by persistent meditation on divine realities, the [nous] will gradually devote itself more and more to these realities, will recognize its own dignity, and finally transfer all its desires to the divine.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 94-5)


“An [nous] totally purified by the virtues is automatically initiated into their inner principles, and comes to express in its own character the spiritual knowledge which is divinely stamped with their impress. For in itself every [nous] is formless and without any specific quality of expression: its form is acquired, being either that of the knowledge which arises from the virtues through the Spirit, or that of ignorance, which supervenes through the passions.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 265)


“A person who does not penetrate with his [nous] towards the divine and spiritual beauty contained within the letter of the Law develops a propensity for pleasure — that is, an attachment to the world and a love of worldly things; for his knowledge derives merely from the literal expression of the Law.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, 265)


“When the body dies, it is wholly separated from the things of this world. Similarly, when the [nous] dies (to this world) while intuit supreme state of prayer, it is separated from all conceptual images of this world. If it does not die such a death, it cannot be with God and live with Him.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, (Philokalia, Vol. 2, 76)


“When the body sins through material things, it has the bodily virtues to teach it self-restraint. Similarly, when the [nous] sins through impassioned conceptual images, it has the virtues of the soul to instruct it, so that by seeing things in a pure and dispassionate way, it too may learn self-restraint.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia, Vol. 2, 76)


“Just a the [nous] of a hungry man imagines bread and that of a thirsty man water, so the [nous] of a glutton imagines a profusion of foods, that of a sensualist the forms of women, that of a vain man worldly honor, that of an avaricious man financial gain, that of a rancorous man revenge on whoever has offended him, that of an envious man how to harm the object of his envy, and os on with all the other passions. For an [nous] agitated by passions is beset by impassioned conceptual images whether the body is awake or asleep.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia, Vol. 2, 76-7)


“Impurity of the [nous] consists first in having false knowledge; secondly in being ignorant…thirdly in having impassioned thoughts; and fourthly in assenting to sin.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 88-9)


“Our [nous] lies between angel and demon, each of which works for its own ends, the one encouraging virtue and the other vice. The [nous] has both the authority and the power to follow or resist whichever it wishes to.”

“When the [nous] is pure, sometimes God Himself approaches and teaches it; and sometimes the angelic powers, or the nature of the created things that it contemplates, suggest holy things to it.”

“An [nous] which has been granted spiritual knowledge must keep its conceptual images free from passion, its contemplation unfaltering, and its state of prayer untroubled. but it cannot always guard these from intrusions by the flesh, because it is obscured by the ploys of demons.”

“When the [nous] gives attention to conceptual images of physical objects, it is assimilated to the configuration of each image. If it contemplates these objects spiritually, it is transformed in various ways according to which of them it contemplates. But once it is established (i.e. perfected) in God, it loses form and configuration altogether, for by contemplating Him who is simple it becomes simple itself and wholly filled with spiritual radiance.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 98)


“A perfect [nous] is one which by true faith and in a manner beyond all unknowing supremely knows the supremely Unknowable; and which, in surveying the entirety of God’s creation, has received from God an all-embracing knowledge of the providence and judgment which governs it — in so far, of course, as all this is possible to man.”

+ St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 99)