How “Nous” Became a Trojan Horse For Secularism, and Why it is So Difficult to Translate

Anyone who has been involved in Orthodoxy in America will likely have seen much discourse (often polemical in nature) about the “nous.” In fact, the nous plays a pivotal role in anti-western polemics since it has become a trope that “the West doesn’t have a concept of the nous.” Accordingly, the nous functions as a type of secret thing you can only access by being Orthodox, while inability to coherently explain what it means merely adds to its pseudo-mystical mystique.

But worse, there seems to be a troubling trend by which nous-related polemics have become increasingly aligned with atheism. Recently I wrote to a number of friends outlining this concern and asking for feedback on the theological issues it raised. Here is a copy of my letter.

Letter About My Initial Confusion Regarding Nous

My question is whether wrong understandings of nous (Greek νοῦς) promoted by anti-Western thinkers like Fr. John Romanides, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and countless others, collude with a secularist anthropology that is increasingly disastrous in our age of transgenderism, transhumanism, etc. In fact, is the new Orthodox anthropology unwittingly the handmaiden of atheism?

I realize there needs to be some context to my question, so I’ll start by defining some terms, beginning with nous.

What is the Nous?

From what I can tell, in early Christian literature, the nous referred to the mind/understanding/intellect and not the heart or spirit, and is even contrasted with both. For example, in 1 Cor. 14:14, Paul says “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding [νοῦς / nous] is unfruitful.” Here Paul not only associates nous with the mind but distinguishes it from the spirit.

Elsewhere Paul contrasts nous with the inward man that is being renewed by God. For example, in Romans 7:22-23 he writes, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind [nous], and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”

Similarly, in a collection of spiritual writings known as the Macarian Homilies, attributed to an Egyptian monk named Macarius who lived in the 4th century AD, we read as follows about 2 Corinthians 3:

“Divine grace writes on the ‘tables of the heart’ the laws of the Spirit and the heavenly mysteries. For the heart directs all the organs of the body, and when grace gains possession of the heart, it rules over all the members [of the body] and the thoughts. For there, in the heart, the mind [nous] abides as well as all the thoughts of the soul and all its hopes. This is how grace penetrates throughout all parts of the body.”

Stop Saying the Nous is the Heart!

In the above passage, the nous is not only associated with the mind/intellect, but is contrasted with the heart, the latter being the center of God’s work in us according to Macarius. Given the centrality of the heart in Macarius’s anthropology, the goal is for the mind/nous to abide in the heart.

Other theologians made similar points: for example, the fifth-century ascetic St. Diadochos of Photiki wrote about the nous descending into the heart through prayer; St. Symeon the New Theologian also spoke about the nous descending into the heart, as did St. Theophan the Recluse.

This type of language makes sense because the nous is not the same thing as the heart. The Greek word for heart is kardia (καρδία) and this is not reducible to nous (νοῦς) Kardia appears in such passages as the following:

  • Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart [καρδία] be also.”
  • Matthew 22:37: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart [καρδία] and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
  • John 12:40: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts [καρδία], lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.”

These passages make clear that both νοῦς (mind) and καρδία (heart) are distinguishable in the way the arm and the leg are distinguishable, and while they work together in a spiritually healthy person like the actions of the arm and the leg work together, the two are not merely interchangeable.

As far as I can tell, in the mid 20th century, there was a move to dislocate the nous from its Greek meaning (mind or understanding) and associate it alternatively with

  1.     the heart
  2.     part of the heart
  3.     the spirit
  4.     the soul
  5.     something that includes the mind and parts of other faculties.

In this modern sense, no uniform picture emerges of what the nous actually is, other than that it isn’t the one thing that it was for the early Greek-speaking Christians, namely the intellect. This in turn leads to some peculiar ideas, such as the oft-repeated notion that the mind must descend into the nous – a reversal of the tradition represented by Macarius, et al, in which the goal is for the nous to descend into the heart.

Worse still, the modern discourse I am questioning leads to a subtle separation of the believer from Christ since it tends to neglect references to God’s nous, and thus the Biblical concept of participating in the mind (nous) of Christ.

Even more troubling is how nous is thought to relate to the heart. While modern Orthodox literature uses nous in all the five senses mentioned above, the overwhelming consensus I have seen is to make nous first synonymous with the heart. For example, Orthodox wiki declares, “The nous is the eye of the soul, which some Fathers also call the heart.” In Patristic Theology Fr. John Romanides wrote,

“The Church has always considered…that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous.”

Similarly, in Orthodox Psychotherapy, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos observed:

“The essence of the soul, that is to say the heart, is also called the nous. In many passages of Holy Scripture and in the Fathers there is this link between nous and heart, since these terms are used interchangeably…. The nous is also called heart and the two terms nous and heart are interchangeable.”

One obvious problem with making heart and nous convertible with one another is that it eclipses a rich and specific discourse on the theology of καρδία (kardia), which is receiving a recapitulation in the scholarship of Cynthia Bourgeault and others.

St. John Cassian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of Damascus, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Symeon the New Theologian all wrote extensively on the theology of kardia. Often these writings suggest that the heart is the center of our being, deeper than our intellect, and the source of much of how we perceive the world. It is not clear that this theological discourse on the heart can simply be collapsed into the discourse (also rich and specific) on the nous, as we would expect if Vlachos were correct that “the two terms nous and heart are interchangeable.”

Nous as Handmaiden of Anti-Intellectualism

Correlative to nous migrating from its meaning of mind/intellect/understanding and collapsing into heart is the move to put nous in opposition to the intellect and reason (contra 1 Cor. 14:14!). This emerges in oft-repeated statements in 20th and 21st century Orthodox polemics such as, “The nous is not a logical faculty nor is it identified with reason,” and “the nous is not the intellect but is distinct from it.” In this way, the nous has become a trojan horse for a type of pious anti-intellectualism.

What does any of this have to do with my original question regarding secular anthropology? Here I must define what I mean by secularism since this term, like nous, is routinely misunderstood.

Defining Secularism

As someone who has dabbled in 18th and 19th century history, I am acutely aware that secularism, in its original sense, is not an anti-religious movement as such; rather, it references a certain posture towards religion, namely that of circumscribing the spiritual to the personal and private. As I pointed out in chapter 15 of my recent book, Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation, the great progenitors of secularism were quite happy for religion to thrive provided it kept in its lane, allowing the rest of life to be dictated by the liturgies of various economic and political idolatries (which themselves were positioned as ostensibly non-religious and spiritually neutral). The problem, of course, is that ever since the Enlightenment, the lane allowed to religion has continued to shrink, until now it is widely assumed that religion must confine itself to merely an exploration of personal interiority.

One of the interesting things about 18th century religious history is that in order to push this privatizing agenda for religion, secularist thinkers (i.e., the encyclopédistes, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, etc) had to redefine the nature of religious truth-claims as something categorically separate from the rationality of the world. At the risk of oversimplification, Western European Christians tended to collude with a secularism that was originally conceived in pietistic terms that obscured its atheistic trajectory. Such piety emphasized heart over head together with a vibrant devotional piety that was increasingly unconcerned with thinking Christianly about all aspects of life in the physical world. (Those wishing to look deeper at this Enlightenment tendency should consult my earlier blog post, “How to Think Like a Christian During a Time of Secularism,” and my article “Thomas Jefferson’s Cancellation Portends End of Classical Liberalism.”)

As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, fideism was collapsing into deism and finally atheism. And if you think about it, the path of descent from fideism to atheism makes sense: after all, if the truth of God is disconnected from the rationality of the world, then God is detached from His creation and thus perhaps not completely personal. But if God is detached and impersonal then how does this differ, as far as our experience is concerned, from a state of affairs in which there is no God at all?

At root, this type of secularism, even in its religious guise, merely recapitulates the devil’s lie. When the serpent spoke to Eve (“did God really say?”) he implicitly encouraged her to imagine a realm of truth independent of God’s truth, to adopt a two-tiered epistemology that recognizes an alternate set of principles for the created realm that we can pursue independently of the Creator.

How Christianity Became Secular

It seems that so much modern Christianity is content to follow the devil’s lie by ceding to the secular the entire realm of space, time, and human reason. But in the process, the space allowed for “religion” invariably recedes to the realm of interiority and personal piety, while the dynamic personal God of Scripture is replaced by a deity remote from the rationality of the world, distant from the concerns of culture, and disengaged from His own creation.

For those in the tradition of 19th and and 20th century deism, this two-tiered epistemology created space for a rationalistic Christianity void of the spiritual. For those advocating a purer form of religious piety, this dualism created space for an anti-intellectual Christianity willing to cede nature and nature’s rationality to a secular space. But in both cases, the taken-for-granted background was an ontological caesura between reason and revelation, the natural and the supernatural, grace and nature, God and creation.

That brings us to the situation today where there is enormous pressure to merely layer our Christianity on top of a world already understood in secularized terms—to detach the Church from history in a sort of crypto-gnosticism. This correlates with a pressure to accept an anthropology defined by the sort of infinite malleability that technology has seemed to make possible, or at least to make theoretically attainable.

Sequestering Christianity from the world via the aforementioned two-tiered epistemology and two-tiered metaphysics is a necessary part of the postmodern project of liberating us from all normative structures outside the slavery of our own desires. This modern project involves violence against all structures that would limit man’s freedom to design and redesign reality to our whims, even if that means seeking emancipation from human nature itself. Such violence is manifest not merely in the way we carve up the world—and sometimes even ourselves—to better fit the onerous demands exacted by the empire of desire; violence also occurs in the attempt to divest the world of all meaning not assigned by the self. Meaning that is inherent in the world must become the object of deep hatred and finally violence. An order that is intrinsic to things themselves rather than assigned by the agent must be treated as seditious because it threatens the eschatological dream wrought by the fusion of technology and desire: the dream of a world completely malleable to the changing impulses of the individual. To the extent that such a vision facilitates an infinitude of desires while denying that anything can ever be objectively desirable, it must ultimately fold into nihilism.

Modern Christians often object to the nihilism without actually recovering the type of metaphysical realism—described so well by Rod Dreher in the second chapter of The Benedict Option, and by recent metaphysicians like Michael Hanby, D. C. Schindler, and Hans Boersma—in which nature is understood to have an intrinsic ordination towards the transcendent.

Okay, now that I’ve laid the groundwork for understanding secularism, we can connect the dots to the question of nous. Why did I say earlier that the nous had become the handmaiden, not only of anti-intellectualism, but also of secularism?

How Nous Became the Handmaiden of Secularism 

In the mid 20th century when Enlightenment secularism was coming to maturity, Orthodox teachers began to use the category of the nous to promote the kind of anti-intellectualism that runs along the aforementioned itinerary sketched above (from fideism to deism to secularism to functional atheism). Indeed, by using nous as a loanword, and relocating it in the heart and not the mind, it began to take on some of the fideistic connotations that “heart” already had within its English semantic range. This occurred at precisely a time when, given the secularizing developments mentioned above, there was already enormous pressure to embrace forms of piestic fideism within the larger secularist agenda of disengaging religion from the rationality of the world.

Often these moves were merely implicit (part of the taken-for-granted background picked up from the intellectual milieu of the 20th), but sometimes they were explicitly taught, as was the case with Fr. John Romanides, whose entire theological project was concerned with disengaging God from the world (in a sense, rendering God “impersonal” and “anonymous,” to use the terms in Patristic Theology, a collection of lectures published and popularized by Fr. Peter Heers.)

Fr. John Romanides’ collusion with the secularizing developments mentioned above can be seen in his withering (yet unconvincing) criticism of the idea that we can infer anything about God from creation, in addition to the energy he spent working to rehabilitate models of metaphysical nominalism. For example, consider his celebration of William of Ockham in Patristic Theology. Romanides saw Ockhamist nominalism as an effective tool for hammering against the Russian tradition with its tendency to perpetuate what he alleged is a far too personal approach to God. (Whether Romanides accurately understood either the Fransiscan friar or Russian spirituality need not concern us here).

What then did Romanides mean when he argued that God is impersonal? It is best to let his words speak for himself:

“Nobody can mix created truths with uncreated truths. They are not the same thing. Created truths are one thing, uncreated truths – something else. And insofar as there is no likeness, created truth cannot be the way by which we know uncreated truth.” [Translated by Vladimir Moss in Against Romanides].

Fear of inappropriate mixing led Romanides to deny the legitimacy of all analogical language: the world, he insisted, tells us nothing about God; it offers us only natural truth, not spiritual truth; there is no similarity between the world and God. In the end, this two-tiered system left Romanides with a world perceived as mere raw material onto which the Orthodox perspective is layered externally – quite different from the more holistic metaphysics of thinkers like Fr. Schmemann. Orthodoxy is reduced to a worldview that is imposed on the world from the outside while the structural motifs that organize our thinking can be colonized by latent secular assumptions.

Romanides seems to have viewed this reductionism as a feature and not a bug, on the grounds that it could evaporate some of the conflicts between faith and reason that were picking up momentum in the 20th century, as the great divide between liberalism and fundamentalism was becoming so contentious. After all, if faith and public reason represent non-overlapping magisteria, then these disputes merely evaporate as a category mistake: faith can get on with its business (the purification of the nous, etc.) while secular reason can get on with its.

Of course, from the perspective of the 21st century, we know that things are not quite so simple. We have seen the concept of non-overlapping magisteria and its associated tropes weaponized in the service of the empire of desire and its demand for hegemony over our very identity as human beings.

The weaponizing of Romanides’ secularist anthropology became clear when I raised some of these concerns in a Romanides discussion group. The moderator announced that the problem with my questions was that it was tethered to the categories of the contemporary “culture war,” which has no place in Orthodoxy. Now to be clear, I had said nothing beyond what I shared above regarding the empire of desire and its deleterious effects on how we conceive the human person, and in passing I referenced transgenderism and transhumanism as examples of nihilistic anthropology. The pushback surprised me because, from a moral point of view, I would not expect this to be controversial among Orthodox Christians. In my rejoinder to the moderator I pointed out that the Church Fathers speak against the passions all the time, and the fact that some of these passions have now been politicized in what some refer to as a “culture war” does not change the truth of the Church’s teachings. Yet my interlocutors remained adamant, insisting that Romanides’ anthropology buffers us from such concerns.

This may sound bizarre, but for die-hard Romanides fans, there is a certain consistency here. In Patristic Theology and elsewhere, Romanides worked hard to disengage the spiritual life from anthropology and cultural issues, presenting the two-tiered epistemology as a feature and not a bug. Adopt the right understanding of the nous, and all the post-Enlightenment problems go away: Christianity can work in the sphere appropriate to it, while the world of science, culture, and reason can work in the sphere appropriate to it.

Even if one doesn’t go in the direction of Romanides, Hierotheos Vlachos, etc., the misuse of nous seems to easily steer unsuspecting believers towards the type of secularist trajectory charted above. Here I speak from personal experience, having witnessed nous-related polemics forming the basis for an aggressive pursuit of the type of two-tiered approach to truth that, even in Orthodox guise, remains the bedfellow of secularist anthropology.

Practical Consequences

These problems touch on so many aspects of our life in the world, ranging from the proper Orthodox response to psychotherapy (a discipline Vlachos dismisses on the basis of his theories regarding the nous) to the proper way to theologize about empirical realities like pandemics, to the Church’s role in cultural renewal, to our involvement in academia. Significantly, in conversations with influential Orthodox teachers about these questions, I increasingly find that the organizing motif to their thinking seems to be a dualistic two-tiered approach to truth that merges secularist epistemology with a type of implicit gnosticism in which Orthodoxy becomes isolated from the physical world. This, in turn, leads to the type of dualism I discuss in chapter 16 of Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: a Handbook for Recovering Gnostics:

What gets entirely overlooked is the existence of an intelligible cosmic order that we can apprehend through objective knowing and that we can appeal to when establishing what is fitting for us as individuals and communities. When this intelligible cosmic order is lost—when, for example, even Christians no longer perceive a rightly ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and as the reason for, the commands that comprise our ethical obligations—then the raw will of God is the only mechanism left for asserting meaning. In such a case, we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them, both in our capacity as individuals and in how we order our communities. As such, the Christian perspective on culture amounts to little more than colonizing isolated issues, which are then assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been partitioned off from larger questions of teleological purpose and ontological meaning. With this failure to recognize an inner logic within the world and human nature, Christian spokespersons become unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands, within any context antecedent to mere will. The result is that Christian contributions to the public discourse become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities….

Consequently, the realms of nature, society, and culture become essentially secular, with theism added on top of an order still conceived in spiritually passive terms. For a generation implicitly catechized under such assumptions, Christianity becomes less and less relevant while biblical ethics becomes more and more anachronistic, for both religion and ethics are conceived as an add-on to a world already understood in secularized terms.

Once the faith comes to have this type of extrinsic relation to the world, we can no longer rightly understand the work of the Spirit in our lives, which must be reduced to something mechanical and wholly extrinsic – a kind of throwback to the manualist model of grace in Second Scholasticism. Indeed, given the type of ontological chasm Fr. Romanides posited between the natural and the supernatural, it follows that the work of the Spirit in our lives and in the world can never rise above merely an extrinsic imposition onto a nature that is, in its primal condition, autonomous and non-teleological. Indeed, rather than grace liberating creatures to achieve what is already their natural end (for example, by redirecting the unquiet heart to that which is the origin and proper goal of our primal longings), this ontological division entails that God’s work in our lives through Purification, Illumination and Deification can only be related to the soul extrinsically. For once we acknowledge that our nature as rational beings includes an intrinsic ordination towards transcendental (and therefore uncreated) attributes of being such as goodness, truth, and beauty, it becomes impossible to continue maintaining the type of hermetic seal between what Romanides called “created truth” and “uncreated truth.”

Framing the Question

It is now time to pick up the strands and frame the question (or rather, the series of questions) we are left with.

I began with the question, “Is the new Orthodox anthropology unwittingly the handmaid of atheism?” In the process of explaining my question, I am convinced I have answered it for myself. But that doesn’t mean there is no lingering confusion. Indeed, one of the things that has been unsettling to me is to see these secular trends appearing to emerge strongest among teachers and communities (including monasteries) that seem, on one level, to be the most serious and zealous for following a pure version of Orthodoxy.

This question is distinguishable, though not completely separable, from the linguistic questions regarding the meaning of nous. And regarding that, would it be correct that much confusion has ensued for a failure to distinguish the following questions, and instead to blur them together as if the answer to one necessitates an answer to the other?

  1. What is the meaning(s) of nous for St. Paul?
  2. What is the meaning(s) of nous for the Greek-speaking Church Fathers (which of course could itself be subdivided by place and period, and even by author)?
  3. What is the meaning of nous as it is used in 20th century English as a loanword?
  4. How do we know that the nous, in the sense in which it functions in English, even exists? Sure, one can describe operations that occur in the human being and give names to those operations, but that doesn’t mean those names reference real entities (whether visible or invisible) that actually exist, right? This is why I have tentatively concluded that the nous does not exist, which is to say the term does not reference anything that is ontologically objective.
  5. When various 20th and 21st century Orthodox teachers have appealed to different nous-related concepts to underwrite certain theological and epistemological agendas such as the ones described earlier, are these agendas correct, true, or helpful?

Further Findings 

Since writing the above letter, I have had the opportunity to discuss this matter with a variety of scholars, and to engage in more historical research. In the process I learned that the relationship between nous, heart, mind, and spirit is more complicated than I initially allowed. Moreover, in looking at the history of this word, I have been forced to modify some of my previous thoughts.

The Bugbear of Two-Tiered Secularism Continues to Lurk 

But let me not be too hasty. Before beginning to share what I found out, I need to emphasize that the dangers of a two-tier metaphysical model remain pressing.

Given that St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine of Hippo, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and frankly all the great philosophers of our tradition, have affirmed that rational creatures are invested with a predisposition towards Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, and given that these thinkers have affirmed that the longing for God is a vocation intrinsic to our nature, it must necessarily follow that God’s work in our lives and the world cannot be understood as an extrinsic juxtaposition of natures reconciled to each other. Nor can we say that whatever draws us to the good is external to what we really are prior to our transformation. Nor can we say that grace is discontinuous with nature, as a sort of superannuated addition to what we are in our primary condition. On the contrary, Christ’s work is an unfolding and a realization of the true nature of the human being and the world—a nature that, though twisted and corrupted by sin, remains God-ward in its primary orientation. (I recently discussed this on a couple AFM podcasts, here and here.) Accordingly, theosis involves a right-ordering of our longing for the transcendent, and a redirection of the unquiet heart toward the One who is both the origin and final goal of what we naturally desire.

Even the fact that the devil cannot offer any competing telos to God, but simply misdirects our longing for Him (for example, by twisting and distorting our longing for what is good, true, and beautiful), underscores the God-ward orientation of our nature and the world. This is basic Christian metaphysics, yet remains incompatible with any two-tiered system that would impose a sharp bifurcation between nature and super nature, grace and creation, the rationality of the world and the principles of the spiritual life. It is also incompatible with the anti-metaphysical metaphysics that Romanides advocated in works like Ancestral Sin and Patristic Theology that created the larger theological architecture for his teaching about the nous. For Romanides grace and nature can never be “mixed” since the created is utterly separate from the uncreated, the former having no “likeness” for the latter. Consequently, created nature can only be reconciled to the uncreated God by a kind of force.

Nous: From Plato to Paul 

The question of the nous remains difficult, in fact more difficult than I realized when I wrote the above letter. Part of this complication arises from the way terms like nous, heart, spirit, and mind have been evolving over time. To segue back into that discussion, I’d like to return to the Pauline passage in his Corinthian correspondence. “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding [gk. nous] is unfruitful.” (1 Cor. 14:14)

This passage has to be understood in light of the classical worldview that forms the backdrop to how Greek-speaking Christians used these terms. In the classical world, the intellect (nous) was an organ of perception through which we perceive or notice (νοεῶ / noeō) the things which relate to the noetic (νοητικός / noetic) realm, just as with the senses we perceive the things which relate to the sensible (what we would call empirical) realm.

Both Plato and Aristotle make this distinction between two types of knowledge: noetic knowledge (knowledge by the intellect) and sensible knowledge (knowledge by the senses). This carries over into Latin, in which nous has normally been translated as intellectus or mens (mind).  To translate nous as intellect or mind is to focus on nous as a power or faculty (i.e. inborn ability) of the soul. If you focus on the activity or act of this power, the standard translation is “understanding” (which in Latin is again intellectus, or the verb intelligere).

When ancient philosophers spoke of knowledge by the intellect, they did not mean intellect in the sense of an organ of analysis and discursive reasoning. Discursive reasoning can make possible noetic/intellectual knowledge and sensible knowledge (knowledge through the senses), just as we might say a telescope makes possible knowledge of the stars and planets. But just as we would not mistake the objects of astronomical knowledge with the telescope, so the ancients did not mistake the tools of acquiring knowledge (whether noetic or sensible) with the knowledge itself. Neither did the ancients understand intellect as an organ of calculation nor an organ for making things up. Again, it was an organ of perception through which we notice the things appropriate to it, that is, the objects of noetic knowledge. Objects of noetic knowledge included truths that are abstract and universal rather than concrete and particular, while for Plato noetic knowledge also included awareness of the forms.

Different Greeks disagreed with how the noetic and sensible realms were related. For example, Plato argued that noetic knowledge is more valuable than sensible knowledge, whereas Aristotle put the two at the same level. Yet all ancient thinkers agreed that we have access to both types of knowledge, and that the intellect or nous is an organ of perception. (For more about this, I recommend the nous episode of “the Lord of the Spirits” podcast.)

In light of this context, it makes sense that Paul would declare that if he hears a prayer in an unknown tongue, his nous is unfruitful. After all, if the content of the prayer is incomprehensible, then there is nothing for his mind/nous to perceive. Yet in this passage Paul recognized a type of perception deeper than noetic knowledge, namely spiritual perception. One’s spirit can be edified even when the nous is unfruitful (a prospect the down-to-earth Paul did not recommend to his Corinthian readers!)

Heart: From Homer to Neoplatonism

This idea that we possess the capacity for a perception deeper than noetic knowledge becomes a feature of developing Christian thinking concerning the theology of the heart, referenced in the letter above.

In classical Greek, the heart (kardia / καρδία) generally referenced the part of the soul that is associated with the emotions, desires, and passionate impulses. For instance, in the Iliad, Homer describes Achilles’ heart as boiling within his breast when he becomes angry. Similarly, in the Odyssey, when Odysseus is taunted by the Phaeacians after declining to participate in their sports, he declares, “I find my heart inside my ribs aroused by you.” The Greek physician Galen (AD 129- c. 200/216) believed that the heart was the seat of passionate emotions, including the appetitive, the irascible, and the concupiscent spirits. However, there was also a recurring theme that the heart could be redeemed if it was submitted to reason.

To understand the context of this more positive potential for the heart and how it got developed by Christians, we have to look again at Plato. The Athenian philosopher had proposed a three-fold psychology that divided the human soul into:

  1. the rational faculty at the top (corresponding with the intellect or nous);
  2. the spirited or energetic faculty in the middle (corresponding with the thumos or “spirit” in the sense of spirited);
  3. the appetitive faculties below (corresponding with the abdomen and genitalia).

The thumos functions as an intermediary between the intellectual faculty (nous) and the appetitive faculties, and is responsible for enforcing the will of the former and directing it towards virtuous ends. But notice that Plato’s tripartite division did not include the heart. When Plato talked about the heart, he used it primarily as a metaphor to represent the emotional and passionate aspects of the soul.

Later Greek thinkers kept Plato’s tripartite psychology but added the heart to this middle level, associating it with the thumos or the spirited part of man. This mitigated against the tendency to see the heart as merely an adjunct of the passions. Instead of the heart being ruled by our baser instincts, leading to brute-like behaviors, our heart can be ruled by reason, in which case our affections become well-ordered.

This insertion of the heart into the middle level of Plato’s tripartite psychology is evident in the Hellenistic period and becomes even more dominant in Neoplatonism when the heart came to be seen as a crucial center for both physical and emotional life. And again, the emphasis is always that the heart functions properly when ruled by the head/intellect/nous.

Heart and Spirit in Christianity

Up through the fourth century there was an overlap of Christian and Neoplatonic thought, which C.S. Lewis described so well in the early chapters of The Discarded Image. Eventually Christianity displaced Neoplatonism as the dominant philosophy, while retaining and Christianizing many aspects of the latter. As this happened, some important categories began to modulate. Within Christian thought, the heart continues to be important, but the emphasis shifts from the mind/intellect/nous ruling the heart to the spirit ruling it. But here spirit has a different meaning than what it meant for Plato, and is even a different Greek word (pneuma not thumos).

In Christian thought, “spirit” refers either to God’s spirit given to Christians at baptism, often known as the Holy Spirit and the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Or “spirit” can refer to our own spirit that communes directly with God’s spirit. (This use of pneuma also has antecedents in Greek thought. In the Greek classical period, the pneuma was a non-physical, invisible, and often divine or supernatural force that animates and moves things, and also the breath or vital energy that gives life to living beings.)

The Christian theology of spirit helps us understand the next stage in the evolution of Plato’s tripartite anthropology. The three-fold division of man is still in place, though now human flourishing occurs not through the mind ruling the heart, but through the spirit ruling both the mind and the heart. There is still the possibility—as there was in the Neoplatonic tradition—of the passionate lusts pulling the heart downward, yet the solution offered by Christian theology is not simply the rulership of the intellect over the heart but the rulership of God’s spirit. Only then can the human soul be rightly ordered.

The idea that God can rule the soul by communing with our hearts opened up space for the heart to take on more positive connotations than in the early Christian period. (This was also partly due to the influence of the Hebrew tradition on Christian theology, but that is another story.) We see this shift to a more positive understanding of the heart in a variety of writers. St. Augustine of Hippo, though writing in Latin, is central in showing how a theology of the heart was developing in Christian thought. We also find a similar emphasis in Greek speakers as in the quotation from Macarius that I cited in the above letter.

The central place of the heart in Christian theology offered a rich vocabulary for discussing the role our affections play in driving the soul’s movement towards God, and the role theosis plays in the sanctification of our affections. This is C.S. Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man, originally titled Men Without Chests. Lewis draws on the tripartite psychology of Neoplatonism, but argues that modern educational theories combined with philosophical materialism has dulled the affective part of man (the chest or heart), reducing our likes and dislikes to mere subjective epiphenomena. This has produced a society of men without chests, which is to say, a class of students whose capacity to delight in the beautiful has been eviscerated. Lewis’s argument is that in order for students to be oriented towards the good, they need to first have their hearts enlivened by the sublime—to feel delight at what is truly beautiful. In this sense, the teacher has the task of irrigating deserts, awakening that middle part of the human that mediates between our lower instincts and our higher rationality. This theology of the heart is not unique to Lewis, but was something he got straight out of St. Augustine, who himself was appropriating how the concept of heart functioned in Neoplatonism, in both the East and West?

Suffice to say, there has been a rich Christian discourse on the theology of the heart, and this discourse cannot simply be collapsed into the discourse (also rich and specific) on the nous, as much as modern Orthodox teachers are eager to make heart and nous convertible with one another. But I need not repeat the points already made in the above letter.

And yet…in the burgeoning Christian era, the discourses on heart and nous do draw closer together than I initially allowed. The reason for this is the theology of spirit.

Spirit, Heart, and Nous

The fact that Christian thinkers emphasized the need for the heart (kardia) to be submitted to God, in addition to emphasizing the need for our mind (nous) to come into alignment with God’s spirit (Eph 4:23), resulted in both kardia and nous undergoing some permutations from the semantic range the terms enjoyed in the classical period of Paul’s day.

While some thinkers (Origen, Clement of Alexandria) still use nous in the older sense to refer to the rational intellect, a number of church fathers (including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor) start to discuss the nous as a spiritual faculty rather than a purely rational one (though to be fair, within Platonism and Neoplatonism, there is a kind of spirituality attached to noetic knowledge).

But even in this sense, nous never becomes untethered from its original classical meaning as an organ of perception, nor does it ever lapse into the anti-intellectualism discussed in the above letter, nor does it become a category interchangeable with the heart, as it does in Romanides and Vlachos. But what does happen is that nous and heart come into closer alignment than in the classical period via the connection of both to our spirit animated by the Holy Spirit. Within this emerging context, the heart continues to include the seat of our affection, which the Fathers see as trainable through ascetic labor and theologizing, while remaining a temptation (and “desperately wicked”) when untethered from God.


At this point, it will be helpful to pause and summarize the ground covered so far.

As Christian thought evolved, the heart came to be seen as playing a role in spiritual perception. This must be understood against Christian philosophy’s classical backdrop. Ancient Greeks had associated the heart with emotions and passions. While Plato’s tripartite psychology didn’t include the heart, later Greek thinkers added it, associating it with the middle section in Plato’s three-fold division. In Christian discussions of the heart, this tripartite psychology is still in place, yet the emphasis shifts from the intellect/mind ruling the heart to the spirit ruling it. The heart can still be ruled by passionate lusts, but now the solution is to submit to the Holy Spirit, which indwells believers at baptism. Since God’s Spirit rules the mind (nous) as well as the heart, both come into closer alignment within the Patristic discourse that starts to emerge, though kardia and nous never become conflated as they are in some of the 20th century writers I cited in the letter above.

Continued Evolution of Nous

That is not the end of the story as far as the nous is concerned. Just as there was an evolving theology of heart, so there was also an evolving theology of nous.

Throughout the Christian era, nous continued to function as a faculty of noetic knowledge, but the object and means of noetic knowledge took on a theological dimension not present in Greek antiquity. Teachers like St. Gregory of Palamas (1296–1359) emphasized the role of experiential knowledge of God through divine grace in noetic knowledge, the need for the nous to be purified and illumined through ascetic practices, and the idea (present, as we saw, in both Plato and Aristotle) that noetic knowledge is distinguishable from purely discursive analysis. This last point has become central to anti-intellectual agendas tied to the interminable nous-polemics in contemporary Orthodoxy. Yet we must remember that Palamas actually thought discursive analysis, though different to direct noetic apprehension, is still a means of perception, as evidenced in Palamas’s high regard for Thomas Aquinas.

Part of the reason for these anti-intellectual theories of nous arise from mistranslations that have inadvertently supercharged some of the secularizing trends previously discussed. It will be helpful briefly to explore these reasons for mistranslation before offering some tentative suggestions for the wisest path moving forward.

Nous and the Problem of Intuition 

One factor that leads to mistranslation is confusion about “intuition.” Nous has sometimes been translated as “intuition,” which aligns with the anti-intellectual trajectory of the thinkers mentioned earlier.

When discussing intuition, one has to understand the context of the original sense of the Latin intuitus, which means literally to “gaze.” Only recently has “intuition” come to mean feelings, hunches, or guesses. In much of ancient and early Christian philosophy, nous is a power of the soul whose act is to “see” with the mind’s eye. It is an intellectual vision that is or can be entirely distinct from the senses.

Intuition in this ancient sense should not be understood in opposition to reason. There is, however, a difference between discursive reasoning and intuition, which is analogous to the difference between looking for something and seeing it, or between seeking and finding. The mind or intellect is the subject of both activities. When the mind is looking for an answer, it is inquiring, figuring things out in a process that takes time and effort. That is where discursive reasoning and Latin ratio (rationales/reasons) or dialectic ((διαλεκτική / dialectike in Greek) play a role. But when the nous or Latin intellectus is functioning as intuition, it is just seeing the answer, enjoying what it has found and contemplating it; there is no more process toward a goal, because the goal has been reached. C.S. Lewis explains this concept in his discussion of intellectus in his section on the rational soul in The Discarded Image, chapter 7. “We are enjoying intellectus,” he writes, “when we ‘just see’ a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident.”

Put another way, discursive reasoning means the hard work of figuring things out, like when you’re working on a math problem. By contrast nous or intellectus qua intuition is what happens when you find the solution to the problem and say, “Aha!  Now I see it!” This process is very much an intellectual moment, but not “merely intellectual,” as if the intellect were a cold calculating machine. In Augustine’s thought, the intuitive vision is also a moment of pure joy and an essential component in his concept of beatitude. This is the ancient understanding of the Latin intuitus, and has no point of contact with the modern meaning of “intuition,” though nous is sometimes rendered into English as “intuition” to reference this older concept. This can create confusion, especially when—for reasons that have previously been discussed—nous already plays a central role in anti-intellectual revisionism.

Nous and the Problem of Heart

Another reason for misunderstanding nous originates from the Hebraic background, of which I have said very little so far. The ancient Hebrew term for heart is often translated into English versions of the Old Testament as “mind.” Another Hebrew term that gets translated “mind” is literally the word for kidneys. For the ancient Hebrews the  “heart” (lev or levav) is the locus of both thought and feeling, so translating it as mind is not entirely unconscionable.

Latin thinkers (Augustine and other medieval thinkers) pick up on this, and for them “heart” (Latin cor and cordis) includes both intellect and will, and thus is the locus of understanding as well as loving. We see the connection between heart and intellect even in the New Testament, when Jesus knows the thoughts that are in the Pharisees’ hearts. This Biblical usage, which is hard to miss in any decent translation, does justify a qualified identification of nous with heart, provided one realizes that the identification goes both ways: the Biblical heart includes the classical Greek nous/intellect; but it also includes love, will, feeling, pleasure, anguish, etc. But as C.S. Lewis explains, this creates difficulty in translation for English readers for whom “heart” has been sentimentalized. From Lewis:

The Hebrew word which St. Paul presents by καρδιά would be more nearly translated “Mind”; and in Latin, one who is cordatus is not a man of feeling but a man of sense. But later, when fewer people thought in Latin, and the new ethics of feeling were coming into fashion, this Pauline use of hearts may well have seemed to support the novelty. [The Discarded Image, chapter 7]

The “new ethics of feeling” Lewis refers to requires some explanation, as it further highlights factors that lead English readers to misunderstand the concept of heart, and thus to misunderstand nous when it is explained in terms of heart.

Through an itinerary that runs through the Enlightenment (especially the strand represented by Rousseau) and the romantic movement, by the 19th century the English heart had come to be associated with domesticity, a kind of mother’s intuition to balance the cold calculating utilitarianism of the industrial workplace. Instead of the heart being a spirited energetic faculty requiring training, the heart comes to be something benign and domicile.

In this new sense, the heart remains integral to ethics but as an alternative to reason as an organ of morality. “Nearly all moralists before the eighteenth century regarded Reason as the organ of morality,” C.S. Lewis noted, again from The Discarded Image. But as the heart (now domesticated) comes to be central to moral reasoning, the use of reason for moral judgments is thought to actually indicate a defective ethical outlook, for which figures like Bentham, Galton, or (in fiction) Gradgrind come to be the epitome. As reason is narrowed to exclude the affections, being a mere calculating faculty, so the heart becomes unhinged from reason, leaving the question of rationally ordered affection (at one time the central question of ethics), to recede into anachronism.

Having inherited such a network of confusion, the English term “heart” has become almost useless for purposes of philosophy and theology. Of course, translations must work with the English words available, but at least we should stop saying that the Greek nous and English heart are interchangeable.

Nous and the Problem of Spirit 

Still another reason for misunderstanding and mistranslations arises from a curious twist in the history of translation. Ancient words for mind, including both nous and intellectus, are translated in many European languages into words that can mean both mind and spirit. Both French esprit and German geist can be translated “mind” as well as “spirit.” This is not how English works, of course, but it does affect the way lots of European writers think. Significantly, it likely affects Greek and Russian theologians, who often draw on French and German scholarship and may lack sensitivity to the complex history of these words. Careful scholars should be able to avoid such confusion, remembering that nous never loses its underlying sense of intellect.

Tentative Suggestions For Moving Forward

Having considered the torturous itinerary of the word nous, and its propensity to be grossly misunderstood and put to the service of subversive agendas, the following questions naturally arise:

  • Should we dispense with the word nous completely?
  • If we do retain the term, what is the best path forward for dealing with it?
  • How should we translate it?

Earlier I suggested that the term nous had become so incoherent that I began to doubt if it even referenced something that is ontologically real. But given that the word is used by the authors of scripture and the Greek fathers, it clearly does reference something, even if translating it into English proves arduous.

A little linguistic theory may come to our aid in clarifying the nature of the problem. It is helpful to keep in mind that sometimes terms come to have precise technical definitions quite different to the original meaning of the term. For example, “virus” used to mean any infectious agent smaller than a bacterium, yet today the term has a more specific technical meaning to refer to a type of infectious agent that consists of genetic material surrounded by a protein coat. Similarly, the word “gene” was originally used to refer to the basic unit of heredity, but after the advent of molecular biology it came to refer to a specific segment of DNA that codes for a particular protein or RNA molecule. Thus, in itself there is nothing inherently problematic in acknowledging that regardless of the ancient and/or modern history of nous, and regardless of the problems of translation, it has come to have a precise technical meaning in contemporary Orthodox theology and spiritual life. What is that meaning? Here is how my friend Dr. David C. Ford specified it for me.

My understanding of the nous in Orthodox theology and spiritual life is that, regardless of the ancient and/or modern history of the usage of this word, it has become a precise, technical term in Orthodoxy, meaning something like this: The nous is the innate faculty, lodged in the heart, with which and through which human beings perceive spiritual realities revealed to them by the Lord, which they perhaps can then try to articulate in words.

And I think we might add that the nous is lodged in the heart of every human being simply by virtue of all of us being created in the image and likeness of God; in this sense the nous is part of the image of God in us.  But while every human being has a nous by nature, it operates much more effectively when it’s stirred/activated by the ongoing workings of grace, received first through Baptism and Chrismation in Orthodox Christians, and augmented by every visitation of the Lord in our lives.

As such, nous can function as a stipulated definition in contemporary discourse, even where this meaning may carry a different nuance than what it enjoyed historically (though I hope it is clear by now that historically nous did not enjoy a uniform meaning).

Recognizing the evolving nature of the concept of nous, and the legitimacy of using purely stipulated definitions, does not absolve us from having to carefully guard against some of the secularist assumptions previously mentioned. Nor does it simplify the problem of translation, which remains complex. But it does underscore that just as terms like heart, mind, and intuition, have all enjoyed a fluid and complex historical itinerary, so the history of the word nous is also ongoing and dynamic.

We must, of course, remain ever cognizant of the danger of re-reading contemporary English meanings of nous into ancient authors who may have meant something different by it. Some Greek translations into English will put certain Greek terms in parenthesis, as Dr. David C. Ford did in some translations of St. John Chrysostom. This is perhaps the best way forward when translating a term like nous. This does not preclude the possibility that English readers—thinking they know what nous means because of the idiosyncrasies of its English semantic range— will retroactively read this anachronistic meaning into ancient texts. Something like this seems to occur with the Greek word “logismoi” (thoughts/images) which, as a loanword in English-speaking Orthodox culture, has come to have entirely negative connotations even though St. John Chrysostom often spoke about using “good Logismoi” (life-giving thoughts) in the spiritual battle.

Given the fluidity and complexity of language, no translation will be perfect, and no translation can absolutely preclude the possibility of misunderstanding. But this is simply another way to say that there can be no short-cut to the necessary historical work, just as there can be no shortcut to the pastoral task of education. For both of these goals to be obtained, scholars and pastors need to spend more time talking to each other. Pastors who use Greek terms in a simple and straight-forward manner are often unaware of their complex history, let alone the academic debates surrounding those terms. But similarly, scholars need to be made aware of how semantic confusion, or seemingly innocuous translation choices, can create real difficulties on the parish level.

My hope is that this post will provide a nudge toward this necessary cross-fertilization and interdisciplinary dialogue.

Let the conversation begin!

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