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Chapter III -- 19

5 The Evagrian Doctrine of the Minds (Noes)

The corporeal or bodily nature and the incorporeal or reasonable nature, the minds (noes), are both knowable; but the reasonable nature alone is knowing. God, however, is both knowing and knowable; but it is not as the reasonable nature that he knows, nor, to any further extent, as the bodily nature or the reasonable nature that he is known (III, 80). Both the material order and the immaterial or reasonable order of creation are knowable, but only the reasonable order is capable of knowledge—gnosis. Only that which has mind (nous) is capable of knowing. God is both knowing and knowable, but he does not know in the same way that the reasonable created nature knows, nor is he known in the same way that either the material or the reasonable orders of creation are known. For Evagrius, the key attribute of mind (nous) is its ability to know. This might be taken to include the notion of consciousness. Here, he has delineated the differences among the material order of creation, the reasonable order of creation, and God, regarding the capacity of each order both to know and to be known.

The corporeal nature has received ‘the most varied wisdom’ (Eph. 3, 10) of Christ, but is not able to know it. But the incorporeal nature both manifests the wisdom of the Unity, in the sense of having been formed by the wisdom of God, and is able to know the Unity (III, 11). The corporeal nature does not have the capacity to know, but it has been formed by the wisdom of God. The reasonable nature has the capacity to know both the wisdom of God and the Unity itself, and it has been formed by the wisdom of God.

All the beings have been produced for the gnosis of God. All that which is produced for another thing is less than that for which it has been produced; for that reason, the gnosis of God is superior to all (I, 87). ‘Beings’ must here be understood as ‘reasonable beings’ in the light of the two previous chapters. The second sentence seems to be a bit of a non sequitur, unless one considers that for Evagrius gnosis evidently has a substantial existence. His sense seems to be that since all reasonable beings have been produced for the sake of the gnosis of God, then the gnosis of God, which is the substance of God, is superior to all reasonable beings.

All the reasonable nature has been naturally made to be and to be knowing, and God is essential gnosis. The reasonable nature has as an opposition the fact of non-being and gnosis has as an opposition vice and ignorance; but none of these things is opposed to God (I, 89). None of these things are opposed to God in the sense of an eternal principle opposed to God.[1]

From the contemplation of which is constituted the mind (nous), it is not possible that some other thing might be constituted, unless that also might be capable of knowing the Trinity (III, 69). We again see the notion that a contemplation is an objectively existing power or substance, by means of which something is constituted or created. Here, a certain contemplation is used to constitute the mind (nous). Moreover, that contemplation is of such a sort that only a being capable of knowing the Holy Trinity—a being that is a mind (nous)—could be constituted from that contemplation. We have already seen that the contemplation in question is the first natural contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of the reasonable nature and that it was used by God himself to create all the minds (noes) in a single act prior to the Movement.

All the reasonable nature is divided into three parts: life reigns over the one, life and death reign over the second, and only death reigns over the third (IV, 65). These three parts are, of course: first, the angels; second, men; third, the demons.

Among the reasonable beings having mind (nous), some possess spiritual contemplation and (spiritual) praktike, others praktike and contemplation, and others shackles and the judgement (I, 13). This is interesting for its concept, not otherwise addressed in the Kephalaia Gnostica, of a spiritual praktike of angels. For, in the Evagrian system, praktike is a characteristic not of angels but of the human soul. Otherwise, the chapter is a repetition of the thought of the previous chapter: the angels have spiritual contemplation and spiritual praktike; men have praktike and contemplation; the demons have shackles and the judgement.

Whether the reasonable beings might always exist or whether they might not always exist is a matter of the will of the Creator, but whether they might be immortal or mortal depends on their will, and whether they might be joined or whether they might not be joined to one sort of body or world or another (I, 63). This has to do with the succession of judgements of the minds (noes) in each of their lives according to their merit. This applies not only to men but also to all the orders of angels, demons and unembodied souls. The next chapter explains this one:

The true life of the reasonable beings is their activity according to nature, and their death is their activity contrary to nature. But if he who is naturally made to seek the true life of gnosis of the Unity is capable of such a death, who among the beings is immortal? Every created reasonable nature, in fact, is susceptible of an opposition (I, 64). This is important for its definition of the life and death of the reasonable being. Recall that the mind (nous) is intelligible, and that it is not subject to the laws of the sensible creation, nor subject to attribution by sensible predicates. Recall also that the mind (nous) is seen along two dimensions: gnosis or ignorance, and virtue or vice. Here, the true life of the mind (nous) is defined as its activity according to nature; clearly, Evagrius is implying that gnosis and virtue are according to nature and ignorance and vice contrary to nature, so that these are the life and death respectively of the mind (nous). The opposition referred to in the last sentence of the chapter is precisely the opposition between gnosis and ignorance or virtue and vice. Evagrius sees good and evil in terms of such oppositions, which are both Platonic and Aristotelian. The rhetorical question that Evagrius poses has this sense: because of free will every mind (nous) can choose an activity contrary to nature and therefore die a spiritual death. It is for this reason that all men, angels, demons and unembodied souls are subject to successive judgements according to merit. That was the sense of the previous chapter.

Submission is the assent of the will of the reasonable nature, with a view to the gnosis of God (VI, 68). Submission is the weakness of the reasonable nature which cannot overstep the limits of its rank; thus, really, ‘He has put all things under his feet’ (1 Cor. 15, 27) according to the word of Paul (VI, 70). The importance of submission here is its connection to each mind’s (nous’) freedom. There is also the idea of the reasonable nature’s keeping by an act of its will to its proper place in the order of creation under the dominion of the Christ. Elsewhere we have learned that the ‘feet’ of the Christ are praktike and natural contemplation.[2]

In regard to all that is constituted of the four elements, whether a thing be at a distance or whether it be near, it is possible for us to receive a likeness of it. But only our mind (nous) is incomprehensible to us, just as God, its Author is. It is not possible, indeed, for us to comprehend a nature susceptible of the Holy Trinity, nor to comprehend the Unity, substantial gnosis (II, 11). The first sentence of the chapter involves the Stoic theory of perception. It is important because Evagrius consistently uses this model of perception in his ascetical psychology.[3]

Here, however, Evagrius is asserting that the nature of the mind (nous) is incomprehensible, just as the nature of God is. We already saw this idea in Chapter I of the present work, when we looked at the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Macrina. It is interesting that Evagrius explains this incomprehensibility of the mind (nous) by reference to the mind’s capacity to know the Holy Trinity: for something to be able to know the Holy Trinity, it must itself be beyond human comprehension. St Gregory accounted for the incomprehensibility of the mind (nous) on the basis of its being the image of God, a doctrine that Evagrius states just below. We here see an aspect of Evagrius’ thought that is close to that of the Cappadocians; it is well to remember that he comes out of their circle and perforce must have taken with him to Egypt certain of their doctrines, which he evidently retained in the midst of his own elaborations.

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[1] See the beginning of Section 1, above.

[2] KG VI, 15, discussed in Section 3.

[3] We will spend much time in Volume II on this theory of perception, for it is extended by Evagrius right up to the gnosis of God.


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