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Chapter III -- 26

The sense and the mind (nous) divide among themselves the sensible things, but the mind (nous) alone has the intelligible things (noeta), for the mind (nous) becomes a seer both of the objects and of the reasons (logoi) (II, 45—Greek fragment). This is very important for Evagrius’ psychology. In regard to the perception of sensible objects, the organs of sense and the mind (nous) work together. In regard to the intuitive cognition of intelligible things, however, the mind (nous) works alone. Thus the mind (nous) becomes the seer both of sensible objects and of their intelligible reasons (logoi). In the Evagrian system, the mind (nous) receives the mental representations of intelligibles in a way analogous but not identical to the way it receives the mental representations of sensible objects.[1] Note that the transformation from second to first natural contemplation that St Isaac the Syrian construes to be based on the divestiture by the mind (nous) of the senses is based on the doctrine expressed in this chapter. For it is when the mind (nous) has divested itself of the senses that it can receive fully the mental representations of intelligibles, including the reasons (logoi) of sensible objects to which Evagrius is referring in this chapter.

The objects that by means of the senses fall under the sense-perception of the soul move it to receive in itself their forms or mental representations, because it is the work of the mind (nous) to know, just as the animals which respire from without must breathe, and it falls into danger if it does not work, if, according to the word of the wise Solomon, ‘The light of the Lord is the breath of men.’ (Prov. 20, 27.) (IV, 67.) The reference to ‘soul’ might be an error in transmission and translation: we will see below that it is the mind (nous) that for Evagrius is the agent of perception. However, it may be that the soul is the mind’s (nous’) instrument of sense-perception. Otherwise, the chapter is important for its remark that the mind (nous) must be doing something: its work being to know, it cannot remain idle. Evagrius is here applying this to contemplative psychology, but it is also very important for ascetical psychology: the ascetic cannot have his mind (nous) idle; it must be doing something. This is one of the purposes of the Jesus Prayer, to give the ascetic’s mind something to do.

The mind (nous) also possesses five spiritual senses through which it apprehends its familiar materials: sight presents to it bare the intelligible objects themselves; the hearing receives the reasons (logoi) concerning those intelligible objects; the sense of smell enjoys the aroma which is unmixed with any lie; and the mouth partakes of the pleasure which is from those intelligible objects; by means of the sense of touch, then, the mind (nous) is confirmed with the exact proof of the objects received (II, 35—Greek fragment). This is a very important passage for its assertion of the existence of spiritual senses and for its description of them. There is a parallel passage in Peri Archon.[2] These spiritual senses should not be understood as sorts of invisible eyes and ears superimposed on the physical eyes and ears: Evagrius is speaking metaphorically of certain spiritual or intelligible faculties of the mind (nous) that function when the mind (nous) cognizes intuitively some intelligible aspect of a sensible object, or else when it cognizes intuitively some intelligible object. It then receives the mental representations of intelligibles that we have referred to above.[3]

The sensible eye, when it regards something visible, does not see the whole of it; but the intelligible eye (the mind, or nous) either has not seen, or, when it sees, immediately surrounds from all sides that which it sees (II, 28). This passage is very important for an understanding of the nature of the spiritual senses, and especially for an understanding of the nature of clairvoyance and prevoyance. Either the ascetic knows something by the intelligible eye or he does not. This is not to deny that, in proportion to the gift of clairvoyance and in proportion to the purity of the ascetic’s mind (nous), the object seen ‘from all sides’ will be seen in greater or lesser depth or clarity. As we will later see in Question 604 of St Barsanuphios, discussed in Section 12, no saint has the depth of the wisdom of God. However, St Barsanuphios was himself an astonishing example of what Evagrius is discussing here. Evagrius qualifies this doctrine in Chapter 40 of the Gnostic; we will discuss that further below.[4]

It is said that the mind (nous) sees the things which it knows and that it does not see the things which it does not know; on account of this, it is not all the thoughts which for it prohibit the gnosis of God, but those which assail the irascible part (thumos) and the desiring part (epithumia) and which are contrary to nature (VI, 83). This is very important for the Evagrian theory of ascesis. We shall deal with its content, although not literally, in extenso in Volume II. We shall also refer to this chapter explicitly there.

One thing is the mental representation of the matter; another is that mental representation of the attribute which can make the matter known; another is that mental representation of the sensible object’s internal part near to the elements; another is that mental representation of the sensible elements; another is the contemplation of the body; and another is that contemplation of the human organon or body (VI, 72). A mental representation and a contemplation are not precisely the same thing. The mental representation is an ‘image’ in the mind (nous), in the first instance of a sensible object and in the second instance of an intelligible object. Contemplation is a relation of seeing between a mind (nous) and an intelligible object wherein the mind (nous) receives, in a manner analogous to receiving the mental representation of a sensible object, the mental representation of an intelligible object. When we say ‘intelligible object’, we of course do not mean that intelligibles are the same sorts of things as sensible objects. In this chapter Evagrius has described a number of different types of mental representation related to sensible objects. We think that these mental representations are related to second natural contemplation, not to ordinary sense-perception. Moreover, in Volume II we shall see that Evagrius understands that such-and-such mental representation is the vehicle by means of which the mind (nous) receives such-and-such gnosis or contemplation. Hence, here, the mental representations listed by Evagrius correspond to types of second natural contemplation.

The knowing natures examine the objects and the gnosis of the objects purifies the knowers (V, 76). We think that Evagrius is here referring to the second natural contemplation, in which the mind (nous) receives the mental representation of the reason (logos) of a sensible object, although he could very well be referring to natural contemplation generally. The sensible object is, of course, sensible, and it has a mental representation which the mind (nous) receives by means of the sense organs. The object’s reason (logos), however, is intelligible and not sensible, and in the second natural contemplation, the mind (nous) receives the mental representation not of the sensible object but of the reason (logos) of that sensible object. In the second natural contemplation, one begins with the sensible object before him and then goes beyond the sensible mental representation to the intelligible mental representation of the reason (logos) of that object, all the while having the sensible object before him.

This dependence on the presence of the sensible object accounts for Evagrius’ doctrine that the second natural contemplation is the contemplation of an imperfect mind (nous), and for St Isaac the Syrian’s interpretation that the last garment of the mind (nous) is the senses, which garment the ascetic divests when he passes from second natural contemplation to first natural contemplation. For in first natural contemplation the mind (nous) surpasses the need for the presence of the sensible object, and cognizes the mental representations both of angels and of their reasons (logoi) without depending on the presence of a sensible object, although it appears that the intelligible object, the angel, must itself be present. Moreover, in the even higher stage of contemplation of the Holy Trinity, there is no longer an object of contemplation: the contemplation of the Holy Trinity is a different sort of contemplation where one no longer speaks of an object of contemplation:

The objects are outside the mind (nous), and the contemplation which concerns them is constituted inside it. But it is not so in regard to the Holy Trinity, for only it is essential gnosis (IV, 77). In the second and first natural contemplations, the object, whether the sensible object or the angel, is actually an objectively existent object—even if intelligible as in the case of an angel—and that object is outside the mind (nous). The contemplation which concerns the object, however, is inside the mind (nous). However, in the case of the contemplation of the Holy Trinity, this distinction of mind (nous) and object is lost. Evagrius gives as reason the fact that only the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis. This is difficult to understand, but it appears to mean this:

When the mind (nous) contemplates, it is conformed by the gnosis that corresponds to the contemplation. When we say that the contemplating mind (nous) is conformed by the gnosis that corresponds to the contemplation, we mean, roughly, that the contemplator’s consciousness is altered to conform to that gnosis. When the mind (nous) contemplates the Holy Trinity, however, it is conformed by the gnosis of the Holy Trinity, which gnosis is the Holy Trinity itself. The Holy Trinity is essential gnosis, and so the gnosis that conforms the mind (nous) in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity is in fact the very substance of the Holy Trinity, so that the distinction between the gnosis and the object of gnosis is lost. This is a doctrine of the union of the mind (nous) with the substance of the Holy Trinity, which substance is essential gnosis.

The problem in all mysticisms, of course, that deal with the knowledge of a transcendent God is to account for knowledge of or union with the transcendent Other. Here, Evagrius has adopted the solution of making gnosis the very substance of the Godhead: in our estimation, this is the significance of Evagrius’ oft-repeated statement that the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis. This is not an Orthodox Trinitarian theology: in Palamite theology it is the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) of God, whose substance is never identified with gnosis, which effect the gnosis of the Holy Trinity.

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[1] This will be taken up in Volume II in the commentary on Chapters 38–43 of On the Thoughts.

[2] Peri Archon IV, IV, 10, pp. 327–8.

[3] We will discuss this doctrine in Volume II, in the commentary on On the Thoughts and in the Digression.

[4] We will also discuss this matter fully in Volume II, in the commentary on On the Thoughts and in the Digression.


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