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Chapter III -- 31

We now begin a series of chapters on Evagrius’ psychology:

On the one hand, the body of the soul preserves the image (eikona) of a house; on the other hand, the senses have the nature (logos) of windows, through which the mind (nous), peeping out, sees the sensible things (IV, 68—Greek fragment). This is a Platonic notion of the relation between soul and body, here extended to a remark concerning the mind (nous) and sense-perception. The soul inhabits the body as a house and the mind (nous) regards the world outside the house as through the house’s windows. Although the mind (nous) has descended to being a soul, it is still the mind (nous) that is the agent of sense-perception.

The mind (nous), according to the word of Solomon, is joined with the heart; and the light which appears to it is considered to come from the sensible head (VI, 87). This is important for understanding Evagrius’ ascetical psychology. In many places in the ancient world, the seat of the person was considered to be the heart; here, Evagrius is placing the mind (nous) of man in the heart. The importance of this for the Evagrian ascetical system is that the heart is also the seat of the irascible part (thumos). We are struck by Evagrius’ notion that the light that comes to the mind (nous), itself located in the heart, comes from the head. We believe that Evagrius is referring to the light of God in prayer, not to a natural light of cognition such as we will find, in Chapter IV of this work, in St Thomas Aquinas’ theory of cognition. If our interpretation be correct, we do not see how that light could be seen by Evagrius as coming from the head.

It appears that Evagrius himself had a question about the relation of the light of God seen in prayer to the natural light of the mind (nous); this can be seen in this passage:

Concerning this very light, then, the servant of God Ammonius and I wished to learn whence it is, and we asked the saintly John of Thebaïd if indeed the nature of the mind (nous) is bright with light and if those [who pray] emit the light from the mind (nous), or if something else appears, illuminating it. He, then, replied, saying that there is no man able to discern this, but that neither, again, is it possible without the grace of God that the mind (nous) be enlightened in prayer, having been set free from the many terrible enemies applying themselves to its destruction.[1]

Seen in the light of this passage, Evagrius’ remark seems to be an allusion to a commonly-held opinion of his time. Even so, the formulation seems unusual.

There is nothing which might be in power in the soul and which could be able to leave it in act and exist separately; indeed, the soul is naturally made to be in the body (I, 47). This is an important chapter for Evagrian psychology. There is no faculty or power of the soul which might be able to exist in act outside the soul. Moreover, the soul is naturally made to be in a body. However, we have already seen that the soul is itself bodiless, and that its faculties are in no wise the powers of a sensible, material object, so that while the soul is naturally made to be in the body, it is just as naturally completely different from the body: All those attributes which are applied to bodies also apply to those bodies by which they are engendered, but none of those attributes is attached to the soul (I, 48).

Just as our body, while it has been engendered by our parents, cannot in its turn engender them, so also the soul, which is engendered by God, cannot in return give him gnosis. Indeed, ‘What will I give to the Lord in return for all the gifts that he has made to me?’ (Ps. 115, 3.) (III, 89.) This chapter seems to require no explanation.

By comparison, we are one thing and another thing is that which is in us, and another thing that in which we are; but all together they are that in which we are and ‘that in which’ is ‘that in which we are’ (I, 6). This is one of a number of deliberately obscure chapters. We have placed it here to give a proper proportion to Evagrius’ anthropology. Any interpretation that we would give would be conjectural. It would appear, however, that ‘that which is in us’ is the mind (nous); ‘that in which we are’ is the body; and that which we are is the ensouled and incarnated mind (nous).

The sense and the organ of sense are not the same, neither the sensitive. For the sense is the power according to which we have the custom to apprehend materials; the organ of sense is the tool (organon) in which the sense is seated; and the sensitive is the animal (zoon) which possesses the senses. The sensible is that which has the nature to fall under the senses. [To here: following the Greek fragment.] But this is not the case of the mind (nous), for it is deprived of one of the four things just referred to (I, 36). This appears to be the organ of sense, since the mind (nous) is bodiless.

The mind (nous) discerns the sense-perception not insofar as sensible, but insofar as sense-perception; and the sense-perception discerns the sensible things not insofar as objects but insofar as sensible objects (V, 58). This and the following chapters are obscure but important statements of Evagrian psychology. In the present chapter we learn that the mind (nous) discerns the sense-perception it receives by means the sense organs, not as something that is perceptible but as pure sense-perception. In other words, the mind (nous) does not look at the sense-perception it has of an object; it has the sense-perception of the object. The second clause asserts that the sense-perception that the mind (nous) receives discerns the object not as object but as sensible object: When I look at a table, my mind (nous) does not look at my sense-perception of the table; it has the sense-perception of the table. Moreover, that sense-perception is a sense-perception of the table as sensible object, not a sense-perception of the table as ‘table-in-itself’: I perceive the sensible attributes of the table, not the ontological reality of the table. We will see immediately below why Evagrius says this.

Sense-perception does not discern sense-perception; but it only discerns the organs of sense, not insofar as organs of sense, but insofar as sensible. The mind (nous) discerns sense-perception insofar as sense-perception and the organs of sense insofar as organs of sense (V, 59). Sense-perception is directed towards a sensible object, not towards sense-perception; moreover, sense-perception makes use of the sense organ: it only captures the sense organ insofar as the sense organ itself can be perceived: this is the meaning of the first sentence. The sense of the second sentence is that the mind (nous) as agent discerns sense-perception as sense-perception: sense-perception is whatever it is, and it is neither a sense organ nor a sensible object. Moreover, Evagrius says, the mind (nous) discerns the organ of sense as organ of sense: the relation between mind (nous) and organ of sense is a specific relation that has to do with the use by the mind (nous), the agent, of the organ of sense as a tool in sense-perception.

The objects such as they are naturally, either the pure mind (nous) sees or the word of the sages makes known. But he who is deprived of the two comes in this to the inculpation of the Author (V, 90). We can now see why Evagrius insisted above that by means of sense-perception the mind (nous) only discerns the object as sensible object. For, according to Evagrius, to discern the object truly, as it naturally is, the mind (nous) must be pure. We think that Evagrius is here referring to second natural contemplation, although the passage applies equally well to all phases of natural contemplation: the pure mind (nous) sees the object clearly because it sees spiritually, not sensibly, the intelligible reason (logos) of the object, that which is the object’s essence according to the wisdom of God expressed in creation.

However, in Chapter 40 of the Gnostic, Evagrius makes an important qualification to this doctrine: there is not just one reason (logos) of an object, but many, in proportion to the condition of him who is making the contemplation. Moreover, only the angels attain to the true reasons (logoi) of objects, although not even they attain to the ‘first’ reason (logos), which according to Evagrius only the Christ possesses. Presumably, this first reason (logos) that the Evagrian Christ has is the one with which he made the object when he made it by means of the second natural contemplation. In the case of the first natural contemplation, the object is intelligible, for example an angel. Despite this, the pure mind (nous) sees it truly. Recall that Adam in Paradise saw the animals as they were and was thus able to give them names.

Evagrius makes a second qualification to this doctrine in Scholia on Ecclesiastes 68:

68 The man brings the things forth to the heart, inclining towards their research; after that, then, the heart knows the things. And this is the: ‘I surrounded, and my heart, for the sake of knowing.’ For he also surrounds the thing who brings it forth to the heart by means of the examination, and, again, the heart knows it. However, this must be known, that not all things that the man surrounds the heart also knows. For we examine many things but we know few [of them].[2]

What Evagrius means here is that the mind (nous) turns its intuitive faculties—its spiritual senses—to an intelligible object and thus ‘surrounds it’ for the sake of examining it. Of course, this examination is intuitive, not ratiocinative. But, Evagrius says, the man may not know the thing that he has surrounded with his mind (nous) for the sake of examination: he may not succeed in cognizing intuitively the reason (logos) of the created object. The heart is here to be understood as the seat of the mind (nous).

To return to the chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica under consideration, as for ‘the word of the sages’, Evagrius seldom refers to sages, and then not in a flattering way. We do not think, however, that here Evagrius is being ironic—we do not find irony in the works of Evagrius that we have read—so he must be referring to the gnostic, to him who in the Evagrian system can teach. ‘The word of the sages’ makes known the object because, seeing the object truly, the sage speaks truly. But, says Evagrius, he who has neither the second natural contemplation nor the teaching of the gnostic comes through ignorance to condemn the Creator.

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[1] Antirrheticus Accidie 16, p. 525.

[2] Ekklesiasten p. 172.


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