What is the Nous and how is it distinct from the Soul?


Question: "What do we mean by the "nous," how is it distinct from the soul, and are the Orthodox the only ones who speak about the "nous"?"

This question is complicated by the fact that the word "nous" (which is usually translated into English as "mind" has been used in different senses, at different times. The best discussion on this topic I have come across is found in Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos)'s book "Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers" (pp. 118-156 (the title might lead you to think that this is a book about psychiatry, but it is about the healing of the soul, which is what "psychotherapy" literally means)). A shorter summary of the question can be found in an excerpt from the book "Patristic Theology," by Fr. John Romanides, which is available online: "What is the Human Nous?" Fr. John Romanides says in part:

"The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.

So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.

We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, "I will pray with the spirit,"[1 Corinthians 14:5.] he means what the Fathers mean when they say, "I will pray with the nous." And when he says, "I will pray with the nous," he means "I will pray with the intellect (dianoia)." When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word "spirit." When he says "I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit" or when he says "I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit," and when he says "the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,"[Romans 8:16] he uses the word "spirit" to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason."

A few other points that Metropolitan Hierotheos makes on this subject:

  • Many Fathers use the words "nous" and "soul" interchangeably.
  • St. John of Damascus says that the nous is the purest part of the soul.
  • St. Gregory Palamas uses the word "nous" in two senses: as the whole soul, and also as the power of the soul.
  • In Scripture and in many of the Fathers there is an identification of the nous with the heart, and the terms are used interchangeably.
  • Other Fathers use the term "nous" to refer to refer to "attention" as opposed to reasoning. And so for example, when we pray, we may be reading our prayers with our intellect, but our attention wanders. And so when one achieves the prayer of the heart, our attention (the nous) returns to the heart, and we truly pray.

Contemporary Protestants will typically only talk about the "nous" to the extent that they find references to it in in Scripture, and they generally would not spend a lot of time (if any) trying to understand what the Fathers had to say about those passages. Being influence by American pragmatism, they would also tend to see spending time focusing on the nuances of the mind, heart, and soul of a person to be of little use to the bottom line questions of how one is saved, and how we should live our lives, which they tend to see in far more simple terms, and look for far more simple answers.

If you were an Eskimo, you would speak about various forms of frozen water with subtle distinctions that would be lost on tribesmen who live near the equator, because those people don't often encounter frozen water, and so hail, snow, sleet, etc, would be seen as being pretty much the same thing. Whereas for you, ice, snow, sleet, and all the subtle variations one encounters of those things would be a pervasive reality that would never be far from your thoughts. The saints of the Church spent their lives waging spiritual warfare, and so speak about the aspects of the soul in very subtle ways, compared to those who think that if you say a prayer and ask Christ into your heart, that you are saved, and couldn't lose your salvation if you tried.

Sebastian5/21/2023 7:22 pm
Tom I think your referring to shen, which has a very similar description to the nous and is one of the things I am researching, it also is starting to look like religions stem from the observations of a medical field rather then philosophical pursuit of reality. That the founders of religions were healers and seeking to heal people instead of seeking knowledge of the world.
Tom1/13/2023 4:08 am
Firstly, please forgive my child like ignorence, I am extremely new to Orthodoxy. I have always considered the nous as being similar to the Chinese faith, Qui (chi). A kind of life energy, which is not only energy, but also has other functions as are useful to mankind. Many years ago while studying martial arts, an elderly teacher explained Qui (Chi) as being a force which resides between man and God or man and Buddha, depending on your religious belief. It's purpose being multidimensional and it's primary function to create balance in all things. I have, I am sure over simplified Qui with this description and if my Teacher was still alive, he would no doubt be disappointed. As I said I am very new to the Orthodox Faith, so please forgive me if I have in any way caused offence. Thank You.
Utrecht11/27/2021 1:28 am
Phunny, religion is man-made, Revelation is Orthodox Christianity - the correct worship of God Most High, worshipped in Holy Trinity. To say 'because someone was born' is to say people can be whatever they want - so a pagan worshiper, demon worshiper, nothing matters. This is relative truth, which is a poison of philosophy - as if god is a construct made in our minds. Western Christianity is a perversion with papal-protestants, and protestants. Truth is not relative, truth is a Person. Just as the Person of Christ the God-man is one and unique, so is the Church founded by Him, in Him, and upon Him. The unity of the Church follows necessarily from the unity of the Person of the Lord Christ, the God-man. Being an organically integral and theanthropic organism unique in all the worlds, the Church, according to all the laws of Heaven and earth, is indivisible. St. Justin Popovich Of course Christ illumines everyone to bring them to Himself – that is one thing, it is another thing to have experience of Him, to be initiated into Him, to put Him on, to be totally transformed from inside-out, to become like Him, not just in the image restored – but likeness! There is no likeness, there is no Theosis outside of Christ – which means the Church, that is not possible. Christ is Risen, Living, and Acting and is within the Orthodox Christian Church!
Phunny Filosophy12/19/2019 8:00 am
You cast American Christians in a bitter light. Do you know them? They aren't all calvinist. Many nondenominal churches are dropping Calvinism completely. Anyways, most ppl stay in the religion they were raised in. Can u really blame them for doing the same? I've seen the good side of the childlike faith of American christianity. Theres a bad side. Theres a good side. I will never choose Catholicsm, Orthodoxy or Protestantism in my heart. If I'm allowed to get chrismated, it will be about Christ only. Not a religion. Only Christ.
Corina Craciun6/17/2019 10:00 pm
Excellent article, I am not sure if I have given the right votes to it, I cinsidered 10 to be the best mark but now I am not sure if it was so indeed. I really appreciate the article, so please revise my votes and allow me to vite again if 10 does not stand for excellent. Thank you!
Todor1/8/2019 8:20 pm
The readers of this article should read "https://www.amazon.com/Illness-Cure-Soul-Orthodox-Tradition/dp/9607070186"
then there is a better explanation of the nous and it should be better explored in understanding hesychia and the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas. However, you should consult your spiritual father if you are on a spiritual level to read this!
In abbreviated form, St.Gregory teaches that the soul is divided into nous, imagination, opinion, mind and sense perception. Man consists of the nous and the senses. In between those lie imagination, opinion, and mind. The nous also has essence and energy which are different.I'll stop here.. more on p.155 of the book mentioned above.
Monica4/17/2017 10:12 pm
Nothing ever helps me understand "nous". I don't even distinguish the difference between "logos" and "dianoia". Whenever there is mention of the "nous" I cannot proceed any further in the conversation.I can only hope that whatever it is becomes healed and active in me.
Ian Duncan5/23/2016 9:14 pm
However, it did not seem clear to me that Fr John Whiteford actually distinguishes between soul and nous. Do they overlap, are they completely distinct?
Dimitrios sendijja3/10/2016 11:40 pm
Thank you for your wonder fee up work now I can distinguish those terminologies well.
Harrison5/4/2015 4:06 pm
In Orthodoxy the salvation of our souls includes sight, smell, touch, feel, hearing, thinking and doing. All are interrelated, all are inseparable, all are part of the trinitarian being of man created in the image and likeness of God.
Here you can leave your comment on the present article, not exceeding 4000 characters. All comments will be read by the editors of OrthoChristian.Com.
Enter through FaceBook
Your name:
Your e-mail:
Enter the digits, seen on picture:

Characters remaining: 4000

to our mailing list

* indicates required