Nous, the ‘Eye of the Soul’

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Just as we all have many different appetites and emotions (which are usually in conflict, and which can be interested in all sorts of healthy or unhealthy objects), we also have many different, and often confusing, mental functions: we have random thoughts, images, and memories; we have stored facts and data; we have logical processes; we have practical knowledge about how to do various things; we have theories and beliefs and opinions and all kinds of prejudices, etc. Where, in the midst of all this mental clutter, is the True Ruler of the human soul?

Socrates believed that no one does evil consciously. Our thoughts and notions may certainly be irrational or even foolish, but we always believe that what we are doing in any given moment is the right and proper thing to do: if we knew that what we were doing was ‘evil’ we could not keep doing it. So the ‘True Ruler’ of the soul, that ought to be making decisions, would have to be that part of the mind which absolutely knows, beyond any mere opinion, the difference between good and evil − the part of our soul that is capable of unerringly discerning ‘the Good’. Does such a place exist? Plato thought so. He called this part of the soul Nous.

Nous is that special place in our intellect – beyond the confines of imagination, belief, and even reason – that arrives at knowledge by sudden, uncontradictable, insight. Such an insight (we have all had them) may follow in the wake of a long and painstaking period of questioning and pondering, or it may appear inexplicably out of the blue, but when it arrives it arrives in a flash. In general, these are rare and involuntary events, for this is a potential human faculty that usually lies dormant. But Socrates believed that it is possible for this faculty to become conscious and deliberate. In fact, ‘awakening Nous‘− not merely studying or thinking − is the highest task of anyone who wishes to perfect his or her soul. It is possible, even easy, to have a keen and clever mind, to know a great many facts, and to be filled with practical and theoretical knowledge, and yet to have no authentic Wisdom because one’s Nous has never awakened. Such a soul is always like that ship whose captain has been narcotized, a ship which is either in a state of endless anarchy, or which has been taken over by one or another tyrannical usurper: some harsh or foolish passion, appetite, belief or prejudice, which ‘rules’ and ruins one’s life.

For Socrates, then, Wisdom is not about knowing many things or understanding difficult ideas. It is always and only about awakening one’s soul to wonder and insight.