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one of the basic categories in classical philosophy, representing a generalization of all the laws of the meaning, reason, and thought that prevail in the universe and in man.
In ancient Greek natural philosophy (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.), nous is closely associated with the sensual and material cosmos. According to Democritus, nous is a “god in a globe of fire.” Epicharmus asserts that the sun is “wholly nous,” and Archelaus, that “god is air and nous.” During this period the most developed conception of nous was provided by Anax-agoras. With regard to nous in the human soul, Greek natural philosophy gradually made the transition from an undifferentiated understanding that equated nous with knowledge, opinions, and sensations in the soul to a conception that juxtaposed nous to the affective-volitional aspect of sensory perceptions and ideas, to the body (Democritus) and the eyes (Empedocles).
The idealistic conception of nous as the principle of world order and harmony was developed by Plato, who treated the relationship between nous and the universe dialectically. Aristotle believed that all the ideas of things form a world whole, or world nous, which is the form of forms and feeling of feelings—the actually thinking eternity in which every sensory thing has its idea. Aristotle thought that these ideas are eternally effective and constitute the eternal and immovable nous, which he called the prime mover. Thus, with the doctrine of the nous, Aristotle, rather than Plato, is the remote precursor of Neoplatonism.
The Stoics, who considered nous the divine principle or fate, treated it pantheistically as something fiery that penetrated everything, even the smallest parts of the universe. However, already in the second and first centuries B.C. the Platonic representatives of the Middle Stoa, Panaetius of Rhodes and Posidonius, ceased to regard nous as something material and fiery and transformed it into the world order, beginning with the pure and absolute nous and proceeding through all the stages of material being to natural phenomena and man. Numenius, who was close to Neoplatonism, viewed nous as a demiurge. One of Plotinus’ teachers, Ammonius Saccas (third century A.D.), clearly distinguished nous from everything spiritual and corporeal.
Plotinus (third century A.D.), who reworked the teachings of Anaxagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, developed the doctrine of nous as the eternally self-motioned relationship of Being to itself. In Plotinus’ works nous is distinguished from the One and from the “soul” and is characterized by the identity between subject and object. The luminous nature of nous was explained on the basis of Platonic concepts. Plotinus expounded a detailed doctrine about the inner ascent of man to the ultimate luminous concentration in nous and through nous to the concentration in the One.
The disciples and followers of Plotinus strove to differentiate and define precisely the subject-object relationship within nous. Proclus (fifth century A.D.) proposed a triadic division of nous: that which is thought and is, or the image; thinking ideas; and the synthesis of both, which is understood as life.
The classical theory of nous historically had enormous philosophical significance. It contributed to the creation of a unified concept of a cognized, lawlike principle juxtaposed to all that is accidental, chaotically transient, and empirical.
A. F. LOSEV