“Therefore, first off, if intellect is not a thinking but an ability for thinking, it is reasonable that the continuity of intellect’s thinking is toilsome. Second, it is obvious that there would be something more honorable than intellect, the thing being thought. For both thinking and the thought also belong to one thinking the worst thing. So that if this is to be shunned (for not seeing some things is better than seeing some things), thought would not be the best thing. So it thinks about itself, if indeed intellect is the best, and its thinking is the thinking of thinking. And it appears that knowledge and perception and opinion and understanding are always of something else, but are of themselves incidentally. And yet if thinking and being thought are different, concerning which does well-doing belong to intellect? [i.e. which action gives intellect its excellence? The something thinking or that something which is being thought.] For the essence of thought and the thing being thought are not the same thing.”1
Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1074b27-1075a1
Part 1 Here
Given the starting part that nous (intellect), traditionally interpreted as God himself, is the “most divine of phenomena” we have seen Aristotle argue in the first part of this passage, that nous 1) thinks, since not thinking would be irreverent, no better than the mortal nous of a sleeping man 2) controls itself, since if something else controlled nous‘ act of thinking nous would merely be a type of ability rather than the best (i.e. divine) essence 3) thinks of the most divine and honorable thing 4) always thinks of the most divine and honorable thing, since any alteration, ipso facto, is a change for the worse, and thus unworthy of the divine.
In this section, Aristotle continues his line of argumentation, working under the guidance of an implicit question, “What gives nous, as a thinking thing, its quality as the most divine thing? Is it the mere fact of its thinking, that it thinks, OR that which it thinks about, the object of its thought, the thing being thought about?” Aristotle says that if nous is not “thinking itself” but only the capacity to think, then thinking will only come to it with difficulty. In this understanding nous would be just like a poodle, in Dr. Johnson’s famous image, trying to stand on two legs. The dog certainly is able to stand on its hind legs, but poorly and with much labor; a true biped, however, can perform such an action with the facility of native ease. Likewise, if nous is only an ability, it is not nous in so far as it is thinking, but nous as the repository of the actual thought that it possesses, which is the valuable and divine characteristic of nous. Even the lowest form of human beings, for example a violent and recalcitrant prisoner, thinks and has thoughts of things, which in his case are undoubtedly base indeed. Thus it must be the content, the thing being thought, not thinking per se, which we as perceptive philosophers value, at least in respect to calling nous “divine.”
Aristotle says somewhat oddly, “So that if this is to be shunned (for not seeing some things is better than seeing some things), thought would not be the best thing.” I would paraphrase him thus. So if we reject (to use his word, shun) the idea that intellect is a thinking but accept rather, that it is a capacity to think, then thought and thinking are not the best thing, rather the object of thought, the thing being thought, is the best thing. His parenthetical remark is meant as a repetition of the line before, “for not seeing some things,” means “not thinking some things.” Aristotle therefore means, “Not thinking about some things (i.e. raping, outhouses, false statements) is clearly better than thinking about them.” This passing parenthetical remark is an additional proof that it is the object of thought that we value, not thinking itself, for if it were the latter we would even approve of the thinking of the most base and vile thoughts. We most certainly do not.
Aristotle also notes an odd feature of mental life, namely that although mental states such as knowledge or opinion can be “of” themselves, this is not intrinsic to their nature. I can have an opinion of my opinion that Plato is the best philosopher, such as, “I have the opinion that I may be wrong about my opinion that Plato is the best philosopher.”2 This fact, that I am able to form an opinion about an opinion does help to mark out the distinction that an opinion, as a mental state, is a different thing from that which the opinion is about. There is the opinion, and then the content of that opinion, which normally are difficult to distinguish. However, when Aristotle points out the fact that we can have a perception of a perception (looking in the mirror) or an opinion of an opinion, he has demonstrated that the mental state and the content of that state are two different entities.
When attributing qualities to nous, though, we need not choose between whether it is the thinking itself or the object of thinking that garners our admiration. For nous is a thinking of thinking. Nous both thinks, and in its thinking it thinks of the most divine and honorable thing, which happens to be itself. Nous therefore thinks about itself, perpetually thinking.
1. πρῶτον μὲν οὖν εἰ μὴ νόησίς ἐστιν ἀλλὰ δύναμις, εὔλογον ἐπίπονον εἶναι τὸ συνεχὲς αὐτῷ τῆς νοήσεως: ἔπειτα δῆλον  ὅτι ἄλλο τι ἂν εἴη τὸ τιμιώτερον ἢ ὁ νοῦς, τὸ νοούμενον. καὶ γὰρ τὸ νοεῖν καὶ ἡ νόησις ὑπάρξει καὶ τὸ χείριστον νοοῦντι, ὥστ ̓ εἰ φευκτὸν τοῦτο (καὶ γὰρ μὴ ὁρᾶν ἔνια κρεῖττον ἢ ὁρᾶν), οὐκ ἂν εἴη τὸ ἄριστον ἡ νόησις. αὑτὸν ἄρα νοεῖ, εἴπερ ἐστὶ τὸ κράτιστον, καὶ ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις.  φαίνεται δ ̓ ἀεὶ ἄλλου ἡ ἐπιστήμη καὶ ἡ αἴσθησις καὶ ἡ δόξα καὶ ἡ διάνοια, αὑτῆς δ ̓ ἐν παρέργῳ. ἔτι εἰ ἄλλο τὸ νοεῖν καὶ τὸ νοεῖσθαι, κατὰ πότερον αὐτῷ τὸ εὖ ὑπάρχει; οὐδὲ γὰρ ταὐτὸ τὸ εἶναι νοήσει καὶ νοουμένῳ.
2. I am not, in fact, (nor can I be) wrong!