The Riddlework of Time

Time confounds man. The central paradox of man is fourfold:

First, reason sees eternal truths; conscience whispers of eternal law; love bespeaks eternal beauty. These airy things are above our grasp, yet no stoic has the self-command nor quietist the resignation as never to yearn for them.

Second, foresight foretells mortality, which condemns all victories to vain oblivion. We make provision for our posterity, even as our forbears did for us. Each generation forges a link in the golden chain between parent and progeny, between tradition and growth.

Third, volition permits man to see and decree between alternative forks the flow of time may bring, whereas beasts are governed by instinct. Volition allows us to volunteer to ignite the fire of current sacrifice which future blessings may demand.

Fourth, wisdom grants awareness of the flowing stream of time, of which the innocent beasts are blissfully unaware. Wisdom recalls things past and forewarns of things to come, allowing us to learn, to regret, to fear, to hope.

The paradox is that all fours blessings are also curses.

Man a creature who knows his career on earth is not forever, so he is forever discontented.

Without reason, foresight, volition, and wisdom, man is not man.

But reason shows us the eternal beauties, the eternal justice, the perfection men on earth so crave, to be eternally out of reach; foresight opens the inner eye to oncoming death; volition is also the power to will evil as well as good; hence great wisdom is also great sorrow, for the stern lessons taught by the stepdame of experience are sad.

Reason cannot foreswear what reason seeks. Even those who say there is no truth say so because they think it true. The mind craves truth as the eye craves light; the heart yearns for beauty as a lover for his beloved; the compassion we feel in the pit of our stomach for the innocent who suffer is hunger for justice.

But in all these things, life on earth cannot provide. Truth eludes us. Beauty fades. Justice is rarely seen, and perfect justice is unseen. Human beings lack the wit and inspiration and virtue to find or create or incarnate these things.

We are as artists whose every painting is a blotched botch; or mothers whose every child is born sickly and wan Yet for him to break his brush or her to flee her marriage bed, is worse.


Time confounds us because the brightest things we seek are not in time.

The contemplation of a mathematical object, such as a Euclidian triangle, displays to the inner eye conclusions untouched by death and decay. It will always be the case that vertical angles are equal, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. The ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle will never be rational, despite all human tears.

We know these truths are objective because their truth is true regardless of any observer’s coign of vantage. We know these truths are rationalistic hence non-empirical because no empirical observation has any bearing on the question.

Circular objects, such as gold coins or wooden wheels, are made of discrete atoms, hence the count their circumference and diameter will form a whole number ratio; which no circle can form. Coins and wheels might remind us of circles, but none is a circle. A circle is seen by the reason only, not by the eye.

More to the point, formal logic, or the abstractions of lofty thought concerning philosophy and moral philosophy, virtue, truth, and beauty, or the mysteries of theology, are likewise seen by the reason not by the eye. We can never touch these things with earthly hand.

But neither can we escape such abstractions, or live by concrete concepts only, be ruled by instincts as beasts are. Bestial instinct will preserve the health of their species. Our instincts,  on the other hand, are warped. Men surrendering to them bring chaos and crime, death and damnation.

Those philosophers who argue that all knowledge is empirical themselves venture a non-empirical argument, that is, a rationalistic argument, for they reason first principles. Even if we granted that all knowledge is ultimately empirical, such an argument cannot prove it to be unethical or illogical to say or believe the very opposite, since ethics and logic are non-empirical.

A society attempting to live without articulate philosophy is merely condemned to live with an inarticulate one, confused, erratic, and counter-productive. A man attempting to live without theology is merely condemned to be carried along by whatever vague cult belief vagrant spiritualists or sophists have successfully implanted in the common mind.

Man cannot have faith in nothing. He must pick a god to serve lest he becomes his own god: and self-worship is a sad case for votary and for idol alike.

The timeless things of reason and revelation call to us. Confusion and folly follow when that call is shunned. There is nothing more impractical than pragmatism, nor more unrealistic than realism.

The blessing of reason is the vision it brings of eternal things, from abstractions of logic and rhetoric, mathematics, music and astronomy, to peaks of science, ethics, aesthetics, faith.


Time confounds us because foresight is a mystery. We are puzzled that the thought or vision of something we hope or fear, that is, an event which has not yet come to pass, can provoke our human souls to action, days or years or even generations before the goal sought or the danger eschewed is at hand. This seems to place the cause, a future event, after the effect, our reaction in hope or fear.

The matter becomes all the more confusing because human foresight is weak, and many a fear is a false alarm, and many a hope is a false mirage.

Some might think that if human forethought were stronger, we could all see, and without any disagreement or debate, could all know the course of events as they must play out, including, perhaps, our own decision-making processes  as we daily mature and change.

This is a strange theory. Only predictions about matter beyond human power forestall human meddling in the outcome. Otherwise, we can easily predict that we will not accept the event as foretold if we can change it for the better.

Foresight, in other words, foretells of branching futures. Nature would not bother to warn us of inevitable things fated to happen at fixed times. Even the hour of death might be delayed with the help of a brave soldier or wise doctor, despite death itself being ineluctable.

Hence, foresight allows, at least in the common case, a choice of whether to endure the stroke of fate, or to take up arms to parry it. One may sow in spring in forethought of the coming winter. Such is the blessing of foresight.

The outcome is never perfectly certain. Raven or locust, drought or flood, may destroy the crop, or passing soldiers plunder, and we might find we would have been no worse off spending May-time fiddling on the green, had we but known. Such is the curse of foresight.

Like foresight of one’s own death, foresight of a coming fork in the stream of time is seen only in the anticipation, never in the present. In the present, one acts. In foresight, one plans action. Decision-making indeed can be swift, a matter of a split second, but the action follows from the decision, if it is a decision in truth, and not a justification invented after the fact.

The determinist reasons that the stream of time cannot form forks or branches, on the grounds that every physical event has a physical cause sufficient to produce it.

To say one cause might produce one outcome as opposed to another is merely to say that whatever causes the first as opposed to the second is not known.

It is a fetish of speech to say that chance or probability “causes” the tossed coin to land heads as opposed to tails. We toss coins precisely because they are evenly balanced, so that the tiny nuances of thumb-flick tossing them, the Brownian air motions, and uncounted other contributing causes influencing the eventual number of spins, are too tiny and too many and so are unknown to us.

It is sporting to toss a coin precisely because the evenness of the balance renders prediction of spins beyond human power.

Obviously, a coin dropped under controlled conditions, or weighted to fall one way, would be predictable. If you knew beforehand the number of spins it would suffer, odd or even, a look at the coin before the toss would reveal the outcome. It would not be a cointoss.

A better example is when children playing tag sing “eenie-meanie-miney-moe” in order randomize the decision of who shall be “it”. Obviously an adult, knowing the number of words in the rhyme, the number of players and the starting point, can deduce at the outset on whom the final word will land.

Keep in mind, the whole point of tossing a coin or chanting a counting-out rhyme is to take the power of decision out of human hands, as in a sporting event, where the umpire must scrupulously avoid favoritism, and allow the visiting team a fair chance of starting the game in possession of the ball.

But predictability is not a physical property of the coin. It is not, in that sense, a property of the human observer, unable to count the number of coin spins as it falls, or a child unable to count the words in a counting-out rhyme.

Unpredictability is an ontological property of the future, namely, that the statement “the falling coin might land heads or tails” is a true statement of true coins, false if the coin is weighted.

The statement means that we may find ourselves, after the coin lands, in the timestream where the coin landed heads. Or we may find ourselves in the timestream where is landed tails. We do not know until we toss the coin.

The child chanting the counting out rhyme seems to be a contrary example, but it is not. It seems to be an example of a case where only one branch of the fork is available, and the other branch is an illusion.

The only difference is that the adult will know who is “it” the moment the child selects a starting point and says “eenie” because he can divide by sixteen, whereas the child, being a child, must count it out, and does not know until later.

As with many decisions in life, the selection of the starting point is what closes off the possibility of entering one fork or the other in the timestream, but we poor mortals might linger under the false impression that the possibility is still opened once it is closed.

A skeptic might argue that all human choices are likewise: all things were determined at the moment of the Big Bang, and our imagination that other options, other forks in the timestream exist, or might have existed, is pure illusion. This argument, by being an argument, that is, by being an attempt to influence the decision of what to believe or not to believe, to pick one alternative over the others, disproves itself by its own terms.

If human choice were always as determined and fixed as the outcome of a cointoss would be, we would not toss coins in order to avoid human choices. As said above, the only reason to toss a coin at the onset of a game is to prevent the umpire, or any human, from influencing the selection. If human decisions did not exist, or if they existed but were as unpredictable as cointosses, we would never toss coins.

The question is, one of the coin lands heads, what is the status of the other fork in the timestream, now forever parted from us by invisible walls made of the unseen substance called “might-have-been”, where the coin landed tails?

In imagination, perhaps, we can sketch out our joy at winning the cointoss, and daydream of what we might have done had we won control of the ball in the first round, or whatever the toss was meant to determine. In reality, we can never visit and see how it really would have been.

Does this mean that this other timestream does not exist? Stillborn now, did it, at a time now past, have the potential to come to pass?

The determinist would have us believe that the alternate timestreams, where those things which here are no more than might-have-beens, exist only as mirages in the mind, and only seem to might have been. In reality, since all things are determined and fixed by fate, only what actually was ever could have been.

The problem with this philosophy is that it is false.

Were it true, no criminal is responsible for his crimes, and no judge has a duty to punish the criminal. No one has any duties. Duty describes only what one ought to do. It is meaningless to speak of a duty to do what one cannot avoid doing.

A man nailed into a pickle barrel, once thrown over the roaring brink of the Niagara Falls, has no duty to fall to the ground. He will fall no matter what. There is no fork in the stream of time for him to chose or to avoid.

A paratrooper in Operation Colossus over an enemy target, on the other hand, has a duty to fall to the battleground in Italy, and so must chose to fling himself from the plane into night-cloud and counterfire.


Time confounds us because volition is a mystery. What makes an otherwise sane young man with rifle and parachute fling himself down through night-cloud and counterfire into Italy?

When time is at a fork, decisions arise. One may decide which of two mutually exclusive outcomes to pursue, to act or not to act, to do or to omit to do, and one may suffer the decision-making process.

At times, when all parts of the soul cohere in one will, we might even be unaware of any decision, for there is no internal debate, no hesitation, no reluctance to overcome, and the conscience, serene, does not engage us in a wrestling match.

At other times, flesh wars against spirit, heart against head, immediate craving against prudence and temperance, cowardice against courage, self-interest against objective justice, and so on. At such times, the soul seems to be the observer of the war, not a participant.

And yet whatever the outcome, unless the man was intoxicated, insane, coerced or deceived by another, he is morally held liable for the act he did, or neglected to do.

Some philosophers maintain that these internal deliberations are a mechanical process, and that, given the same initial conditions, the same result would have obtained. This is either the most trivial of trivial truths, akin to saying each time one reads the selfsame history book, the same events are depicted in the same way; or this is a blatant falsehood, claiming that the deliberate process involved no deliberation, on the grounds that the outcome was determined, set, and foretold by the initial conditions.

In the first case, saying that you would have made the same decision over again given knowledge only of what you knew then, provided all things influencing the decision, your diet and mood, the lighting and barometric pressure, is merely saying that you made the decision. It is not saying the decision happened for no reason. Indeed, a man making a difficult decision, pondering the question from all angles, could most likely list all his reasons in great detail.

Of course, his reasons are his reasons largely because he decided to make them his reasons.

That decision itself was decided because of his history and habits of decisions, his virtues and vices, the natal stars under which he was born, family curses, the inspirations from good angels bending near the earth, and a thousand other things beyond human knowledge.

And those reasons come in turn from reasons deeper yet, eventually coming from a realm before reason, or above it, or below. Some superstitious people perhaps believe that realm rests in the areas of genetic or upbringing, nature or nurture, but merely to say it is astrological influences or the Curse of Adam is no less reasonable way to express our awe of the unknown.

The reasoning of such fallacious philosophers has an admirable elegance. An axiom of physics, back when physics was sane, was that each mechanical or physical effect proceeds from a mechanical or physical cause sufficient to cause it. In technical terms, this is called efficient causation or historical causation.

Applying this axiom to legal and moral and metaphysical reasoning, where it has no possible application, these philosophers assert that non-physical effects proceed from physical causes. When quizzed on this point, they usually deny that non-physical effects exist. Of course, the meaning of their answer, whether spoken or written, is non-physical.

Truth or falsehood is a non-physical property, as is meaningfulness or meaninglessness, virtue or vice, beauty or ugliness, since none of these can be described in solely terms of the properties sufficient to measure all physical things: mass, length, duration, temperature, candlepower, current, moles of substance.

(An aside: All physical objects and events are measurable. All measurable things have the Eudoxian characteristic, that is, the characteristic that measurements are proportional rather than ordinal. Two inches is half four inches, for example; whereas the Mohs hardness number, which is not a measurement, only shows which mineral is harder or softer than another, but not in what proportion. Obviously when we say something is twice as true or half as true, no literal proportion is meant. A girl winning four beauty contests may have twice the trophies as one who won two, but she is not twice as beautiful, because beauty cannot be measured or expressed in a proportionate magnitude. End of aside.)

The idea that men’s decisions are determined is not absurd. Certainly our decisions are determined; we determine what we determine. We do the very thing beasts ruled by instinct do not do: use abstract reasoning to decide between foreseen alternatives.

The squirrel shows foresight when he gathers autumn nuts against the threat of coming winter, but he consults no calendar, performs no Ptolemaic calculations to do so. So it is not foresight he learns through admonition by prudent elders or accumulation of personal experience; it is the foresight of his creator who instilled the nut-hording instinct in his furry breast.

The instinct is triggered by temperature or sunlight or some other environmental condition, or some knowledge in his blood, that is, by nature, since beasts can be trained, but cannot be nurtured. Training can bridle their instincts to serve human purposes, but what we call nurture, that is, education in virtue to grant youth the ability to bridle one’s own instincts to serve higher than human purposes, is not possible for beasts.

What is absurd is to say that no decision could have ever been decided otherwise. It is absurd by definition: in a situation where the outcome is inevitable, no decision can take place.

Saying that the decision itself, the decision-making process, is part of the overall process leading to an inevitable result is the same as saying the decision is a decision. It is true, but saying nothing new.

Determinist debate seems, to be frank, to be a silly discussion of whether or not Man has the power to select the outcome of his own deliberations by an act of deliberation. Such discussions turn round and round like a dog chasing his own tail, endless and pointless, usually because the philosophers involved either do not define their terms, or do not apply their own theories to themselves.

I propose a new theory: all the debate of fixed fate and free will seems to be discussion of the shape of the soul of man, but is not what it seems. I propose the determinist debate is a discussion of the ontology of time.

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. In normal speech, we rarely distinguish between degrees of being. Something either exist or does not.

But, upon reflection, we see there are degrees of existence: if we can act on something or be acted upon, the reality is present; if it can only be talked about, the reality is more remote; if the thing exists only as a legal fixture, a fiction, or a hypothetical, the reality is more tenuous yet, being conditional on human consensus.

This raises the question of if, or in what sense, things past or things to come, or things that might once have been but now will never be, can be said to exist. They clearly are not present in the present, but only a beast could live without past or future present in his mind. Only man can wonder about what might have been, or repent, or regret.


Time confounds man because, being creatures aware of time passing and forking, we can neither live entirely in the present, as beasts might do, nor can we live entirely in eternity, like angels.

We can and must distinguish between potential and actual, between possible and impossible. While no common man is ever confused by the concept of potential and actual, between what is and what might have been, philosophers seem unduly confounded by the concept.

Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas Eve of 1776, to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, an attack which, remarkably, was successful. On Christmas Day, Washington had no power to revisit that decision; nor can any man alive today somehow return to that day and undo the act. But on that day, other options were open to Washington, including inaction, retreat, or even surrender. Other forks in the stream opened upon other branches, each one, in this case, more likely than the narrow branch world history somehow entered.

While science fiction writers might delight an audience by speculating about the alternate histories that might have been, and science fiction readers might be bedazzled by the hair’s-breadth escapes and odd coincidences which shunted our world into the unlikely timestream we actually inhabit, the main point of the worlds of might-have-been is not entertainment but morality.

For the other alternatives to Washington’s wintertime night-raid on Trenton were all less daring and honorable than the fork he chose. It is in this, his heroic nature is displayed.

More to the point, his heroic nature, a combination of prudence and courage, and an astonishing devotion to justice — he is the only man in history, head of a victorious army, to turn down a crown — was the culmination of all his prior decisions. One fork after another presented itself, or was found by him, to move him from the world into which he was born into a most unlikely but most glorious world where he was a hero, a victor, a statesman, and the father of a new nation.

Mortal man, wise enough to be aware of the promises and menaces of passing time, each morning as we wake, even if waking in a sickbed or prison cell, have at least some small power to select between a better day and a worse day. The current will carry us along whether we will or no, nor is it in our power to avoid tragedy, sorrow, sickness, doom, and death altogether. Not even Christ escaped the day of his burial unwounded. But any man not in a coma can make the day better or worse, adding one small grain in the balance pans measuring his accumulated virtues and vices.

Humans are not simple creatures: one act of will does not determine our whole character instantaneously. Some parts of our mind and soul and personality we have no power to influence, or very little. Anyone struggling with a besetting sin knows well how long the struggle to change might last, or how difficult it may be to make the change settled and permanent.

There are, of course, light decisions which require no great effort of will to will. Selecting which softdrink to buy from a vending machine is a light decision, which, if at all, might become difficult only when no strong preference inclines the thirsty purchaser between two softdrinks nearly identical in all but name.

Between these two, rests the wide variety of daily decisions whose action, as slowly as waterdrops in a river sculpting stubborn stones to smoothness, shapes our character over time, due to repeated habits growing ingrained. It is for this reason fibbing in small things, perhaps from a misplaced sense of courtesy or an eagerness to avoid conflict, is nonetheless a grave moral decision. Overeating at one isolated meal does not make a glutton fat. But the accumulation of habit shapes character even as physical exercise shapes muscle mass.

Likewise, not every tiny acorn grows to a majestic oak; but surely every majestic oak was once a tiny acorn. Plant seeds wisely, no matter how small they now seem, since the awareness of time foretells you will one day reap what you sow.

Virtue or vice grows by habit, and maturity accumulates as the virtue of prudence is practiced.

Prudence has two parts: in the young, due respect for the wisdom of tradition passed along by parents and teachers and pastors is prudent, for it must serve in place of the lifelong experience no youth has. In the mature, the harsh step-dame of experience, the pain of repeated failure, confirms which current sacrifices are demanded by hopes of future happiness. It should take but few bad harvests to teach the prudent youth what results to expect from sowing bad seed, or tilling and tending negligently.

Indeed, it should take but a few bad generations to teach mankind to rear the young. Education can be likened to a walled garden. Within the walls, the growing student may fail in safety, and learn what is needed to minimize failure, so that when he ventures into the chaos outside the wall, where failures may be fatal, he is wise enough to weigh the risks, and act with prudent courage.

Maturity can almost be defined as the willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification for prudent hope of future gain, as the ant and the grasshopper in the old Aesop fable: learning to share in order that others will play along with you, learning courtesy to receive courtesy, learning to be honest in order to be worthy of honors, and so on.

Daily choice either brings one a step closer to the time where one’s aspiration of an ideal life might flourish, or a step away.

So the alternate time stream where you made the better decision, following the higher star of aspiration, daily presents itself. In this sense, the demand to use the power of knowing good and evil is always present, and is always a blessing, in the same way its misuse is always a curse.

To say these parallel streams of time do not exist at all is akin to saying the past does not exist. Much depends on how we mean the word.

The memories, gains and losses, and all things set in motion in times past “exist” in the primary sense of the word, for they are all present in current time, and can act and can be acted upon.

Moreover, in a secondary sense of the world, and the past “exists” to the degree that statements either true or false can be made about it. The past is not a figment of the imagination, open to be ignored at will, without peril.

The past does not exist in the primary sense that it cannot currently be acted upon; but in the secondary sense of the word, the past exists because it can be contemplated and discussed, faithfully or unfaithfully, truly or falsely.

There is a tertiary sense of the word where those imaginary things, such as storybooks or legal fictions, which exist only when and insofar as humans agree they do. They are not really true or false unless we all say so. A discussion among fans as to whether a sequel is cannon rather than fan-fiction is just such a discussion of this tertiary sense of existence.

In this tertiary sense, silly as it sounds, it makes perfect sense to say Superman exists but Mighty Mouse does not, on the ground that the first is meant to be taken seriously, at least by children, but the second is and always was meant to be a parody or comical homage of the first. Such things are “real” so to speak, but not really real.

Confusing as it may be to a professional philosopher, no child reading Superman comics has any difficulty understanding that the episode in SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN issue #57 where Jimmy Olsen marries Supergirl is an “imaginary story”, that is, outside the continuity of the main story universe. “Continuity” here refers to existence in the tertiary sense, that is, it refers to a hypothetical treated as real by consensus.

Time past and time future are more real than may-have-beens, because, as said above, things past remain in memory and record, and what was set in motion remains in action; and things future, even if indistinguishable at first from imaginations, guesses, fears, and dreams, can or will become real and present when the time comes.


Please note these truths are neatly said, perhaps as myth but certainly as truth, in the opening of Genesis. Even an honest atheist, whenever such a rare chimera can be found, must admit the poignant profundity of the account, the adroit elegance, with no word wasted or left wanting.

Consider: the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is also the fruit of time, which brings mortality and all our woe into this world; by its taste, our eyes are opened, but what we see is shameful nakedness, that is, vulnerability both physical and spiritual to dangers future days may bring.

The physical vulnerability is foreknowledge of death. Such an odd thing to know! For no man knows death by firsthand experience, nor can, unless he is in the same case as Lazarus, Dorcas, Eutychus. Death is the one thing all men rightly fear, but when it is comes, we are gone.

The spiritual vulnerability is the power to will evil. Such an odd power! For in willing evil to others we always will our own loss and damnation. Such impulse cannot come from a self-preservation instinct, for evil is self-destructive; nor from reason, for evil is illogical. It grants us no good, and serves pleasure either in the short term or not at all.

I have heard many a fool interpret the nakedness of Adam and Eve after the fall, and their shame, in a sexual light: as if to copulate without prudence or love like brute beasts were healthy and laudable, but to pursue modesty and self-command were neurosis, or even sin. The fool sees the Genesis account perhaps as a sinister scheme of social control, a tale told only to pressure the fun-loving and free-spirited free-love folk into repressive Victorian conformity.

The convolutions of thought supporting such wayward misreading are impossible to trace. Sufficient to say the fool says in his heart there is no God, hence the fool finds no moral rule, no prudence, no reason, that should or could check his most grotesque impulses to self-indulgence.

It is highly doubtful, as a matter of logic, or even of sound story telling, that the father of mankind, the most manly and perfect specimen of his race, ever turned in shame away from the naked beauty of his wife, more fair than any of her daughters. They were man and wife, after all, alone except for the God who spoke through their bruised conscience.

Their nakedness was more than physical: their brief words were those of man blaming wife, woman blaming the serpent.

Keep in mind that, at that time, the woman was queen of all nature, so she was heeding a creature subordinate to her, over whom heaven had granted her dominion. That man would follow his wife rather than his creator is a similar inversion.

The curses that follow are all part of the paradox of time. Death, as said above, is only feared in the foreknowledge of it. The account says death entered the world when Adam’s eyes were opened; those unwilling to take this literally should admit it is true as a figure.

Adam is cursed to till the soil. Foresight tells of coming winter, when food is no longer to be gathered or hunted from leafless tree or game long fled to distant lands.

Adam labors now, diligent as the ant in Aesop’s fable, when, let us admit, if he is anything like his sons, Adam would rather have been playing the fiddle his sevenfold grandson Jubalcain newly invented.  This diligence will allow the survival come December for the tribe of Adam still dwelling in walking distance from the foot of the forbidden mountain of Eden, or gathered in the walled city of Enoch.

Eve is cursed to bear his sons in pain, but also to be subject to him. Whatever one thinks of the literal Biblical account, the literal truth is that woman is not designed, mind or body, to bear children in isolation, nor to provide for the young without the father. This is the vulnerability, the nakedness, so to speak, her newfound forethought reveals.

Even the luxuries of modern abundance do not remove this vulnerability, nor the subjection that goes with it. All that the woman-haters who call themselves feminists have done in attempting to liberate women from the joys of domestic life is to reduce her to sad dependence on Caesar.

As for the curse on the serpent, the Bronze Age Israelis knew well snakes actually eat mice. The words of Genesis are sacramental, meant to carry a spiritual reality. The serpent, here, is a figure of death. For this reason he is condemned to eat the dust to which mortal man returns. It is grave-dust he eats.

The snake is that dark spirit which tempts man to disobey heaven, as when man attempts to elevate man above godhood. In this passage, the insight of Moses, or revelation to him, ties such disobedience directly into death. Death is seen here as the wage of disobedience to God, from whose hand comes the tree of life. The serpent of sin lures man into the grave, where his smaller cousin, the worm, will feast on him.

A day comes somewhere between babyhood and childhood when the youngster learns he is mortal and must die. It is a horror and humiliation greater than any other.

Taken literally, death is the original punishment for the original sin of Adam. The fact of being born a man, and nothing more, makes one mortal. Lest anyone think the punishment too harsh, keep in mind that the exile only lasts until the general resurrection, and most men sleep in the grave through the intervening age, or dwell in limbo.

Keep in mind, too, that innocent children inherit Adam’s nature, like it or not. No one needs to teach a child to tell lies: he will strike upon this useful notion quite on his own, without a single example, in the same hour when he learns to speak, or the first time he is asked who broke the cookie jar. It is honesty he need to be taught, and the thought that lies in the short-term ruin reputations in the long.

But taken sacramentally, knowledge of death is the effect of the forethought that tells man to know himself to be mortal; yet it is also by that forethought that man has the volition to make present sacrifice to bring brighter futures to fruition, to flee death and follow virtue, to seek, if the grace of God reveal it, the eternal things our father in Eden knew, when God Himself walked among the dappled shadows of the tree of life in the pleasing breeze and ambrosial airs.

Let us also embrace the wisdom to seek that paradise again, and climb the lost mountain, for we have heard of an eternal word, a word made flesh, able to lead of from the sad rivers of time, filled with human tears, into the ocean of eternity, and the shore of a promised land beyond.

Our Lord entered time, taking human form and being, and so sacrifice was demanded of Him as well. He paid it freely, was nailed to a barren cross of wood, which is the tree of life sprung up, for us, anew.

The perfect man, unfallen, ascended into the eternal realm, a man, at last, not to be confounded by time.