Limited Time Offer: Sempiternity Beckons!

When my daughter was about 8, and we were reading D’Aulaire’s Mythology or sump’n, I explained to her that snakes are a symbol,of immortality and wisdom because people used to believe they didn’t die, they just shed their old skins and rejuvenated.
She said, skeptically: “Didn’t they ever see a dead snake?”
This perfectly illustrates the meaning of my shiny new vocabulary word:
Unlike “eternity”,which is outside of time, sempiternity refers to a TEMPORAL period, but one so long that, experientially, it might as well be infinite.
Of course, as my brilliant li’l metaphysician pointed out, the ancients did know snakes could be killed, they musta seen plenty of ‘em cut in half by cart wheels. It wasnt that serpents were invulnerable, it was rather that unless their lives were violently truncated, they would not die simply of having lived, as we do.
Sempiternity is the “ever after” in the fairy tale formula “happily ever after” .It is the dimension into which folk tales always surrender their narratives. It is in Browning’s phrase, “the instant made eternity”—which is totes oxymoronic cuz an instant is a temporal unit, it can’t escape into the timeless dimension—but that’s ok, that’s the kinda tension poetry is supposed to set up.
It is the blesséd ( or curséd, depending on your circumstances) NOW, the eternal present in which terminally ill patients are advised to live. (But they can’t, of course: sempiternity, by definition, is when no end is in sight.
“I worship this tenacity, the beautiful struggle we’re in-/ Love will not elude us, love is simple” sang K. D. Lang. Yes , “ in medias res”, the struggle which occupies every faculty we have— love and everything else is indeed “simple” although it doesnt seem so— but, compared to standing at last before the finisterre….
Pondering sempiternity also brought to mind a Larkin poem “Days”:

“What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in: ,
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.”


So how would one know if one was experiencing sempiternity or eternity? What test could one apply?

It reminds me of the old discussion about the color “Bleen”. Bleen is a color which starts off looking blue, and then some day switches to looking green. Is the sky blue or bleen? How could one tell – apart from looking at it for eternity. Or sempiternity.

Apologies for this diversion. I will crawl back into my hole now.


You’re thinkin’ oh how quaint and uselessly philosophical, which is kinda what I wanted, cuz get a load o’ this:
I can see in the mind’s eye an image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the “tender shepherd” of the lullaby, in a red stole over a white robe, crookstaff in hand, cradling a lamb just snatched from the jaws of death. Maybe a wolf, maybe it fell into a brush pit or sump’n. But for now it’s safe. It isnt thinking, “Whew, that was a close one, but of course you, shepherd, are just gonna slaughter or sacrifice me soon anyway”—-although those two ends, food or sacrifice, are, if you extend the metaphor, that lamb’s only possible destiny. But it’s safe and warm against its saviour’s breast NOW. That is its sempiternity. Christians are always singing and praying about themselves вs “His sheep” and “His grain”. As if they’ll remin in the warm fold, the dry and quiet granary, forever. Well, maybe “forever”, that is kinda a sempiternity word. I’ve read that the last word f of the 23rd Palm, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” might be more accurately translated “for a long time”. A sempiternity.
And then?


Far from it. I am coming round to the point of view that – to misquote Lord Kelvin – there is philosophy and there is stamp collecting.

Not so very long ago, the right kind of university had a department of Natural Philosophy. Then they all went modern, and changed the name to Physics Department. That may have been a mistake … because scratch many topics in physics and one finds philosophical issues. And I am not just talking about thermodynamics!

Whether it is sempiternity or eternity, we are still talking about time. But why does time have an arrow? And what is time anyway? What should we make of the physicists (philosophers?) who speculate that the force of gravity is an expression of the impact of time?

Whatever time may be, the lamb safe & warm against the shepherd’s breast should enjoy the moment. In this world, nothing lasts forever. Even the protons of which we are made will decay eventually, they tell us.


In the cold of winter a little bird was flying about seeking some food and shelter. It lands in the midst of a large cow pie. There is warms itself and gets little bits of food. Feeling great at being full and warm on this cold, blustery winter day, it breaks out in song. A hawk hears the warble, swoops down, and eats the bird.

Moral? When you’re in shit up to your neck, don’t sing.


No, see, eternity isn’t time, it’s another dimension. “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and Time shall be no more”….I wonder if you can still be bored in eternity, or if boredom is only engendered by our awareness of time?


Thanks for the new word, although I had some trouble understanding how sempiternity differs from eternity. (I’m still not sure I comprehend the distinction fully.) The definitions I found in online dictionaries were unsatisfactory, but I came across this excerpt from Boethius’ Tractates, which offers some clarity:

Our present connotes changing time and sempiternity; God’s present, abiding, unmoved, and immoveable, connotes eternity. Add semper to eternity and you get the constant, incessant and thereby perpetual course of our present time, that is to say, sempiternity.

Then to address @Gavin’s question: What kind of test could one apply to determine whether one was experiencing sempiternity or eternity? I think any test would work because the mere act of testing is a temporal thing. Therefore, if you can perform a test of any sort, I think you are necessarily experiencing sempiternity rather than eternity. What do you think?


This gets into some profound questions on the frontiers of modern physics. General relativity, Einstein’s geometrical theory of gravitation, has no time variable in its equations: it assumes a “block universe” or what philosophers call “eternalism”, in which there is no past or future, but instead everything is fixed; there is no free will; with our illusion of time existing only because we experience events as a cursor moving through this block of fixed events.

Quantum mechanics, the theory of the very small and of high energies, is formulated based on a clock, external to the system, ticking independent of events within it, in which events occur based on probabilities that evolve with time but which cannot be predicted, even in principle.

These theories are completely incompatible with one another, and it is easy to set up thought experiments which show that neither can be completely correct.

Clearly, we are missing something. If the physicists cannot decide which model of time is correct and complete, we shouldn’t expect the philosophers and poets to be able to either.

Many crackpots have tried to unify these different models of time. My own attempt is my “Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”, which places the boundary between the crystalline block universe and the fuzzy quantum future at our experience of the present.


Very true. What we have are useful approximations. If we can keep open-minded – not the direction in which “Science” is heading these days – we should be able to develop better approximations.

The multiverse concept may be a possible explanation for paranormal phenomena – but the multiverse concept itself is rather dubious. It is not just humans deciding which button to push on the vending machine – there are flies circling the vending machine choosing whether to go left or right; and parasites on the flies making similar choices. Obviously, we cannot consider only human choices to split off another universe; that would be too anthropocentric. So the multiverse believer has to believe in an infinite number of parallel universes. That just does not sound likely – what about the conservation of mass & energy?. It is tough enough to consider where this universe is, let alone where are its postulated infinite parallel cousins.


I always love a new vocabulary word too!
You won’t be surprised to hear that I can’t really grok the physics discussion, but—we mortals DO know sempiternity; as I said, that means infinite or endless time—but still, time. It’s the time period in which fairy tales and folk tales and sometimes mythology are situate. And it’s the sweet spot in our own lives, when although we know of course all die someday, but the end isnt in sight. When we can still plausibly engage in denial of death. If we found ourselves experiencing eternity, I don’t think we’d need my kinda “test”, any more than if you were used to boating on a lake and suddenly found yourself at sea. I think we’d know definitively we were in a different element.


Problem is, of course, that youth fails to understand mortality. Look at soldiers in combat. They do some pretty stupid stuff, all because they just don’t believe that next bullet has their name on it. And surprisingly most often they’re right.


Exactly! That period where you feel invulnerable, you just Can’t viscerally conceive that you will die, you can be killed—THAT is experiential sempiternity. That’s the rescued lamb, that’s the “ever-after” in the fairy tale phrase. That’s the ever-rejuvenating snake.
And with that , my Ouroboros of a post is devouring its own tail.