Et in Arcadia Ego: History, Myth & Remembrance

The shepherds of Arcadia ponder the meaning of the tomb inscription, ET IN ARCADIA EGO. Painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
entitled "The Shepherds of Arcadia" or "Et in Arcadia Ego" (1637-1638) 

Many years ago as a college student working in the archaeological curation lab at Mississippi State University, I couldn't have been more fortunate, or blessed to have met Jack D. Elliott. At that time Jack was working for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) as a state archaeologist, and historian.

I was raised as a Southern Baptist, and Jack a devout Roman Catholic, and our conversation would always gravitate towards spiritual things. We became fast friends, and have been now for around 25 years.

Just hanging around Jack I have become more enlightened and intelligent on a broad array of subjects, but especially history and it's place in our spiritual lives (the transcendent elements of history). The science of archaeology is definitely interesting and fascinating in it's own right, but divorced from transcendent questions, it becomes a fact gathering enterprise which doesn't consider the big picture of humanity or of human nature. It can become myopic, consisting of mere data collection. But history is also participatory - even when visiting an historical site.

Several years ago, when I was visiting Jack, we drove to an old cemetery located down a gravel road which meandered through the rolling hills above the Black Prairie in northern Mississippi. It was there that some of the truths I had been learning from Jack came together in my mind and in my understanding. Jack is a scholar and a student of the German political philosopher, and philosopher of history, Eric Voegelin.

One of the several core truths of Voegelin's thought is that human nature is deeply spiritual, not merely physical, and that the meaning of human existence has been common to all people since the beginning. Despite what modernity indicates - the spiritual dimensions of human nature are deeply embedded in all humans, past and present. As Voegelin scholar Glenn Hughes wrote:

"...despite the pressures of both popular and intellectual culture, despite contemporary feelings of isolation and fragmentation, we continue to surmise that we are actors in a common drama of existence, and so we continue to try to orient ourselves by some vision or another of the whole. Awareness of the unity of human history remains alive" [1]

The cemetery that Jack and I visited is located in an area called the Kilgore Hills. We visited the cemetery because of a fascinating story that Jack had told me a couple of years previously. Below is the story (as told by Jack) in it's entirety which was published in the TomBigbee Country Magazine.

G.K. Chesterton once said, that "Truth is stranger than fiction, because we have made fiction to suit ourselves."This is one of those strange but true stories. It is fortuitous for us that Jack met Mr. Whit, in the 1960's who then relayed the history behind a fascinating man, his tomb and the reminder to all of us, of the fragility and shortness of life, as well as hope beyond the grave.

by Jack D. Elliott 

One of the most unforgettable images from the Kilgore Hills is the Watkins mausoleum at Big Springs. To reach it you turn off the county road at Big Springs and drive beneath overhanging trees and alongside awesome gorges. Upon turning a bend in the road the vault comes into view. Most people buried in the cemetery have relatively modest headstones, if they have any at all. Looming over them all is the mausoleum, an elegant reminder of death set amidst the natural beauty of the place. 

Entombed inside are Dr. William Andrew Watkins and his wife “Miss Fannie”. The story of Dr. Watkins’s death, carried down in legendry, only accentuated the eeriness of the place. Scion of one of the major families of the Kilgore Hills, educated, intelligent, and young, his death was a tragedy that shook the community. He had been killed -- decapitated they say -- during a car wreck in 1916. The tragedy was made all the worse when Miss Fannie began making hysterical accusations against the other occupants of the car at the time of the wreck, including his own cousins.

Perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the mausoleum is its inscription. Carved in large capital letters is the name WATKINS and below it the phrase ET IN ARCADIA EGO. I have heard many puzzling over its meaning, even debating what language it is in.  Many think it’s in Spanish, and I’ve heard one person state emphatically and with great authority that it is obviously Greek. However, it is Latin.

As a teenager in the 1960s I regularly helped our neighbor, Mr. Lucius Cincinnatus Whitfield Waide, or Mr. Whit as he was usually called. He was in his 90s at the time, but intellectually and physically active. However, he was no longer able to split and haul firewood, so he hired me to help. He was educated -- a lawyer -- and was also well read in many other fields, besides being a treasure trove of local lore. He was well versed in Latin, regularly reading Cicero, one of his favorite authors.

Figuring that he would know something about the tomb, I once asked him about it and the meaning of the enigmatic inscription. A look of fond remembrance came over him. “Yes, I can tell you about that. I knew Will quite well. We grew up together. We were the same age and the best of friends. The inscription -- Et in Arcadia Ego -- it means ‘Even I am in Arcadia’ with the ‘I’ meaning ‘I, Death.’ It’s the title of a painting by a Frenchman Nicholas Poussin. It’s also known as ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia.’ Arcadia is a part of Greece that is secluded, rustic, and hilly. Its inhabitants were pastoralists who led unsophisticated yet happy lives. Arcadia came to mean a pastoral paradise. The painting shows a scene in Arcadia with a background of hills and glens. In the foreground three shepherds and one shepherdess -- all young -- puzzle over a vaulted tomb with the inscription: Et in Arcadia Ego. Even in Arcadia, I – Death – am here. 

“The painting is a ‘memento mori,’ -- a reminder of death – ‘In the midst of life, we are in death.’ In many ways it summarized Will’s personality which ranged from an almost ecstatic sense of wonder at God’s creation to a deep, dark melancholia. Will acquired the painting, a copy of the original, when we were on the grand tour of Europe in 1895 while we were both in the university. 

“Having attended the university many like Will would have moved to a city after graduation. Not Will though. He loved the hills which he called his own little Arcadia.

“So he returned home and established his practice. After he married his cousin Fannie from Kemper County, he built a two-story house, and in the main room hung his copy of the Shepherds of Arcadia. He had his office in one room. He also owned one of the first cars in the area. For the benefit of his more remote patients, he would travel around with a portable dental chair in the back.

“Despite his love for the area, the beauty of the hills, he often descended into melancholia. I remember one time finding him sitting on his front porch. When he saw me he said: “’Cincinnatus,’ -- he always called me Cincinnatus. He loved Roman history – ‘I am honored by your presence on this somber occasion’ and began reciting lines from Shakespeare: 

“‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.’

“Then he paused for a minute, and said, ‘Cincinnatus, I am so damned depressed.’

“I tried to cheer him up, but without success. Over the years his moods would change. On some days he would be filled with the greatest sense of wonder and delight, so happy to be alive, then he would descend into the depths of despair. 

“However, if there was ever a cure for his melancholia, it was riding through the hills drinking whiskey. This was a surefire solvent to dissolve his dark moods, which often inspired long rambling philosophical reflections.  He would have the black man, Sterl Gosa, drive, and he would bring along some of his friends, such as myself and his cousins Ed and Steve Watkins who were also about his age. Ed and Steve were notorious bon vivants who came along not for the ride or the philosophy, but for the drink. 

“One night there were five of us: Will, Ed, Steve, Sterl, and myself. We went to Una to buy some whiskey.  On the return trip – whiskey in hand – Will wanted to drive as he often did when he was drinking. So he changed places with Sterl. Crossing Houlka Creek bottom (locally known as Mooder Bottom), we could see the hills in the distance and behind them the aura of the setting sun. It was beautiful – and it moved Will. He pointed, and with a whoop exclaimed: “I look to the hills from whence comes my redemption.” I don’t think that anybody in the car other than myself had the slightest idea of what he was talking about, but I knew the ecstasy which would sweep away his darkness.

“Then he started reciting Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” 

“‘The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings….’

“Ed and Steve, who were never poetically inclined, cackled at Will’s recitation:

“‘Mont Blanc it gleams on high. . .
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.’

“Will and I had seen that awesome peak during our grand tour. Its jagged crown sticking out of a layer of clouds – the sunlight playing on the snow like sparks of electricity. You can see why the ancients saw the divine in mountains. There’s not much comparison between Mont Blanc and the Kilgore Hills, but Will always had the ability to see the universe in a grain of sand.

“By that time we were in the Hills. After continuing for a few more stanzas Will turned to me in the back seat -- taking his eyes off the road. In the dark I could barely make out the expression of ecstasy on his face. He said, ‘Cincinnatus, I feel like I touched the face of God!’ When he turned around there was a white mule in front of the car.

“Will jerked the car wheel to the right. We missed the mule but ran off the road and clattered down a steep slope into a ravine amidst a mixture of curses and prayers. I thought that I was going to be killed, but when we came to a stop I didn’t have a scratch on me. Ed who had been cussing started to laugh, and Sterl shouted “Praise the Lord, I’m alive.” I looked over at Will. He was slumped over the wheel -- dead. Despite all the tales going around these days that he was decapitated, there actually was not a scratch on him. No sign of why he had died. And the mule in the road -- no one ever found or claimed it. It was as if it never existed, as if it popped out of no where then returned to no where. 

“Will was buried two days later in his family lot at Big Springs. It was terrible. His family was devastated, and so was the community. And it got worse. Fannie began to spread the word that we had poisoned Will. The accusations were irrational and hysterical. Why would we -- his friends and relatives – want to murder him? There was no motive. 

“Fannie badgered the law to have his body exhumed and autopsied, and she finally wore them down. They dug Will up on a hot summer day and had him autopsied right in the cemetery by Dr. Sam Deanes of West Point, and I had to go through the horror of witnessing it. And what did we find out? Nothing! Except that there was no known cause for his death, not human or natural. It was as if God had called him home.

“Fannie calmed down after that and conceived the notion of building a mausoleum to memorialize Will. She was never tight with her money. She used to buy cakes at your family’s store to feed her dogs on special occasions, and she didn’t spare any money when it came to building a monument to Will. She asked me about a design, and I suggested that it be designed after the Poussin painting, including the inscription, which he loved.

“She immediately launched into the project, ordering it from Italy. After the stone arrived by rail in West Point it was hauled over the muddy roads in enormous wagons pulled by eight mule teams to Big Springs. For grandiosity the mausoleum was quite an accomplishment anywhere, let alone the Kilgore Hills. Many observed that it ranked alongside the construction of Waide’s Lake -- the standard for engineering marvels in the Hills. Some even compared it to the building of the Parthenon or to the Panama Canal, although none had actually seen the Parthenon or the Panama Canal.”

Today teenagers driving through the Kilgore Hills stumble upon the Watkins mausoleum. There, like the young shepherds and shepherdesses, they puzzle over the inscription -- Et in Arcadia Ego. One is reminded that in the midst of life we are in death. But we are also reminded that in the midst of death there is the hope of life.

The old Watkins home as it appears today. The spring daffodils in the foreground of the picture are a poignant reminder that "even in the midst of death, there is hope."  


[1]. Glenn Hughes, Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (Columbia and London: The University of Missouri Press, 2003), pg. 11. For more on Eric Voegelin on history, see, Eugene Webb's, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1981). 

[2]. Jack D. Elliott, Et In Arcadia Ego: A Tale of the Kilgore Hills (TomBigbee Country Magazine) - republished here by permission from the author. 


  1. He died painlessly, doing something he loved, surrounded by friends. May we all be so lucky when our time comes!

    1. After reflecting a bit, I also note that he died while driving drunk, putting his passengers in danger. Let's not do that.

  2. So, Mr. Wright, we've got a lot of dangling threads in the comments from your last blog entry. The conversational ball is in your court, and I await your response. It's been over a week since we heard from you; is everything okay?

  3. "Put up or shut up, Mr. Wright: in what observable ways does reality fail to match the predictions of the no-gods hypothesis? What experiments can I perform that will demonstrate the existence of gods?" -- Eric Weatherby, April 27, 2018

    [conspicuous silence] -- Ted Wright, April 27 to May 14, 2018

    I note that you've opted for "shut up".

    1. Eric. Everything is ok. Thanks for asking. (Part 1)

      Yes, I've been super busy lately with a lot of things going on. I apologize for not responding in a timely manner. First off, let me say that I don't think the format of a blog thread will settle anything, much less demonstrate God's existence, to you or anyone else. All I can hope to spur your thinking or to plant a seed for you to consider and ponder. Also should let you know that I do not have endless hours of time to dedicate to answering every single post or question that someone has online. Not trying to be a jerk - just letting you know if I don't answer immediately.

      That being said, let me state what I think the foundational question is -- which is the existence of a spaceless-timeless-immaterial Being that I, and other Theists call God.

      There are several features of the universe and reality that are impossible to explain without the existence of such a Being.

      1. The Existence of the Space-Time Universe Itself - There are only three options: (A) The universe is self-caused, (B) It doesn't have a cause, or (C) It does have a cause. A. Is self-refuting. B. Is also not true, since obviously the universe is finite and contingent (via. evidence from physics, and cosmology), C. That it does have a cause is the only rationally acceptable explanation.

  4. (Part - 2)

    So, we can ask - Was the cause of the universe self-caused? Caused by another? Or uncaused? A self-caused, Cause is contradictory, because it would have to exist and not-exist at the same time and in the same sense. It also could not have been caused by another, because it is impossible to have an infinite regress of causes. While it may be "logically" possible, it is "metaphysically" impossible because the universe does presently exist. It's like having a chain with links hanging in mid-air without a link holding it up.

    The only option left is an Uncaused Cause as an explanation for the origin of the universe. Since Einstein tells us in his Special Theory of Relativity that space, time and matter are co-relative, then whatever Caused the universe must exist outside space, outside time and outside matter - a space-less, timeless immaterial Being who CAUSED the universe.

    As an addendum: The Cause of the Universe is also infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, as well as personal since the will to CREATE -ex nihilo (out of nothing). Gen. 1:1 and modern cosmology fit together perfectly.

    Multiverse theory and quantum gravitational fields also don't provide an explanation for the existence of the universe for two reasons (1). If all contingent things need an explanation, then so does the multiverse, so you're back to the problem of an infinite regress of causes, but furthermore (2) Planck units (specifically Planck time = 10 to the negative 44 seconds after the Big Bang, and Planck length) prevent ANY scientist from knowing exactly what happened before the existence of the space-time universe.

    To quote John D. Barrow in his book (The Constants of Nature): "Planck units mark the boundary of applicability of our current theories. To understand what the world is like on a scale smaller than Planck length we have to understand fully how quantum uncertainty becomes entangled with gravity. The constants of nature mark out the frontiers of our existing knowledge and show us where our theories begin to overreach themselves" (pg. 43).

    (2) The Existence of Complex Specified Information found in the Universe - First on a cosmic scale - For instance why, were the laws of physics (the four fundamental forces) tuned in such a way, or fell within such incredibly fine-tuned parameters as the universe began to cool and expand? They were set at the VERY beginning of the expansion! Before Planck time? WHO or WHAT set them like this? A happy accident??? I don't think so. They were set that way by an infinitely WISE and powerful Creator/Designer.

    Secondly, on a much smaller scale - DNA, the epigenome, the human genome, etc... The encoded INFORMATION found in biological systems is much more complex than most computer programs. CSI (Complex Specified Information) such as computer software, only comes from a mind. The genetic-biological code of life did not arise via chance through evolutionary mechanisms, it came from a Designer. The make this inference, is not a blind, irrational leap in the dark. It is actually the only explanation that makes rational sense.

    Darwinism is a theory in serious crisis. It's predictions have fallen embarrassingly short of what the data have shown thus far, and I haven't even mentioned the problems with a-biogenesis - the origin of the first life on earth. Evolutionary scientists have not come even close to producing the first life and are no closer to an answer than Darwin was 159 years ago.

    Last of all - there is also the moral universe - which I won't bother belaboring here. I am sure you are aware of it. But the fact that all cultures around the world have an innate sense of right and wrong (i.e. a moral law) - is evidence that a moral-Lawgiver, exists.

    Those are some of my reasons for believing that God exists - in a nutshell. Obviously there are always nuances, and further clarifications.

    1. 1/2
      Thanks for getting back to us, Mr. Wright.

      There are numerous problems in your response.

      First, I'll address a sort of meta-problem: EVEN IF someone were to accept your argument for the Uncaused Cause, this only gets you to a vague, deist kind of entity at best. This argument explicitly does not and indeed cannot get you to Yaweh, the God of Abraham as Interpreted by Ted Wright's Favorite Protestant Christian Denomination.

      Second, I'd like to remind you of what I wrote on April 27:

      "In what observable ways does reality fail to match the predictions of the no-gods hypothesis? What experiments can I perform that will demonstrate the existence of gods? I know of a lot of different things which are not perceivable by my native senses, and yet I know of ways to experimentally demonstrate their existence. If you are going to make the bold claim that atheism "doesn't correspond to reality" then I expect you to provide evidence of gods that can stand next to our evidence for other invisible but real things, such as:

      * ionizing radiation
      * magnetic fields
      * microbes and viruses
      * radio waves
      * atomic nuclei
      * dark matter
      * relativistic effects
      * quantum superposition

      Don't come at me with weak sauce like first cause arguments or anthropic/fine-tuning stuff. You said that atheism doesn't correspond to reality. Show me the data. Show me the peer-reviewed experimental results."

      And what is your response? Not only have you utterly failed to deliver on that challenge, you started with the same tired PRATTs (point refuted a thousand times) that I explicitly called out as weak. I asked you not to try the first cause argument or the fine tuning argument, because they've both been fully debunked. So what did you do? You brought out the first cause argument and the fine tuning argument. Mr. Wright, your lack of intellectual respect here is quite annoying.

    2. 2/2
      "Darwinism is a theory in serious crisis."


      "It's predictions have fallen embarrassingly short"

      Mr. Wright, have you ever heard the word "Tiktaalik"? If not, take a moment to read the Wikipedia article:

      The relevant points are:
      1) The Theory of Evolution predicted that such a creature should have existed
      2) Deep time geology in association with the theory of evolution indicated what rock layers such a creature would have left fossils in
      3) Scientists were able to make a prediction that "if we dig in this type of rock, we should find this type of fossil
      4) Scientists dug in that type of rock
      5) Scientists found that type of fossil

      The Theory of Evolution allows people to make predictions about the results of future experiments.

      Show me how your theism or creationism can do that, Mr. Wright . . . if you can.

      "I haven't even mentioned the problems with a-biogenesis"

      It's true that we don't fully understand abiogenesis, and it's also true that we'll probably never be able to determine exactly what happened. However, it's also true that we have enough knowledge about how such things could happen to be confident that it's entirely plausible, and research is continuing in that area.

      More importantly, the proper and intellectually honest response to "I don't know how this happened" is "therefore we should study it more and hold off on making claims until we have more information." The response "therefore my preferred flavor of the supernatural must have done it" is wholly unwarranted; sloppy thinking of the worst sort.

      "Last of all - there is also the moral universe - which I won't bother belaboring here. I am sure you are aware of it. But the fact that all cultures around the world have an innate sense of right and wrong (i.e. a moral law) - is evidence that a moral-Lawgiver, exists."

      I . . . what? Mr. Wright, I have already explained, right here on your own blog, how evolution develops moral instincts in social animals. No moral lawgiver is necessary (and if you're referring to Yaweh, well, I've read the Bible. He can't reasonably be called "moral").

      So in summary, I asked for evidence and you gave me more arguments. I asked for science, and you gave me philosophy--and poor philosophy at that.

    3. 3/2 (I have to admit at this point that I have a problem with being verbose. I apologize. In the future I will try to take time to condense my replies.)

      I've shown you how my atheism allows me to make falsifiable predictions about reality (i.e. that healing prayers will have no effect). I've shown you one of the many, many ways in which the theory of evolution allows people to make falsifiable predictions about reality (i.e. "if we dig here, we'll find a transitional fish/tetrapod fossil").

      What I have asked for in response, and what you have failed to provide--what I contend that you cannot provide because your beliefs and models are incorrect--is an example of such falsifiable but successful predictions about verifiable reality based on your theism.

      Let's apply the scientific method:
      1. Define a question
      "Are Mr. Wright's beliefs grounded in reality?"
      2. Gather information and resources (observe)
      I've observed his writings here on Off the Map
      3. Form an explanatory hypothesis
      Hypothesis: Mr. Wright's beliefs are incorrect and not grounded in reality
      4. Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data
      And that's where we are right now (well, that's where we were with my April 27 comment, but now I'm making it explicit).

      My experiment is this: I'm asking you, Mr. Wright, to provide examples of occasions in which your theist/creationist beliefs yield falsifiable, surprising, and successful predictions about observable, verifiable reality. Please. If you have such examples, not only would I be very interested in hearing them, but they would go a long way toward making me take your religious position seriously--and you said yourself that you're strongly driven to try to save souls. This is your chance!

      And, of course, my prediction, based on the hypothesis that I developed in step three, is that Mr. Wright will NOT provide any such examples. If he does, he will falsify my prediction, indicating that my hypothesis is likely incorrect. He may respond with more philosophical arguments (does HE not understand the difference between evidence and arguments? Does he think I don't? Does he think his readers don't?) or he may try to explain why he doesn't need to provide evidence, or he may simply ignore the challenge. My prediction is not about what kind of response he will make--I'm claiming that there's one particular kind of response that he won't make because he can't.

      And Mr. Wright, thank you for continuing the dialogue. Many Christian writers would have banned me from their blog by now, and the fact that you haven't puts you well ahead of them in terms of courage and ethics.

    4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eric. I have no further comments to add. Sounds like you already have all the answers, and have your mind made up.

      It is obvious that are not a serious seeker after truth. You are full of pride and arrogance. No amount of evidence will convince you. Thanks again for sharing your comments.

      PS -[Eric] "This argument explicitly does not and indeed cannot get you to Yaweh, the God of Abraham as Interpreted by Ted Wright's Favorite Protestant Christian Denomination."

      Yahweh (the God of Abraham) is explicitly NOT what I was arguing for. Furthermore, it is NOT a "protestant denomination" - Classical Theism is a PHILOSOPHICAL position that is grounded in reason, logic, science - a position held my most serious thinkers for over 3,000 years.

      Furthermore, "Science" doesn't SAY anything, scientists, do. Even the scientific method is itself NOT scientific, but is built on logic (induction), ethics, causality and inference.

    5. "Thanks for sharing your thoughts Eric."

      You're welcome. Thanks for not banning us.

      "Sounds like you already have all the answers, and have your mind made up.

      It is obvious that are not a serious seeker after truth. You are full of pride and arrogance"

      On the contrary, being a serious seeker after truth is how I got to this position. You see, I used to be a believer like you. One day I realized that I believed only because I had been told to believe since childhood. I valued honesty and intellectual rigor quite a bit, so I was unsatisfied with that, and set out to establish a solid foundation of facts and reason under my beliefs. I was honest enough to realize that I couldn't use the Bible as part of that foundation, but I believed that universally agreed-upon facts plus proper logic would lead back to the beliefs that I was trying to justify.

      When it didn't work, I was honest enough, enough of a serious seeker after truth, to understand that I couldn't in good conscience continue to hold a belief that couldn't be properly justified, no matter how much emotional significance that belief had to me.

      "No amount of evidence will convince you."

      You aren't justified in making that claim, since you haven't even tried to present any yet. Well, maybe you have tried, but you don't understand the difference between arguments and evidence.

      "Thanks again for sharing your comments."

      Once again, you're welcome and thanks for putting up with me on your blog. When I discovered that you were willing to respond in length to commenters, I was excited and looking forward to an intellectually stimulating debate, in which I might even learn something. Since you've consistently failed to rise to that level, I suppose there's no point in further irritating you with my presence.

      To any lurking readers: please note that Mr. Wright's response was entirely in accordance with the prediction I made onMay 16. We don't call things Proven in science, but experimental results have failed to DISprove that hypothesis!


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