Marcus Aurelius and the Little Birds

Marcus Aurelius often seems to turn everyday observations into philosophical metaphors, throughout his personal reflections in The Meditations. One of my favourite examples is the way he refers to sparrows and other birds, which were surely a very familiar sound and sight to him, especially while campaigning on the northern frontier, such as at Carnuntum where he wrote part of The Meditations.

In one such passage, the suddenness with which little sparrows flit away and vanish from sight is treated as a symbol for the fragility and transience of all material things.

At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)

He says that even our own lives are as transient as this flitting sparrow. In his letters, Marcus refers to children as little sparrows. Of his fourteen children, only five outlived him. So in this passage watching the little sparrows vanishing from sight may even be a metaphor for the loss of his own children.

In another passage, the birds he sees become a reminder of what it means to follow our nature, and work tirelessly at fulfilling our role in life.

Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the bedclothes?’ ‘Well, it is certainly more pleasant.’ ‘So were you born for pleasure or, in general, for feeling, or for action? (5.1)

Do you not see, he asks, how “little birds”, and other animals, do their own work and play their part in the unfolding of universal Nature? Like the little birds we should be working away at playing our part, doing the work of a human being, without hesitation or reluctance.

Elsewhere he meditates on how “birds caring for their young” show a form of natural affection (philostorgia) for their own kind (9.9). The Stoics believe humans likewise have a natural instinct to care for their offspring, and their friends and loved ones, and to form communities and societies for their protection and mutual benefit. Human beings, despite their intelligence, often seem to forget this natural instinct, which even the little birds exhibit, toward caring for their own kind. It’s therefore our duty to remember and fulfil our natural potential for living harmoniously among others by cultivating the social virtues of justice, fairness, and kindness toward them.

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  1. I have been amazed by this aspect of Stoicism and did not expect it. Man being part of nature and on death the soil claims the body for recycling. So many messages resonate with ecological and ‘green’ thinking. If Marcus was around today I think he would be disappointed with what our species has done to our planet.

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