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There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow

I’ve always loved this quote from the final act of Hamlet, and this passage was recently suggested to us by Anila Arshad-Mehmood (@akneela). In the scene, Horatio begs Hamlet to make up an excuse not to duel with Laertes, if he has a bad feeling about it. Hamlet replies: "Not a whit, we defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”  

Augury is usually defined in the footnotes as simply “superstition” or “divination.” But there's more to it and it’s fascinating. Augury was the ancient Roman practice of divination through birds, and it’s where we get the words “auspicious," “inauspicious" and “inauguration.”

In this quote, Hamlet rejects the notion that the will of the gods or fate can be divined and avoided, and asserts that everything unfolds according to an immutable plan. If something is fated to happen, it will happen. If not now, then it will come later. If not later, then now. For the first time in the play, he finds a sense of acceptance and peace in the face of overwhelming circumstances. 

Even the smallest sacrifices (i.e. the fall of a sparrow) are part of a grander design that we cannot fathom with our limited human perception. Because you can’t see the bigger picture, you can’t outsmart it. The exploration of this idea lead me to the extraordinary natural phenomenon among birds known as a murmuration. Typically seen among starlings, a murmuration is a large flock of birds (tens or even hundreds of thousands) that group together and become an undulating, morphing whole. The constantly shifting shapes they make are mesmerizing and imply a kind of higher order intent, but the structures are completely emergent: no bird is leading, and no shape is intentional. Each individual bird is aware of the birds around it and simply responds to the constantly changing states. But from the ground, we can observe the emergence of a structure, chaotic as it may be. 

I wonder if the "will of the Gods” that our ancestors were trying to divine was simply an emergent structure we might call a murmuration of humans?

Evan Robertson

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