On Pliny’s ostrich and reactive behaviour

For generations, many believed that Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) was the source for the most recognised and iconic description of ostriches–i.e. that they bury their heads when scared.  While it is true that Pliny does suggest as much, it is a passing comment at best.  He says:

They have the marvellous property of being able to [swallow] substance without distinction, but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for although the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed. (Natural History, 10.1)*

However, Pliny was not the first to mention this apparent phenomenon, for Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BCE) notes:

When she [the ostrich] is near being taken [by her pursuers], she thrusts her head under a shrub or some such like clover; not (as some suppose) through folly and blockishness, as if she would not see any pursuers, or be seen by them, but because her head is tenderest part of her body, she seeks to secure that part all manner of ways she can. (Historical Library, 2.4)

Even here we can see that describing this supposed reactive behaviour circulated before and during the time of Diodorus.  The obvious difference between Pliny and Diodorus is that one sees the behaviour as foolish while the other views it as sensible.**   While this behaviour has gone unobserved in the modern world, which allows people to assume a mythological element to the account; at the very least, Pliny should be exonerated for being the originator of this assumed mythical behaviour.  However, regardless of its historical accuracy or origin, there are lessons to be learned from this description that can be applied to real life.  Too many times, when confronted with difficult and even fearful obstacles in life, people opt for the proverbial ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach.  However, this over-reactionary approach is never helpful nor it is ever truly good.  This is the case for at least three reasons.

A proper assessment of what is ostensibly difficult has not been given.  Here, the person automatically assumes that the obstacle is to be feared without determining whether or not that assumption has any merit.  It is entirely possible that a difficult moment in life is not as daunting or fearful as it might appear.  It is equally possible that what is superficially frightening is ultimately peaceful and even beneficial.  In the case of the ostrich, it is quite possible that what terrifies it truly meant it no harm; however, the automatic assumption compels it to take drastic measures thus removing any chance of knowing what was real and true.  In the case of people, the same thing applies; however, the difference is that humans have the ability to decide consciously either to act animalistically or properly assess the obstacle before taking appropriate action.  Only after such patient assessment can a person know if they should run or be receptive.  Furthermore, if the obstacle is only superficially frightening and ultimately peaceful and beneficial at its core, then the animalistic decision to be an ostrich is painfully revealing.  It shows a lack of concern for the value of what might be, and it shows a lack of willingness to be wise and patient so as to properly assess difficult and fearful moments in life.

A proper assessment of one’s self has not been taken seriously.  Here, the person by default assumes that they do not have the abilities, strength or even intelligence to confront this obstacle–again, without determining the merits of that assumption.  It is entirely possible that the obstacle is in fact adversarial.  It is equally possible that the obstacle in life does not have good intentions.  (However, without dealing with the first problem, neither of these two possibilities can be known for certain).  Even if such is the case, it is also possible that the ill-intentioned, adversarial obstacle can be confronted and resisted.  The confident decision to stand and fight arises from knowing one’s abilities and strengths.  In the case of the ostrich, their immensely powerful legs and talon toes can inflict serious injury on their opponents.  While seemingly contrary to the ‘stand and fight’ defence, Diodorus Siculus notes that when an ostrich is running from a pursuer, it will hurl stones backwards from the ground at incredible speeds toward their opponent, often resulting in death.  Moreover, the powerful legs of an ostrich can achieve speeds up to 45mph (or more), thus enabling it to outrun most predators.  These abilities and strengths are in favour of the ostrich.  In a similar way, people are equipped with numerous abilities and strengths that can prove useful in difficult and fearful times.  More times than not, these strengths and abilities are of the cognitive nature–i.e. the ability to reason and rationally dialogue.  Furthermore, these abilities and strengths might wind up being superior to what is encountered; but this cannot ever be known if a person automatically chooses to run and hide the moment difficulty rears its seemingly scary face.  Thus, to ignore abilities and strengths in one’s self is to allow easy victory for what could have been easily defeated by such things.

A proper assessment of the outcome has not been fully given.  Here, the person merely assumes what will happen as a result of their decision, with the further assumption that the result will be in their favour.  It is quite possible that one’s decision to run and hide will be successful, but this is usually only fortuitous–i.e. the apparent adversary either proves to be non-adversarial or simply does not give chase.  However, if the apparent adversary is truly harmless, then the decision to run and hide was futile (if not insulting).  On the other hand, if the apparent adversary is truly harmful and yet did not give chase, knowing that the person will run and hide at the first sight of danger becomes an advantage for the adversary–i.e. they know they can make the person afraid.  If this the case, then the person’s decision to run and hide only has a temporary effect.  More to the point, and returning to Pliny’s interpretation of the ostrich’s behaviour, the decision to hide from that which is fearful by burying its head is based on the assumption that the entire self is hidden.  This then leads to the assumption that the adversary will simply pass by and not see where the ostrich is hiding.  But seriously, is this posture not painfully obvious and visible?  (One would have to be a complete fool to think otherwise).  When applied to human behaviour, however, the true folly of this approach is not that the one hiding believes that they cannot be seen (although, that might be part of the logic); the true folly is that by adopting such a posture, the difficult and fearful obstacle no longer exists.  This seems to stem not only from the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ assumption of an infant but also from the modern empirical assumption of ‘only that which can be perceived truly exists’.  For the ostrich, both of these assumptions would be quickly revealed as false the moment the hunter shoots the now easy target.

Where does this leave us?  If we run away from something that appears difficult or fearful, and we do so without taking the time to find out if that something really is difficult or fearful; then we expose more about ourselves than we do about that which confronts us.  We show that our perception of reality is more important than what is truly real.  We also show that we do not care to know if our perception even respectfully reflects reality.  Furthermore, we show a lack of willingness to be patient with difficult times in life; we are much more willing to give in to the escapist desire to run and hide.  If we fail to value and employ our strengths and abilities–especially in the face of difficult times–then we refuse to acknowledge and faithfully use what God has given us.  Moreover, not employing what God has given us and choosing instead to run and hide exposes a lack of faith–not only in our gifts but also the Gift-giver.  Problems in life must be confronted openly and honestly, and their true nature must be assessed patiently and carefully before making any decisions on how to respond.  God must be trusted in the midst of such times for it is from God that we have ability to assess and confront that which hinders us from moving forward.  Finally, if we decide to run and proverbially bury our heads in the sand, believing either that the difficult time will pass by or that it no longer exists, we not only set ourselves up for future disappointments but we also acknowledge our delusionalness.  Ignoring problems does not make them go away; believing that by ignoring problems they no longer exist borders on the insane.

* Pliny earlier describes a similar behaviour with mullet fish: ‘One singular propensity of the mullet has afforded a subject for laughter; when it is frightened, it hides its head [in the sand] and fancies that the whole of its body is concealed’ (Natural History, 9.26).  Aristotle says virtually the same thing in his book, History of Animals, 8.4.3.
** Diodorus goes on to say that the ostrich does this for naturalistic reasons–i.e. for the sake of securing its own life, thus enabling it to perpetuate its species.


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