A PHILOSOPHY OF THE HUNT

One day I finally got around to reading Jose' Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Hunting (English transiation by Howard B. Wescott, published by Charles Scribners and Sons, 1975. Although Socrates himself compared philosophy to hunting, I don't know of any major philosophers, ancient or modern (Ortega died in 1951) who ever made hunting itself the subject of their philosophizing.

Nor is this little book apt to appeal to what the mass marketers refer to as the "pickups and shotguns" crowd. Even after the dense introduction by some other fellow which is mercifully short, Ortega's aristocratic tone is a bit much for those used to Field & Stream or Outdoor Life. You can tell he was a blue blood from his double last name -- in Europe if you have royalty on your mother's side, you don't let people forget it. But what he has to say is, I think, rather important, at least for those of us who revel in our weekly, or even sometimes daily, regression to the primitive state.

Since the end of the paleolithic period, or about 20,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries, hunting has ceased to be a necessity, but rather is a "diversion", a "vacation from the human condition." but far from being a put-down, this judgment is viewed as the sport's highest recommendation. We all need to let our hair down a bit now and then and take a respite from all the tension of trying to be fully human. A return, now and then, to the semi-primitive state, to lower ourselves to being on near-equal terms with the animal and to pit our intelligence against a beast who may be a lot more savvy when it comes to saving his own hide than we are, is a recreation (or as perhaps we should spell it re-creation) of our own past, a putting down of our roots to get in touch with our basic instincts too long dulled by civilized life.

But Ortega has strict qualifications for what he would have really considered hunting. First of all, the game has to be scarce. If you've got a lot of deer or bunnies hopping around just waiting to be shot, you might as well case up your gun and go home. True hunting has always been and will always be a demanding affair requiring long hours of patience, unsurpassed alertness, and strenuous exercise. It is not for sissies.

Nor can it be a push-over or a "set-up. Granted that primitive man may have always been on the lookout far more efficient ways of doing his prey in, once hunting became a true "sport", and not just a way of gathering meat, the animal must be given more than a fair chance to get away. Once you've got a sure-fire method, you are no longer "hunting" in any real sense of the word. Although hunting is not quite the same as fighting -- where both sides have an equal chance -- man, who is the superior, the predator, in this case, still has to work for, as well as outsmart, his prey. One has the feeling that Ortega would have classified shooting deer over bait from the comfort of insulated blinds as being in the same sporting category as chicken-raising.

Real hunting is a violent affair as well. According to him you can't really "hunt" with a camera any more than you can have a bull-fight without blood being spilt. He really loses his cool philosophical style over this one -- one wonders if he'd had been satisfied if a few more nature photographers died in action! But all things considered, to Ortega's mind the psychological release is just not there unless the animal (if not the hunter) ends up dead. Put succinctly, the mere meat-hunter may indeed "hunt to kill", but the sport-hunter only "kills to hunt" and even then, must suffer some pangs of conscience in the act. Once we no longer regret taking the animal's life we either have settled for a target that is no longer worthy of our efforts, or else we have become a degenerate of sorts, for even primitive man respected, often venerated, his prey.

Despite its high-flown style, this is not a tender-minded book. Many nature-loving types will be offended by it, if the title does not turn them off from reading it to begin with. As a sometimes sport hunter who really does [or at least did] depend on game for most of my meat, I have reservations about his glorification of the hot pursuit on horseback of a stag with dogs as the truly sporting way of hunting deer -- maximum excitement perhaps, but not a recommended way of getting tender venison! But despite such aristocratic fancies, I'd recommend this book for all hunters who would seriously ponder what they are about.

R W Kropf 12/2/1990


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