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Exceptional vocations aside, we confront the stupefying fact that, while obligatory occupations have undergone the most radical changes, the idea of the happy life has hardly varied throughout human evolution. In all times and places, as soon as man has enjoyed a moment's respite from his work he has hastened, with illusion and excitement, to execute a limited and always similar repertory of enjoyable activities. Strange though this is, it is essentially true; to convince oneself, it is enough to proceed rather methodically, beginning by setting out the information.
What kind of man has been the least oppressed by work and the most easily able to engage in being happy? Obviously, the aristocratic man. Certainly the aristocrats, too, had their jobs, frequently the hardest of all: war, responsibilities of government, care of their own wealth. Only degenerate aristocracies stopped working, and complete idleness was short-lived because the degenerate aristocracies were soon swept away. But the work of the aristocrat, even though it entailed effort, was of such a nature that it left him a great deal of free time. And this is what concerns us: what does man do when he is free to do what he pleases? Now this greatly liberated man, the aristocrat, has always done the same things: raced horses or competed in physical exercises, gathered at parties, the feature of which is usually dancing, and engaged in conversation. But before any of those, and consistently more important than all of them, has been...hunting. So that, if instead of speaking hypothetically we attend to the facts, we discover—whether we want to or not, with enjoyment or with anger—that the most appreciated, enjoyable occupation for the normal man has always been hunting. This is what kings and nobles have preferred to do: they have hunted. But it happens that the other social classes have done or wanted to do the same thing, to such an extent that one could almost divide the felicitous occupations of the normal man into four categories: hunting, dancing, physical endeavors and conversing.
Choose at random any period in the vast and continuous flow of history, and you will find that both men of the middle class and poor men have usually made hunting their happiest occupation. No one better represents the intermediary group between the Spanish nobility and Spanish bourgeoisie of the second half of the 16th century than the Knight in the Green-Colored Greatcoat, whom Don Quixote meets. In the plan of his life which he formally expounds, this knight makes clear that "my exercises are hunting and fishing." A man already in his 50s, he has given up the hound and the falcon; a partridge decoy and a bold ferret are enough for him. This is the least glorious kind of hunting, and it is understandable that Don Quixote shortly afterward, in a gesture of impatience that distorted his usual courtesy, scorned both beasts in comparison with the husky North African lion.
One of the few texts on the art of hunting which has come down to us from antiquity is the Cynegeticus by Flavius Arrianus, the historian of Alexander the Great and a Greek who wrote during the time of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. In this book, written during the first half of the second century A.D., Arrianus describes the hunting expeditions of the Celts and in unexpected detail studies separately the potentate's way of hunting, the middle-class man's way and the lower-class way. That is, everybody hunted—out of pleasure, it is understood—in a civilization that corresponds roughly to the first Iron Age.
Nevertheless, the strongest proof of the extension throughout history of the enthusiasm for hunting lies in the contrary fact, namely, that with maximum frequency throughout the centuries not everyone has been allowed to hunt. A privilege has been made of this occupation, one of the most characteristic privileges of the powerful. Precisely because almost all men wanted to hunt and saw a possible happiness in doing so, it was necessary to stagger the exercise of the occupation; otherwise the game would have very soon disappeared, and neither the many nor the few would have been happy in that situation. It is not improbable, then, that even in the Neolithic period hunting acquired some of the aspects of a privilege. Neolithic man, who is already cultivating the soil, who has tamed animals and breeds them, does not need, as did his Paleolithic predecessor, to feed himself principally from his hunting. Freed of its obligatory nature, hunting is elevated to the rank of a sport. Neolithic man is already rich, and this means that he lives in authentic societies, thus in societies divided into classes, with their inevitable "upper" and "lower." It is difficult to imagine that hunting was not limited in one way or another.
Once we have underlined the almost universally privileged nature of the sport of hunting, it becomes clear to what extent this is no laughing matter but rather, however strangely, a deep and permanent yearning in the human condition. It is as if we had poked a trigeminal nerve. From all the revolutionary periods in history there leaps into view the lower classes' fierce hatred for the upper classes because the latter had restricted hunting—an indication of the enormous appetite that the lower classes had for the occupation. One of the causes of the French Revolution was the irritation the country people felt because they were not allowed to hunt, and consequently of the first privileges that the nobles were obliged to abandon was this one. In all revolutions the first thing that the people have done was to jump over the fences of the preserves or to tear them down, and in the name of social justice pursue the hare and the partridge. And this after the revolutionary newspapers, in their editorials, had for years and years been abusing the aristocrats for being so frivolous as to spend their time hunting.
About 1938 Jules Romains, a hardened writer of the Front Populaire, published an article venting his irritation with the workers because they, having gained a tremendous reduction in the workday and being in possession of long idle hours, had not learned to occupy themselves other than in the most uncouth form of hunting: fishing with a rod, the favorite sport of the good French bourgeois. The ill-humored writer was deeply irritated that a serious revolution had been achieved with no apparent result other than that of augmenting the number of rod fishermen.
The chronic fury of the people against the privilege of hunting is not, then, incidental or mere subversive insolence. It is thoroughly justified: in it the people reveal that they are men like those of the upper class and that the vocation, the felicitous illusion, of hunting is normal in the human being. What is an error is to believe that this privilege has an arbitrary origin, that it is pure injustice and abuse of power. No, we shall presently see why hunting—not only the luxurious sporting variety but any and all forms of hunting—essentially demands limitation and privilege.
Argue, fight as much as you like, over who should be the privileged ones, but do not pretend that squares are round and that hunting is not a privilege. What happens here is just what has happened with many other things. For 200 years Western man has been fighting to eliminate privilege, which is stupid because in certain orders privilege is inevitable and its existence does not depend on human will. It is to be hoped that the West will dedicate the next two centuries to fighting—there is no hope for a suspension of man's innate pugnacity—to fighting for something less stupid, more attainable and not at all extraordinary, such as a better selection of privileged persons.
In periods of an opposite nature, which were not revolutionary and in which, avoiding false Utopias, people relied on things as they really were, not only was hunting a privilege respected by all, but those on the bottom demanded it of those on top, because they saw in hunting, especially in its superior forms—the chase, falconry and the battue [the practice of beating the woods to drive the game from cover]—a vigorous discipline and an opportunity to show courage, endurance and skill, which are the attributes of the genuinely powerful person. Once a crown prince who had grown up in Rome went to occupy the Persian throne. It is said that very soon he had to abdicate because the Persians could not accept a monarch who did not like hunting, a traditional and almost titular occupation of Persian gentlemen. The young man apparently had become interested in literature and was beyond hope.