SI Vault
Jos� Ortega Y Gasset
September 25, 1972
Thirty years ago Spain's eminent philosopher set down some thoughts about man's enduring pursuit of game. Now, for the first time, his essay has been translated into English
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September 25, 1972

Meditations On Hunting

Thirty years ago Spain's eminent philosopher set down some thoughts about man's enduring pursuit of game. Now, for the first time, his essay has been translated into English

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Hunting, like all human occupations, has its different levels, and how little of the real work of hunting is suggested in words like diversion, relaxation, entertainment! A good hunter's way of hunting is a hard job that demands much from man: he must keep himself fit, face extreme fatigues, accept danger. It involves a complete code of ethics of the most distinguished design; the hunter who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps these commandments in the greatest solitude with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the roaming cloud, the stern oak, the trembling juniper and the passing animal. In this way hunting resembles the monastic rule and the military order. So in my presentation of it as what it is, as a form of happiness, I have avoided calling it pleasure. Doubtless in all happiness there is pleasure, but pleasure is the least of happiness. Pleasure is a passive occurrence, and it is appropriate to return to Aristotle, for whom happiness always clearly consisted in an act, in an energetic effort. That this effort, as it is being performed, produces pleasure is only coincidental and, if you wish, one of the ingredients that comprise the situation. But along with the pleasures that exist in hunting, there are innumerable annoyances. What right have we to take it by that handle and not by this one? The truth is that the important and appealing aspect of hunting is neither pleasure nor annoyance but rather the very activity that comprises hunting.

Happy occupations, it is clear, are not merely pleasures; they are efforts, and real sports are effort. It is not possible to distinguish work from sport by a plus or minus in fatigue. The difference is that sport is an effort made freely, for the pure enjoyment of it, while work is an obligatory effort made with an eye to the profit.

Anyone who is now advanced in years has had the opportunity to observe that from his childhood to the present the number of animals that the human hunter has found interesting and considered worthwhile pursuing as quarry has greatly diminished. To explain this, obvious reasons have been given: the greater perfection of weapons, the excessive number of hunters that use them, the growing area of cultivated lands not only in Europe but throughout the world. Whether or not these are the causes, the diminution itself is fact, and once reality has forced us to accept it as such, it triggers in us an abstract line of reasoning. If in our childhood there was more game than today, going backward in time we should find greater and greater abundance, and we should presently arrive at times in which it must have been superabundant. This is how we have got into our heads, almost automatically, the common conviction that "before, there was much more game," in the sense that "there was more than enough game." I myself used to accept this like everyone else.

Prehistorians usually affirm that the various glacial and postglacial periods were paradise for the hunter. They give us the impression that tasty prey swarmed everywhere in unimaginable abundance and, reading their works, the wild animal that dozes deep down inside any good hunter feels his teeth sharpen and his mouth water. But those appraisals are vague and summary. At times a precise bit of information, in which we are given figures, leads us to imagine swarms of animals. Thus the remains of some 10,000 wild horses have been found in what is perhaps the largest-known field of prey, the region around Solutr�. In the Drachenh�hle (Cavern of Dragons) in Styria, says Hugo Obermaier, the German archaeologist, 30,000 to 50,000 skeletons of cave-dwelling bears were piled up, dead not at the hands of hunters but due to natural causes.

But prehistorians use a chronology that walks on very tall stilts. They speak of millennia as if they were nothing. The durations of which they speak, like those of astronomers, are expressed in such large figures that the whole beauty of numbers evaporates, becoming mere convention. In fact, to the aforementioned data about the bears, Obermaier immediately adds, "Since more than five or six families never lived together at the same time in the cave, it is to be assumed that the Drachenh�hle was the constant dwelling place of these animals for more than 10,000 years." The highly respected Obermaier is now being reasonable. But if we take the smaller figure, as would be sane, 30,000 divides up into three bears a year. This is too few bears: it is what I call the scarcity of game.

To gauge the quantity of game that presumably existed in the Paleolithic Age, the documents which the hunters of that time left us in their rock figurations are, for many problematic reasons, more important than these facts. This is because those exciting images were put there, paralyzed in stone, not for love of art but for a magical purpose. By covering the walls with drawings of animals, ritually consecrated, primitive man believed he assured the animals' presence in the environs. By drawing an arrow in the flank of an image a successful hunt was prefigured. This magic was not only meant to achieve success in wounding the prey, it was also fertility magic. The figurative rite was performed so that the animal would be abundant and its females fertile.

It would be appropriate to state precisely the three purposes of this hunting magic: 1) that there be a lot of game; 2) given it exists, that the hunter find it; 3) once found, that the techniques used to capture it—the trap, driving it off a cliff, the dart, the arrow—function successfully. With the first purpose the primitive hunter makes a formal and explicit confession to us that he did not believe game to abound, so that for him the first act of hunting consists in procuring the existence of game, which apparently on its own was simply neither plentiful nor constant.

But the other two purposes implicitly declare just as much that this hunter starts from the assumption that the desired animal is uncommon. If it were plentiful there would be no question of not running into it, no problems and hardships seeking it. If it is unnecessary to look for it because it is always at hand, in inexhaustible supply, one does not worry either about success in killing or capturing it. If the first blow fails it is all the same; another animal is close by to receive a second aggression, and so on indefinitely.

But this last inference, which is of superlative simplicity and if well understood would seem to be a platitude, leads to a sudden realization. It dawns on us that this kind of arduous proof of scarcity of game throughout human history, and still earlier in prehistory, is completely unnecessary; we could have saved ourselves the trouble with a simple reflection on the very idea of the hunt.

For hunting is not simply casting blows right and left in order to kill animals or to catch them. The hunt is a series of technical operations, and for an activity to become technical it has to matter that it works in one particular way and not in another. Technique presupposes that success in reaching a certain goal is difficult and improbable; to compensate for its difficulty and improbability one must exert oneself to invent a special procedure of sufficient effectiveness. If we take one by one the different acts that comprise hunting, starting with the last—killing or capturing the prey—and continuing backward toward the initial operation, we will see that they all presuppose the scarcity of game.

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