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MEDITATIONS ON HUNTING
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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Early Paleolithic man, the oldest that we know and the one who by chance was the hunter par excellence, was a man while still an animal. His reason was not sufficient to permit him to transcend the orbit of zoological existence; he was an animal intermixed with discontinuous lucidities, a beast whose intellect glowed from time to time in his intimate darkness. Such was the original, primordial way of being a man.

In these conditions he hunted. All the instincts that he still had played a part in his task, but in addition he employed thoroughly all his reason. This is the only form of hunting, among all those that man has practiced, which can truly be called a "reasoned pursuit." It can be called that even though it was not especially reasoned. Nevertheless, the first traps were invented in that period. From the first, man was a very tricky animal. And he invented the first venatorial stratagems: for example, the battue, which drove the game toward a precipice. The early weapons were insufficient for killing the free animal. Hunting was either forcing the game over a cliff or capturing it in traps or with nets and snares. Once the prey was caught, it was beaten to death. Obermaier thinks that sometimes it was suffocated with clouds of smoke.

Starting from this outline we must conceive the later development. To do that it is necessary to think along two lines at once. Reason grows stronger. Man invents more and more effective weapons and techniques. In this direction man grows farther away from the animal, raising his level above that of the beast. But along parallel lines, the atrophy of his instincts increases also, and he grows away from his pristine intimacy with nature. From being essentially a hunter he passes to being essentially a shepherd—that is, to a semistationary way of life. Very soon he turns from shepherd into farmer, which is to say that he becomes completely stationary. The use of his legs, his lungs, his senses of smell, of orientation, of the winds, of the trails all diminish. Normally, he ceases to be an expert tracker. This reduces his advantage over the animal; it maintains him in a limited range of superiority that permits the equation of the hunt. As he has perfected his weapons he has ceased to be wild; he has lost form as a fieldsman. The man who uses a rifle today generally does not live continuously on plains or in forests; rather, he goes there only for a few days. Today's best-trained hunter cannot begin to compare his form to that of the sylvan actions of the present-day pygmy or his remote counterpart, Paleolithic man. Thus progress in weaponry is somewhat compensated by regression in the form of the hunter.

The admiration and generous envy that some modern hunters feel toward the poacher stems from this. The poacher is, in distant likeness, a Paleolithic man—the municipal Paleolithic man, the eternal cave dweller domiciled in modern villages. His greater frequentation of the mountain solitudes has reeducated a little the instincts that have only a residual nature in urban man. This reconfirms the idea that hunting is a confrontation between two systems of instincts. The poacher hunts better than the amateur not because he is more rational but because he tires less, he is more accustomed to the mountains, he sees better and his predatory instincts function more vigorously. The poacher always smells a little like a beast and he has the eyesight of a fox, a marten or a field mouse. The sporting hunter, when he sees a poacher at work in the field, discovers that he himself is not a hunter, that in spite of all his efforts and enthusiasm he cannot penetrate the solid profundity of venatorial knowledge and skill the poacher possesses. It is the superiority of the professional, of the man who has dedicated his entire life to the matter, while the amateur can only dedicate a few weeks of the year to it. We must immerse ourselves wholly and heroically in an occupation in order to dominate it, to be it!

Very soon reason reaches a degree of development that permits human life to go beyond the horizon of the animal; thus when man's superiority becomes almost absolute, the role of reason in the hunt becomes inverted. Instead of being used fully and directly in the task, it intervenes rather obliquely and gets in its own way. Adult reason directs itself to tasks other than hunting. When it does bother with the hunt, it pays most attention to preliminary or peripheral questions. It seriously will endeavor to improve the species by scientific means, to select the breeds of dogs, to dictate good laws for the hunt, to organize the game preserves and even to produce weapons that within very narrow limits will be more accurate and effective. But one idea presides over all this: the inequality between hunter and hunted should not be allowed to become excessive, the margin that existed between them at the beginning of history will be preserved and, where possible, improved in favor of the animal. On the other hand, when the moment of the hunt actually arrives, reason does not intervene in any greater degree than it did in primitive times, when it was no more than an elemental substitute for the instincts. This clarifies the fact, incomprehensible from any other point of view, that the general lines of the hunt are identical today with those of 5,000 years ago.

Thus the principle which inspires hunting for sport is that of artificially perpetuating a situation which is archaic in the highest degree: that early state in which, already human, man still lived within the orbit of animal existence.

It is possible that I may have offended some hunter who presumes that my definition of hunting implies I have treated him as an animal. But I doubt that any real hunter will be offended. For all the grace and delight of hunting are rooted in this fact: that man, projected by his inevitable progress away from his ancestral proximity to animals, vegetables and minerals—in sum, to nature—takes pleasure in the artificial return to it, the only occupation that permits him something like a vacation from his human condition. Thus the meditation which unfolds in the preceding pages has gone full circle, returning us to its beginning, because it means that when man hunts he succeeds in diverting himself and in distracting himself from being a man. And this is the superlative diversion: it is the fundamental diversion.

There is no period in which this nostalgia for other past times has not existed because there has never been a period in which man felt that he had more than enough energy to deal with his own troublesome situation. He has always lived with the water at his throat. The past is a promise of greater simplicity for him: it seems to him that he could move with a good deal more comfort and prepotency in those less-evolved forms of primitive life. Life would be a game for him.

It is surprising to see the insistence with which all cultures, upon imagining a golden age, have placed it at the beginning of time, at the most primitive point. It was only a couple of centuries ago that the tendency to expect the best from the future began to compete with that retrospective illusion. Our hearts vacillate between a yearning for novelties and a constant eagerness to turn back. But historically the latter predominates. Happiness has generally been thought to be simplicity and primitivism.

As history advanced, the ways of being a man became more conditioned—we would say more specialized. On the other hand, if we move backward toward more and more elemental styles of life, specialization diminishes and we find more generic ways of being a man, with so few suppositions that in principle those ways would be possible or almost possible in any time; that is, they exist as permanent availabilities in man.

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