Hunting and Nature’s Big Game

Twice a month, The duty challenges enthusiasts of philosophy and the history of ideas to decipher a current issue based on the theses of a prominent thinker.

The opening of the hunting season, like every autumn, seems to be part of the tradition. However, a number of growing societal concerns are bringing a fresh look to this age-old practice. In fact, the search for “organic” foods, the rejection of certain methods of industrial cultivation, the desire to feed themselves privileging the local terroir, not to mention the desire to reconnect with nature, are factors that lead many people to interest for this practice that, at the end of the last century, seemed doomed to decline. Added to this is the appropriation by more and more women of this activity traditionally practiced more by men.

After decades of decline, we are witnessing an increase in the number of hunting licenses sold annually in Quebec: from 457,920 in 2000-2001 to 539,458 in 2020-2021. The pandemic years certainly boosted these statistics a little, but an upward movement was already observable at the turn of 2000.

What may be surprising is the fact that this new wave is occurring in parallel with another, that of animalistic and/or vegan currents, which reject any form of use of animals by humans. The refusal of any animal death – which, in the news, results, for example, in a mobilization against the slaughter of deer in the Michel-Chartrand Park in Longueuil – shows that hunting enthusiasts are not finished facing philosophical debates about animal ethics, as well as as attempts to hinder or even prohibit the practice of their art.

In this context, it is relevant to rediscover one of the most important philosophical texts ever written on the subject, hunting meditations (Septentrion, 2006), by the Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset.

be in nature

The Spanish philosopher was not himself a hunter, but at the request of a friend who asked him to write an introduction to his own book on the subject, he undertook a reflection, which ended up taking the form of an essay that, after publication in 1942, it became the most cited work in the world to explain hunting.

Ortega y Gasset’s first observation is that hunting is the supreme form of the human being. inside nature. That is, unlike leisure activities that certainly allow us to enjoy the environment, such as walking in the forest, camping, going down rivers, etc., the fact of hunting leads us to go beyond the aesthetic or playful communion that these activities provide, becoming an actor in nature’s great game.

“The hunter, writes the philosopher, begins to behave like a game. He instinctively hides so as not to be seen; avoids all noise in motion; he perceives his surroundings from the doe’s point of view, with his own meticulousness. That’s what I call being inside nature. […] Wind, light, temperature, land relief, minerals, vegetation all play their part; they are not simply there as they are for the tourist or the botanist, but yes, they work. They act. »

The hunter, therefore, participates in the natural dynamics and is not just a spectator. In addition, he must develop an empathy for the game he covets if he wants to capture it, which “automatically leads the hunter to perceive the environment from the point of view of his prey, without abandoning his own point of view. . The thing is paradoxical and seems contradictory, but no one can deny it. After all, I am talking about something extremely simple: the pursuer cannot pursue the prey if he does not integrate his vision with that of the animal he is trying to reach. It is, therefore, to say that hunting is an imitation of the animal “.

A “zoological tragedy”

Ortega y Gasset does not deny that there is a dramatic aspect to the hunt, which he describes as “a small zoological tragedy”. After all, the hunt culminates in a kill. The game that was an almost ghostly animal, difficult to approach, that commands respect and admiration, becomes meat or deer… And this hunting product will, in the best practices, be honored and shared.

The animals’ death, however, makes hunting difficult to accept, especially in a world that has turned away from nature and its laws. The hunter, tells us Ortega y Gasset, follows the opposite path: he returns to his own zoological nature and chooses to assume it.

“We will not understand what hunting is if we look at it as a human fact, and not as a zoological fact that man likes to reproduce”, writes the philosopher.

This fact is that of predation, and whoever does so inevitably reconnects with a function of an animal order. In the animal kingdom, we are hunters or hunted. Predator or prey.

“Hunting is not an exclusively human occupation, but it is widespread across the zoological scale. Only a definition of hunting that takes this fact into account in all its dimensions and that also encompasses the predatory ardor of the beast and the mystical agitation of any good hunter will be able to get to the root of this surprising phenomenon. »

That is why the philosopher presented this idea, often taken up after him, that hunting provides “vacation for humanity”. And this is also why those who invest in it live intensely and often describe it as a “passion” – something that walking with a basket in the supermarket butcher does not provide. Hunting, on the contrary, is “the supreme entertainment”, because “when a man hunts, he manages to have fun and distract himself from being a man”.

“Anyway, words like ‘relaxation’ and ‘hobby’ do very little to convey their reality. […] That’s why I presented it as it really is, as a form of happiness, and that’s why I avoided calling it “pleasure”. Undoubtedly, there is a pleasure in every happiness, but pleasure is the least of happiness. […] Hunting is an arduous occupation that demands a lot from man; he must keep fit, face extreme fatigue and accept danger. »

a historic passion

José Ortega y Gasset delves into history and sociology to show how this passion for hunting is a constant in human history. “The general lines of hunting are the same as they were 5,000 years ago,” he writes. Although the need for food for hunting has been abolished by livestock and contemporary hunting is relegated to the realm of leisure for almost everyone, its approach still revolves around the same tactical principles and appeals to the same prehistoric talents. The advent of more effective weapons has been tempered by regulations, but the hunter in action still follows suit.

In a Europe once dominated by the aristocratic classes, the privilege of hunting for the nobles and the creation of private hunting grounds for the benefit of the powerful were a source of strong resentment among the poor, condemned to “poaching”.

“In all revolutionary periods of history, it seemed that the lower classes, limited in their access to hunting while feeling an enormous appetite for this activity, hated the upper classes for it. »

The Quebec of the Silent Revolution well illustrated this popular frustration in the 1970s, during the “déclubbage” movement, which demanded the abolition of forest land leased exclusively by the state to hunting and fishing clubs. These were usually frequented by the more affluent, often by foreigners. This movement resulted in the replacement of private clubs by wildlife reserves open to all and, under the Lévesque government, the creation of cooperatives now known as zecs (zones of controlled exploitation). All Quebecers can now benefit from this collective heritage.

Nature of Species Inequality

Neither the intrinsic qualities of the act of hunting nor its social and economic consequences are enough to convince everyone of its legitimacy. Especially at a time when the philosophy of a moral equivalence between humans and what animalists call “non-human animals” is developing. For the animalist, any sign of human superiority over the animal – even horseback riding – results from “speciesism”, a fault as serious in his eyes as racism.

Such a view of the mind, of course, can never be reconciled with that of José Ortega y Gasset when he writes: “Hunting excludes any claim to equality between hunter and prey. The lowest ranked animal cannot claim to hunt the highest ranked animal. »

In the Spanish philosopher’s perspective, animalism would be the result of a rupture with nature. In his day, dog-hunting enthusiasts, presumably suffering from moral doubt, proposed ending the deer chase with a simple photo. “If all that results is fiction, which is just a matter of taking your portrait, the hunt becomes a farce and empties itself of its tension. »

On the other hand, those who reconnect with “the ancestral proximity of animals, plants and minerals – in short, with nature” – and who seek to live “in the orbit of animal existence” accept the laws more willingly, above all predation.

suggestions? Write to Robert Dutrisac: [email protected]. To read or reread the ancient texts of Le Devoir de philo:

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