This evening I finished reading Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting. It was a delight to read this short memoir indoors on a Saturday snuggled with a blanket and beside a fire. It reminded me of reading books about gruesome trench warfare in cafés while sipping cappuccinos. The circumstances in which I read books on topics like war and hunting are so radically removed from the contents of the books, which makes non-fiction books and autobiographical memoirs seem more like fantasy.
When I was a child, I didn’t like pretending very much. I was very much obsessed with accuracy and with reality. Tea was obviously an indispensable condition for a tea party; juice could not possibly be a substitute. So books that are based very much on reality, but on a reality which is utterly or significantly foreign to me make for very enjoyable reads. Being transported to the world of fox-hunting in Scruton’s book is a bit like being transported to a world of elves or wizards, except the foreign reality is not an imaginary one, but rather an existent one in our world.
When this book was lent to me, my first comment was that it is short. Scruton prefaces his especially autobiographical anecdotes saying, “The length of a biography ought to be dictated by the greatness of the deeds recorded in it. Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature – especially when written by politicians themselves.” Scruton weaves together an engaging narrative emphasizing the centrality of hunting to his experiences. He says he “resolved to take up hunting during this, the best part of my life. The next ten years were given to fulfilling that ambition, along with two others: to be employed by no-one, and to live by my wits. The three ambitions were really one and the same: I was taking a step back from the modern world into a realm of ancestral freedoms. I was also discovering England.”
The three-fold resolution and the lofty, yet compelling description of what became of his goals lend a larger-than-life quality to his storytelling. Perhaps this is the case with all storytelling though. I think that one of the most insightful lines in C.S. Lewis is this:
“Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself involve an exaggeration?”
Recently, a man I know, a hunter, was explaining to me that he is an atheist but that hunting is the closest he has come to believing in God. The reflection that hunting inspires on nature, on life, and on mortality orient the soul to contemplation of these things. Here is what Roger Scruton says on the matter:
“Of course, I was familiar with hunting prints, with lampshades, table mats and tea trays celebrating ‘the sport of our ancestors’. And being a mere intellectual, I had dismissed them as mass-produced kitsch. But what I observed was neither kitsch nor cliché. There by the willow-cumbered banks I saw the moving image of eternity. Here was an unselfconscious union between species, which was also a rejoicing in the land. It was neither Nature nor Heritage nor any other marketed thing. It was, like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comforting as soul is, and as durable. I know this more clearly now, in retrospect. But I sensed it then, and a strange apprehension came over me, like falling in love – the apprehension of the self taken hostage by an outside force.”
Occasionally throughout the book, I wondered how the book is received by other fox-hunters. After all, Scruton is an intellectual and his book centres around such themes as human nature and the human condition, all while referencing classical texts in politics, history, and literature. It reminded me of J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors, which was the most academic book that I read in my War and Interpretation class. Gray’s book is philosophical. It is fundamentally about human nature (of which war is an essential feature) and other eternal things. This is precisely what made Scruton’s book enjoyable for me too though. Because his book is about many more fundamental things than hunting (which is but one example of the deeper truths that are illustrated), the book resonated meaningfully.
Scruton’s book helps in discerning a proper understanding of human persons. Two important passages on this point include: one on looking at people as subjects and one on making distinctions between animals and humans based on what it means to be a moral being:
“God intended that we live in such a way, that we see into the subjectivity of the world – which is God himself. That we can do this is self-evident. How we do it is an unfathomable mystery. And if, in order to bring this mystery about, a process of evolution was required, so that the soul became incarnate at last in a creature which rose only by degrees to such an eminence, then so be it. God moves in a mysterious way. When you look on people as objects, then you see that Darwin was right. When you look on them as subjects, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory.”
“Animals are not moral beings: they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their lives, and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, then Kant’s categorical would apply to them: it would be wrong to kill them, capture them, confine them, harm them, or curtail their freedom. But it would also be wrong for them to do these things. Lions would be murderers, cuckoos usurpers, mice burglars, and magpies thieves. The fox would be the worst of living criminals, fully deserving the death penalty which we from time to time administer. For foxes kill not only for food, but with a wanton appetite for death and destruction. In short, to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them – is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.”
Like the books that I have studied on war last semester, Scruton’s book on hunting surprised me. It was engaging, witty, and persuasive. The book is not abstract, but personal. And from the particulars in Scruton’s experience, he points beyond the specifics to what is universal in human nature. He points to what any reasonable person should consider and that is the question: what is man’s place in nature?
Here are a few of my other favourite quotations from the book:
“Being unpopular is never easy; but being unpopular in a good cause is a shield against despair.”
“For hunting lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd – a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the chase.”
“It is a law of human nature that those with least to say spend the most time in saying it.”
“For this is how the suicide of nations begins, when sentimentality prevails over sense.”
“And here is the true reason why women ought not to fight in armies – that, in the moment of supreme danger, they might turn their hostility as much on their comrades as on their foes.”
“Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and the authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade – yes, and Heidegger, who appeals to the post-modern tutor largely because he makes so little sense.”