The Sport of Kings
The Social Harvest of the Hunt
My hoarse-sounding horn Invites thee to the chase, the sport of kings; Image of war, without its guilt -William Somerville, The Chase
Every fall, millions of Americans decamp to the woods in the hope of bringing home a deer or turkey. Growing up, my dad brought me along when he went hunting, teaching me to shoot just as he learned when he was my age. We hunt for many reasons. Health and pride make ‘free-range’ venison far better than processed, hormone-filled, and store-bought meats. That pride derives from the great technical challenge of hunting, allowing a man to prove himself against nature; there are few places left in American life where a man is tested with such clear results and life-and-death stakes. This begins to get at why hunting can be so deeply fulfilling. Hunting allows us to practice prudence and self-discipline. It demands we do so. And as a reward for this practice, beyond meat in the freezer and antlers on the wall, a community is created. Despite the deterioration of broader society, hunters remain in the forests of my native Michigan, as in Scruton’s England, a community “not yet alien to itself, a community which [has] yet to be ground into atoms and scattered as dust.”
In the flattened grasses or disturbed trees I often overlooked, my father saw the presence and the patterns of deer, squirrels, and rabbits. This, the importance of being observant, is the first lesson of hunting (or rather the second, after weapon safety). In the woods, you can’t kill what you cannot find— and to anticipate where an animal will be, you must be as responsive to the environment as it is. Whitetail deer are finicky creatures, spooking easily when they notice an unfamiliar scent or sound. Hunters must account for the nature of their prey in this way, seeking hunting positions that will shield them from detection. They need a practical knowledge of the nature of the whitetail in general paired with a deep familiarity with the particulars of their land, in the context of the day’s weather, to be successful. This is “good judgment,” as Plato defines it.
Plato’s definition of wisdom includes another element as well, that it be “exercised not on behalf of any particular interest but on behalf of the city as a whole.”Sportsman’s groups have helped shape American wildlife law so that this is the case. Many states require hunters to take safety courses. Fees on hunting equipment fund state and national wildlife regulatory agencies, helping ensure our natural environment is protected. Similarly, the vast majority of hunters happily comply with licensing requirements and tag limits intended to ensure that game populations remain at sustainable levels. In fact, most hunting landowners impose additional rules to both protect local populations and promote the growth of trophy animals; for instance, many decline to shoot bucks with fewer than six points on their antlers so they can continue to grow and beget offspring. In this way, law, custom, and nature unite to punish the imprudent and reward the wise hunter who understands the impacts of his hunt on his community.
The bleeding-heart vegans miss this point—a loss perhaps even more unfortunate than missing out on the hearty flavors of sautéed heart and venison stroganoff. To PETA and the like, America’s hunters are cold-hearted murderers who descend upon the woods to exercise our cruel dominion over them. But men do have a role to play in their natural environment; the cruelties of nature when ‘unspoiled’ by man are clear to those who treat it as more than a tourist destination. It is a rare deer that dies of old age. They have natural predators, like coyotes and wolves, making the common vegan self-justification that man is merely another animal incoherent, as animals do have natural predator-prey relationships. Many other deer die after prolonged suffering from disease, accidental injury, and starvation; these problems worsen when their populations are unchecked by hunters. A hunter’s well-placed shot offers comparatively little suffering.
Placing a careful shot requires that the hunter also be self-disciplined. It can be tempting to push one’s limits, particularly when staring down a trophy animal. However, the hunting community looks down upon this practice—hunters expect one another to know their own limits and abide by them. We practice our marksmanship outside of the hunting season and learn the anatomy of our prey so that our shots will be as clean and efficient as possible. There is a cottage industry of hunting videos which usually spend more time describing the preparation for a hunt than showing its conclusion; they are as much educational as they are intended to thrill. These are not the only demands hunting makes on its practitioners. Deer tend to move in the early morning, often making the hunter wake well before dawn, and with deer season back home bleeding from fall into winter, it’s usually freezing. One must also remain as still and quiet as possible so as not to scare his prey—which is easier said than done. These virtues speak for themselves. Controlling simple physical desires like these can be very effective training for the control of immoral impulses, and the hunter who best subordinates his physical needs to the hunt is usually the one rewarded with success.
As a result, the hunter learns humility. These tests can teach him the limits of his body and spirit. We often note wryly that the activity is called hunting rather than killing. Realistically, you will not do everything right—every hunter can tell story after story of his mistakes in the woods—and the sight of antlers disappearing in the trees makes that failure concrete. Even with perfect technique, the experienced hunter may still fail to bring down his target: bad luck and unfavorable circumstances can thwart even the most skilled practitioner of the sport. This is a relatively easy way to learn the difficult lesson that while our virtues do not guarantee material benefit, they are worth pursuing because they make us better in and of ourselves. The man who understands that lesson and persists in doing what is right regardless of its difficulty can most rightly be called self-disciplined.
Modernity often fails to give these qualities—humility, resilience, discipline—the recognition they deserve as cornerstones of the well-ordered soul. Hunting is increasingly anachronistic—modern man prefers the indoors to the outdoors, the easy to the difficult, the comfortable to the thrilling. He has traded his shotguns for smartphones, with which he has an almost biomechanical integration in the same way the former was once indispensable. The smartphone is an incredibly complex device from the technological standards of even just fifty years ago, yet so few of us could truly consider it a net positive in our lives. They offer a simulacrum of life, but without its vividness or depth. We can play hunting games on a phone, for instance, but this removes the value of the sport. Such games may be fun, but they do not require accurate knowledge of one’s prey or environment, much less the preservation of their real-life incarnations. Instead of forcing us to consider weighty topics like death, the digitalization of hunting (and of life more generally) trivializes them; it makes the act of killing cartoonish. Furthermore, hunting is an ancient activity and thereby bridges the generations, which is an important conduit for the transmission of wisdom. In contrast, the novelty of the smartphone creates generational gaps. The technological superstructure of our lives seeks to remove the substance of activities like hunting, mimicking them without preserving their value. So too is it deeply destructive to self-discipline, insofar as its nominal benefits are conferred without effort.
If we wish instead to preserve the tradition of hunting and the virtues it inculcates, we must also preserve the land upon which it is practiced. Hunting is, of course, deeply reliant on the land upon which it occurs and demands of the hunter that he be intimately connected with it. To the hunter who embodies these traits, land which appears still or lifeless to others is very much alive. The physical characteristics of the land we inhabit shape the nature of a hunt, and memories of events upon it build another layer of meaning, as does the hope of bringing together future generations of family and community. To know a piece of land necessitates knowledge of its history, and in this way, it ties us close to our ancestors. I was privileged enough to grow up hunting on a family campground with signs and markers to commemorate generations past; hunting there allowed me to walk in my family’s footsteps. Land, well-protected and lovingly used, serves at once as the site on which the new generation is tied to its elders and as the common language by which lessons are shared between them. Our communities must have the wisdom and self-discipline to preserve both private and public lands for hunting. I hope there remains enough hunters among us to ensure that they do.
A version of this article originally appeared in Scorched Earth, the March 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Roger Scruton, “On Hunting” (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 45.
Plato, “The Republic,” Book IV.
I thought the article captured well the conservation ethic tied to hunting. Was written by someone knowledgeable in both time and place, capturing the nature of stewardship. I know, as I'm the 5th generation of family on land in Michigan.
Hunting is part of human nature. When nature order is reverted anything can happen and most the times it ends in tragedy.