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The Hunt for Leadership by Charles A. Coulombe

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The Hunt for Leadership

"Forest landscape with Saint Hubertus" 43 x 58 cm oil on canvas by Alexander Keirincx (1600-1652), located in a private collection.

Photo: courtesy of the Netherlands Institute for Art History.

Most people to-day would agree that most of our problems stem from a lack of decent leadership. It has occurred to me that one of the reasons for this is symbolised by a feast day in early November—that of St. Hubert, patron of hunters. Having pursued a stag on Good Friday, the 6th century Frankish nobleman was surprised when the stag turned to face him, a crucifix appeared between his antlers, and his quondam quarry warned him to follow Christ if he wished to escape Hell. Becoming a monk, he evangelized the Ardennes where formerly he had hunted–and ended as Bishop of Liège. Little-known in most of the United States, it is a big thing here in Central Europe, as well as France, Belgium, and most of the Mother Continent. Key to the celebration is a Mass featuring music provide by hunting horns (a bit jarring, but quite pre-Vatican II!), followed by the blessing of the hounds. Whether used in packs to chase the deer, fox, or boar, or singly to pursue smaller game, these are of course a key part of the hunt.

In the Western mind, the hunt is a part of the mystique of the forest, which plays for the European—either in his home continent or in the diaspora—the same role that the desert, jungle, or the islands of the open sea play in the cultural minds of the other peoples of the Earth. From the depths of that forest that is at once mystery, sustainer, and opponent, our ancestors found simultaneous food and shelter and the need to defend themselves against enemies, real or imaginary. The hunt was a key part of this landscape of the imagination. 

Even Englishmen and Central Europeans who have never hunted for game outside a restaurant menu may wear tweeds or Trachten; no hotel or eatery can claim to be truly “rustic” without antlers hanging around. Around the hunt itself—whether with horse and hounds, deerstalking, or pheasant shooting—has grown up a whole body of customs and folklore. Devotion to St. Hubert, the particular horn note signalling various occurrences in the hunt, the jargon called “Hunter’s Latin” in German, and customs such as “blooding” new hunters (wiping some of the vanquished prey’s blood on the first-timer’s cheeks) are just some of these.

Of course, in to-day’s ever increasingly confused mental climate, hunting is under attack as never before. The same disordered mentality that has difficulties with gender distinctions also has difficulties distinguishing between species. Having ceased to believe in God, the West has ceased to believe that Man has any particular prerogatives as His highest creation. Part of this is veiled in supposed concern for the environment. One must say “supposed,” because the truth is that hunters have always been the greatest conservationists, for obvious reasons. If all the hiding places of the quarry are destroyed and the game itself hunted to extinction, there is no more hunt. Thus, from early on, hunting larger game was reserved to Europe’s Royalty and Nobility. As a result, most of the more venerable national parks and forests that dot the Mother Continent began as game preserves, even as such noted castles and palaces as Windsor and the Louvre started life as hunting lodges (the latter particularly reserved for wolf-hunting, hence the odd name). Certainly the most noted hunting museums on this side of the Atlantic tend to be in such buildings, ranging from France’s Chateau de Chambord to Germany’s Schloss Kranichstein.

Indeed, hunting and its mystique became an integral part of Kingship. As Murray Pittock wrote, “The Stuarts made much of hunting: it helped to confirm their heroic status as stewards of nature and the land. In doing this, they identified themselves not only with Arthur, but with Fionn, the legendary Gaelic warlord who was in the eighteenth century to be the subject of James Macpherson’s pro-Stuart Ossian poems.” The same has been true of most of Europe’s dynasties down to the present; according to The Royal Encyclopaedia, “Despite protests by anti-hunting groups, the Prince of Wales takes a close interest in the sport at all levels and has defended it as an effective form of sporting conservation of wildlife and its habitat in the British countryside.” Indeed, there was a great deal of mewling in the press when HRH “blooded” Prince William on a deer hunt. But the same practises are followed by the Kings and Queens of Benelux, Scandinavia, and Spain; King Juan Carlos in particular routinely faced criticism for his love of hunting. 

An unpleasant truth is that much of the hatred of hunting to hounds—whether fox or deer—has its roots in class envy. Animal rights activist, vegetarian, and National Socialist dictator Adolf Hitler banned it in Germany in 1934 and extending the measure to Austria in 1938 (alongside the ban on homeschooling, this a piece of Nazi heritage has been lovingly maintained by subsequent governments in both countries). Socialist Tony Blair honoured the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s achievement with a similar law banning such hunts in Great Britain, and six years later Nicolas Sarkozy ended the French Presidential Hunts. The media of course lauded all of this as progressive—a fact which by itself should be enough to make us question the prudence of it.

Although I myself have not hunted for any game in decades save what can be found in restaurants, I do not approve of these limitations; in fact I cannot really trust any leader who does not hunt. It would be much better if they all did. My reasons are not merely for tradition’s sake, nor for historical parallel (though there are obvious tactical advantages to rulers hunting together; consider, for example, the meeting of Maximilian, Sigismund of Poland, and Wladislav of Hungary and Bohemia at Wiener Neustadt in 1515; the hunt at Skierniewice, Poland in 1884, at which Emperors Alexander III of Russia, Wilhelm I of Germany, and Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary were present; and Franz Josef and Tsar Alexander’s son, Nicholas II at Mürzsteg in 1903, all important policy decisions made at hunt meetings between various Monarchs and other rulers). This is no accident. The qualities that the hunt forces us to cultivate are those that I, at least, would like to see in modern rulers. 

The first is perhaps obvious: the hunter must display courage. Whether hunting on horseback or tracking a wild board through foliage on foot, he puts his life, his health, or at the very least his comfort at risk. There are, of course, other ways to do this. One might serve in a war, or—as Archduke Ferdinand von Habsburg has done—demonstrate physical courage on the racetrack (this has the further advantage of sparing the young man from attacks by the anti-hunting lobby). But for most, hunting is the most accessible. Why is this important? National leaders often demand that young folk in the military or police risk their lives in performance of their duty. What better way to understand exactly what one is asking of one’s citizens than to than to put one’s own precious life in the line occasionally?

Secondly, the hunter must develop his intelligence. The quarry is canny and determined, driven by nature itself to preserve its own life. The sort of silly thinking that characterises our current masters’ efforts in their elevated posts simply won’t work in the field. One must learn the habits of the prey and use logic to apply that learning to particular cases … and the hunt is unforgiving. One is either triumphant or one is not; all the verbiage in the world cannot cover up failure for the hunter who returns empty-handed. 

The hunt also requires a certain amount of physical fitness—decidedly a good quality for those in leadership. Depending on the kind of hunting, the sport may require profound organizational abilities and high executive function. One may have to evaluate the real talents of hounds, horses, and men according to a real and objective standard, and one will need to deploy those talents in a prudent, decisive way to succeed. There is no room for maundering on the field! In the moment of pursuit, mere ideology or connections cannot replace discerning real ability.

In a word, hunting over forest and field forces a man or woman to deal with a terrible truth: there an immobile and unmalleable reality to which each of us must accommodate ourselves to accomplish what we want to achieve. All the bloviation in the world shall alter that reality not one iota. One may throw the latest theory at the countryside, or cite as many politicized “scientific” studies as one wishes; the countryside simply smirks back, and the quarry vanishes into the implacable forest.

The leader who encounters objective reality during the hunt may go on to make all sorts of other discoveries: that all of life shares only two genders; that over-expenditure of time and energy leads to loss; that all things die; and much else of similar importance. This may, in time, bring other realisations to Their Excellencies. In place of mere “environment”—a mostly notional thing made up primarily of statistics, used to advance one’s own agenda—there is a splendid reality called “nature.” Rather than being a mere political convenience, nature is something to which, in some manner, all of us must accommodate ourselves.

Beyond nature, our hunting leaders might well discover something, or someone, called “God.” They may not be struck down by a vision as St. Hubert was, but no one who develops a close comradeship with nature can fail to see that there is a design in nature, and that things really do fit together well. This, in turn, might lead to a sense of duty toward the plot of ground they course over; toward the county, province, and country in which it is situated; toward their fellow humans who share that land; and perhaps even to that God Who made it all. There are few so patriotic as the regular hunter—and few who are so faithful.

It was said earlier that we were not going to justify having our leaders hunt by recourse to the past, and indeed we shall not; but it is nevertheless enlightening to look at a few of the leaders whom the hunt produced. Blessed Emperor Charles I of Austria was not only devoted to the hunt (although his Great Uncle, Emperor Franz Josef and his Uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand were far more skillful in their pursuit of game), he proposed to his future Empress Queen, Servant of God Zita, at a hunting lodge. Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was a tireless follower of the chase; no doubt this lent him at least some part of the moral fortitude necessary to depose Mussolini and the Fascists in 1943. Although one may well debate the final outcome of Juan Carlos’ facing down an attempted coup in 1980 and some of his later actions, no one can deny his physical courage. So it goes with innumerable Monarchs.

But what of elected officials? Theodore Roosevelt was one of the United States’ most remarkable presidents, and whatever one thinks of his legacy, we cannot deny that he was a champion conservator of nature. His love of the sport was unambiguous: 

In hunting, the finding and killing of the game is after all but a part of the whole. The free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy; the wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery, the chance to study the ways and habits of the woodland creatures—all these unite to give to the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charm. The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.

Charles de Gaulle was an avid hunter as well as the creator of Free France; he declared that “War is like hunting, except that in war rabbits shoot.” Churchill approvingly cited a fictional hunter’s opinion: “Mr. Jorrocks has described fox hunting as providing all the glory of war with only thirty-five percent of its danger.” So it goes. A huge proportion of the world’s best leaders have been hunters; the fact that so few of our overlords do so to-day does not reflect well on the present crop of potentates.

I use the word “overlords” deliberately, because I cannot well describe today’s heads of state as “leaders.” Their incompetence in general; their fecklessness and fear expressed in despotism (especially as regards the current pandemic); their moral turpitude—all this indicates their remoteness from reality. Perhaps hunting should be made a requirement of selection to office! 

Let us not forget that before his conversion to the religious life by the miraculous stag with the cross between his antlers (think of the Jägermeister logo), St. Hubert was Master of the Household to Bl. Charlemagne’s great-grandfather. His mystical hunting ground was to-day’s massive Ardennes Forest; the proximity to this beautiful area, rich in game, led Charlemagne to create his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen). So while we should pray for hunters and hunted alike on the feast of St. Hubert—whether or not we hear the hunting horns at Mass, or see our dog blessed—let also pray for the rulers and the ruled. Perhaps, then, our relationship shall once again be more like Monarch and subject than pursuer and prey.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.

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