Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

"Life was to me a horse to whose motion one yields, but only after having trained the animal to the utmost."

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Summary

Marguerite Yourcenar invites the reader on a journey of ancient Rome through the eyes of Emperor Hadrian - one of the five good emperors. She writes so softly and with patience that it is at times difficult to remember that the book is a fictional novel, not an actual diary.

"Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has."

Life as an emperor may sound glamorous and all-powerful, but is in reality an affair much closer to the life of the common citizen that one might at first think. Just like the beggar must learn to live with her mind, so does the emperor.

"Life was to me a horse to whose motion one yields, but only after having trained the animal to the utmost."

And what better way to live with your own mind than to learn to accept reality? Having lived a life of constant change and excitement, the fictional Hadrian learned how to sail through life without fostering anger toward every crashing wave.

"Whatever I had I chose to have, obliging myself only to possess it totally, and to taste the experience to the full. Thus the most dreary tasks were accomplished with ease as long as I was willing to give myself to them. Whenever an object repelled me, I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts."

When waves come crashing and the storm roars, we are often tempted to ask the god or gods for help, but Hadrian recognizes that the gods have the decency to leave us in peace - to live on our own merits.

"But the gods do not rise; they rise neither to warn us nor to protect us, nor to recompense nor to punish."

Living well on one's own merits is an exercise that require perspective - no one way is suitable for everything and everyone.

"There is more than one kind of wisdom, and all are essential in the world; it is not bad that they should alternate."

In the end, to be human is to search and ask questions. Who am I? What am I here for? What's the meaning of this? These questions take us on a wild journey and the only requirement is not to resist. Go where the questions take you. Learn.

"A part of every life, even a life meriting very little regard, is spent in searching out the reasons for its existence, its starting point, and its source. My own failure to discover these things has sometimes inclined me toward magical explanations, and has led me to seek in the frenzies of the occult for what common sense has not taught me. When all the involved calculations prove false, and the philosophers themselves have nothing more to tell us, it is excusable to turn to the random twitter of birds, or toward the distant mechanism of the stars."

Some of Hadrian's own questions resulted in thoughts that still shake the world today.

"I doubt if all the philosophy in the world can succeed in suppressing slavery; it will, at most, change the name. I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races. To such bondage for the human mind and imagination I prefer even our avowed slavery."
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