Destiny, Realpolitik, and the Will to Power

[Editor’s note: Betty Ann Jordan is the founder of Art InSite cultural tours and a Toronto-based arts commentator. She operates whenever possible at the intersection between art, architecture and literature. We are thrilled to have her the leader of Memoirs of Hadrian: Power Embodied in July 2018.]

Bust of Hadrian at the Capitoline Museum
Marie-Lan Nguyen on Wikimedia
In our politically charged era, conversations inevitably circle round to the uses and abuses of power. What are the pitfalls and perks of calling the shots? By what means is a master of the universe transformed into a servant of the people? And what harm is done when charisma overshadows more substantial qualities of character? For answers to these perennial questions, we can look to Memoirs of Hadrian.

“My hunger for power was like the craving for love, which keeps the lover from eating or sleeping, from thinking, or even from loving, so long as certain rites remain unperformed. The most urgent tasks seemed vain when I was not the free master over decisions affecting the future. I needed to be assured of reigning in order to recapture the desire to serve.”
Memoirs of Hadrian

On the cusp of death, the ailing Emperor Hadrian writes a series of letters to his adopted grandson and successor Marcus Aurelius. Reflecting on points of divergence and convergence between his life and every life, he passes on the lessons he’s learned. He reviews his education and his understanding of the nature of love and beauty. With melancholy and heightened awareness, he recollects his formerly high-functioning body’s vitality, sensuality, yearning and casual consumption. Especially poignant are the anguished passages about his role in the death by suicide of his great love, the youth Antinous.

Hadrian’s Wall at Crag Lough
Nilfanion on Wikipedia
While the actual memoirs of Hadrian were lost, Margeurite Yourcenar’s fictional re-creation illumines his political philosophy and shows him laying the groundwork for Marcus Aurelius’ (not lost) Meditations. It was the emperor’s task to consolidate a polyglot empire by means of just laws, efficient governance and exceptional building and engineering projects, including the Pantheon and Hadrian’s Wall.

But Yourcenar’s novel also gets deep inside the head of this gifted general, politician and patron of the arts. Reading his letters, one experiences a sense of being confided in by a man who has no time for dissembling: “At forty-eight I felt free of impatience, assured of myself, and as near perfection as my nature would permit, in fact, eternal. Please realize all this was wholly on the plane of the intellect; I was god, to put it simply, because I was man.” All too human, he found his rigorous mental and physical discipline tested and at times upended by experiences of love, art and ecstasy. Open to the occult, he was primed from an early age by his astrologer-grandfather, who predicted that Hadrian would rule the world. Would the young provincial soldier have been so driven had his success not been foretold in the stars?

Hadrian, who wore the imperial purple robes from 117 to 138 AD, asserted that “the more the state increases in size and power, extending its strict, cold links from man to man, the more does human faith aspire to exalt the image of a human protector at the end of this mighty chain.” From our present perspective, are there important lessons to be relearned? Is the character of the leader essential to the success of government? When happens when a sense of destiny veers towards delusion? And perhaps most critically for today’s reader, is Hadrian’s story a product of the great-man syndrome now falling rapidly out of favour?

Villa Adriana by Pirenesi
A bestseller upon its publication in France in 1951, Memoirs of Hadrian still resonates owing to the crystalline clarity of Yourcenar’s prose and our own endless fascination with power. Please join me this July in Toronto for Power Embodied. We will discuss Memoirs of Hadrian and Yourcenar’s The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (1962), her writings on the 18th-century Italian artist’s sublime engravings of Roman architecture, especially structures relating to Hadrian. We’ll further incorporate art and architecture through daily slide-shows of engravings by Piranesi, images of revelatory Roman and Greek works, paintings by Canaletto, and photos of historic buildings and locales by contemporary photographer Cindi Emond.

I look forward to seeing you in July!

– Betty Ann

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