Monday, May 30, 2022

Emperor Hadrian Ponders the Future

From Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). Hadrian, embroiled in an ugly war with Jewish rebels, looks toward the horizon:

For some years now people have credited me with strange insight, and with knowledge of divine secrets. But they are mistaken: I have no such power. It is true, however, that during those nights of Bethar some disturbing phantoms passed before my eyes. I admitted that it was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome, which is accorded neither to objects nor men, and which the wisest among us deny even to the gods. These subtle and complex forms of life, these civilizations comfortably installed in their refinements of ease and of art, the very freedom of mind to seek and to judge, all this depended upon countless rare changes, upon conditions almost impossible to bring about, and none of which could be expected to endure. We should manage to destroy Simon [bar Kochba]; Arrian would be able to protect Armenia from Alani invasions. But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man's lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Nature fails us, fortune changes, a god beholds all things from on high.

1 comment:

David said...

The middle part of this passage, from "I have admitted" to "they would abominate," is indeed lovely. It expresses very well the thoughts of anyone who feels that they have lived beyond their own time, or who believes they can sense the passing of their own time.