A Valuable Insight on Learning, from an Emperor

  Hadrian's Insight on Learning

From Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. 

“Like everyone else, I have had at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide their secrets from us, or to make us believe that they have secrets where none exists; and books, with the particular errors in perspective to which they inevitably give rise.

I have read nearly everything that our historians and poets have written, and even our story-tellers, although the latter are considered frivolous; and to such reading I owe perhaps more instruction than I have gathered in the somewhat varied situations of my own life.

The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.

But books lie, even those that are most sincere.


The poets transport us into a world which is vaster and more beautiful than our own, with more ardor and sweetness, different therefore, and in practice almost uninhabitable.

The philosophers, in order to study reality pure, subject it to about the same transformation as fire or pestle make substance undergo: nothing that we have known of a person or a fact seems to subsist in those ashes or those crystals to which they are reduced.

Historians propose to us systems too perfect for explaining the past, with sequence of cause and effect much too exact and clear to have been entirely true;


Direct observation of man is a method still less satisfactory, limited as it frequently is to the cheap reflections which human malice enjoys.


Almost everything that we know about anyone else is at second hand.”

The procedures for gaining knowledge about others and our selves are difficult, they require both self-awareness and a high degree of detachment. Like emperor Hadrian, we tend to replace evidence-based reflection with habits. We fit the opinions and judgements of others on our frame as best we can and make do.

Yourcenar conceived the book in 1924, resumed her work in 1934. She destroyed the first draft and kept only one sentence from the second. The work resumed in 1937, then in 1939 and from that year to 1948 the project was abandoned. “Everything turns out to be valuable that one does for one's self without thought of profit,” says Yourcenar in her reflections on the composition. “I fell into making, and then re-making, this portrait of a man who was almost wise.”

How is it possible for a woman to write in first person, in the voice of a man? “The rules of the game: learn everything, read everything, inquire into everything, while at the same time adapting to one's ends the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, or the method of Hindu ascetics, who for years, and to the point of exhaustion, try to visualize ever more exactly the images which they create beneath their closed eyelids.”

We should be ready to reconcile two contradictory ideas, to see them as phases or stages in the same complex human reality. The book was published in France in French in 1951. It took Yourcenar 27 years. Why Hadrian? “If this man had not maintained peace in the world, and revived the economy of the empire, his personal fortunes and misfortunes would have moved me less.”


Memoirs of Hadrian was written as a testamentary letter from the emperor Hadrian to his successor, the younger Marcus Aurelius.