This Sunday marks an interesting day in Roman history, it’s on that day 1,880 years ago that Emperor Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius, a 51 year old man, as his son and successor to the throne. His adoption of Antoninus was conditional—it required that Antoninus in turn adopt a 17 year old boy named Marcus Annius Verus to become his own successor. And so Marcus Aurelius was made emperor in this strange chain of events because one wise man saw a glimmer of potential in him. There is a beautiful paragraph in the novel Memoirs of Hadrian that seeks to capture what Hadrian must have seen in that promising boy and it’s worth thinking about today—whether we’re grooming someone else for success or doing the harder work of grooming and improving ourselves.
“I have seen you read with passion the writings of the philosophers, and clothe yourself in harsh wool, sleeping on the bare floor and forcing your somewhat frail body to all the mortifications of the Stoics. There is some excess in all that, but excess is a virtue at the age of seventeen. I sometimes wonder on what reef that wisdom will founder, for one always founders: will it be a wife, or a son too greatly beloved, one of those legitimate snares (to sum it up in a word) where overscrupulous, pure hearts are caught? Or will it be more simply age, illness, fatigue, or the disillusion which says to us that if all is vain, then virtue is too? I can imagine in place of your candid, boyish countenance your weary visage as an older man. I am aware that your severity, so carefully acquired, has beneath it some sweetness, and some weakness perhaps; I divine in you the presence of a kind of genius which is not necessarily that of the statesman; the world will doubtless be forever the better off, however, for having once seen such a capacity in conjunction with supreme authority.
I have arranged the essentials for your adoption by Antoninus; under the new name by which you will one day be designated in the list of emperors you are now and henceforth my grandson. I believe that I may be giving mankind the only chance it will ever have to realize Plato’s dream, to see a philosopher pure of heart ruling over his fellow men.”
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