THE GOLDEN MEAN by Annabel Lyon

Book Quote:

“She wants to hear that once upon a time, Apollo did this or that to a nymph and snow was the result. I can’t offer it. Divinity for me is that very plume of birds, the patterns of stars, the recurrence of seasons. I love these things and weep for the joy of them. The reality of numbers, again, for instance: I could weep if I thought about numbers for too long, their glorious architecture. I want to weep, now, for the beauty of the sky dispensing itself across my courtyard, the cold warmth in all our cheeks, the fear-turned-to-pleasure in my slaves’ eyes.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd (SEP 7, 2010)

The best books are not necessarily those with dazzling prose or mind-numbing theories. The best books are those that steal up on you, and lead you gently into a world made real, not by an abundance of detail, but by honestly rendered characters that, from the very first page, so completely captivate that before you know it, you’ve read half the book and there are but a few hours until dawn. That is, the best books understand the allure – our insatisfiable longing to compare and contrast our minds with others – of interesting characters. Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is such a book, and her accomplishment – the surprising irresistibility of her story – is all the more incredible when you consider that she’s chosen to focus on rather prosaic moments in a great man’s life.

To the non-philosopher, Aristotle is perhaps best known for being two (interestingly symmetric) things: Plato’s student and Alexander the Great’s teacher. The Golden Mean takes its subject as the latter of these, chronicling Aristotle’s grudging attempt to make a life in the Macedonian capital, Pella, after nearly a quarter-century abroad.

Aristotle was the son of a Macedonian scientist, who worked his way from country doctor to royal physician. A precocious, if socially withdrawn, boy, Aristotle was always fascinated with the unseen principles behind the natural world. He most loved to dissect things, to peel back skin and muscle to reveal the structure underneath. He learned quickly, however, that his thirst for knowledge was easily misunderstood and he took to burning his dissected specimens to escape detection. Yet, it was no secret to his parents that Aristotle was strange, and unsure of what he was meant to do, unsure if the strange in him would, indeed, prove to be his greatness, his father sent him to study with a debased tragedian, Illaeus, who although now estranged, was once the student of the great philosopher, Plato.

When fateful tragedy hits Aristotle’s family, Illaeus’ referral secures him a spot at Plato’s famous Academy in Athens. It is the prestige of his education, and the esteem in which he is held by his peers, that attracts rich, politically-connected patrons, such as Hermias of Atarneus. However, after three years in Atarneus, with whispers of war in the air, Aristotle moves with his wife to the island of Lesvos. There, he spends peaceful days swimming and studying the marine animals. When we enter the story, five years have passed, and Aristotle is anxious to return to Athens.

But, called upon by Hermias to deliver a message to King Phillip II of Macedon, Aristotle is obligated to pay what he thinks will be a brief visit to the decidedly rough Macedonian court. Phillip remembers him fondly – he used to play with the doctor’s son as a boy – and after his son, Alexander, professes his preference for Aristotle’s pedagogy, Phillip offers him a position as Alexander’s tutor. Although, fond of the young Alexander, Aristotle considers the job beneath him. But, when Phillip implicitly guarantees him the position as the head of the Academy in Athens, a position he was passed over for previously, in favour of Plato’s nephew, Speusippus, Aristotle can hardly refuse.

It’s Aristotle’s attempt to make a life in Pella, all the while looking forward to his future in Athens, that forms the bulk of the book. While he does his best to make a go of it, he falls in and out of favour with both King Phillip and Prince Alexander, and after war breaks out between Macedonia and Athens, his philosophical education and his “effeminate” ways –both unmistakeably Athenian – prove to be a burden. This is a historically important period – Macedonia posed to take over the ancient world – however most of the geo-political happenings take place off-stage, leaving the reader with a series of wonderfully inconsequential moments such as Aristotle’s household greeting their first snow or Aristotle teaching Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s mentally-disabled half-brother, his “alpha-beta-gammas”.

Actually, this is Lyon’s great achievment: there’s something in these small moments that keeps us from looking away. Perhaps, it’s that the private moments of great people (however, fictional) can be as compelling as the most gruesome battle scenes, and so we find ourselves reading about Aristotle’s lonely childhood or his platonic infatuations or his sexual relationships with same disgusted glee we read the scenes of brain surgery without anaesthetic or Alexander peeling the skin from a dead soldier’s face.

Lyon’s clean, unadorned prose can be wonderful:

“I am garbage. This knowledge is my weather, my private clouds. Sometimes low-slung, black, and heavy; sometimes high and scudding, the white unbothersome flock of a fine summer’s day. I tell Pythias sometimes, an urgent bulletin from the darklands: I’m garbage. She says nothing.”

And while much of the story progresses through dialogue, Lyon wisely allows her characters to speak in a contemporary vernacular (no affected formality or contorted syntax to mark milieu, here).

The book takes its title from Aristotlean ethics, which basically councils the moderate course, the relative mean between two emotional extremes. Much of the narrative drive comes from the inherent tension between extremes of pride and shame, cowardice and rashness, ecstasy and despair. But, although Lyon makes the ingenious choice to afflict Aristotle with manic-depression – smitten with the moderation he finds so difficult, he holds up temperance as a moral paradigm – Aristotle’s manias and depressions are little more than assertions – “On the worst days, I stayed in bed, unable to speak or eat, until the blackness lifted . . .”; “. . .the other times, when I simply don’t need sleep, and the books seem to write themselves, and the world seems painted into every last corner with colour and sweetness . . .” – and I couldn’t help but wish Lyon had let us suffer in bed or write through the night with him. A lost opportunity to further explore Aristotle’s character.

But, perhaps that’s in keeping with the overall balance of the book. As the book’s epigraph suggests, great men are best known, not by the events that immortalize them, but by the multitude of unextraordinary moments that make up most of their lives. And if the knowledge of greatness isn’t to be found in the extreme deed, then perhaps it isn’t to be found in emotional extremes, either. And so, perhaps, in limiting our access to Aristotle’s excesses of emotion, Lyon has, in fact, best equipped us to know the Aristotle that she has so skillfully brought back to this world.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

An interview with Annabel Lyon

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September 7, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History

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