The Golden Mean
By Annabel Lyon
(Random House Canada) $32.95
The golden mean, as Aristotle and numerous subsequent philosophers have said, is the elusive balance between extremes: humility and pride, stinginess and extravagance, and so on. The beauty, harmony and perfection found in the middle are golden. So is Annabel Lyon’s award-winning debut novel.
The Golden Mean strikes the perfect balance between historical fact and modern-day fiction while venturing boldly into the hearts, minds and worldviews of two of the ancient world’s most well-known figures: Aristotle the philosopher and Alexander the Great.
Aristotle narrates the book’s ambitious first-person account. It lifts off as he leaves Plato’s Academy and, much to his disappointment, is seconded by his childhood friend, King Philip of Macedon, to tutor his two sons. Aristotle finds hurdles to overcome in “the idiot prince’s” severe cognitive difficulties and Prince Alexander’s mercenary instinct. Eventually, he embraces the challenge and, to some degree, successfully mentors both princes.
But Aristotle’s insights into the boys’ personalities are more studied than warm. His wonder at the world in general rarely translates into happiness. His relationships, even his lovemaking, are clinical. Loneliness leads to bouts of depression; only new discoveries break through the grey. Occasionally, they arise while Aristotle is tutoring the young Alexander, who yearns to rush into battle and conquer new worlds.
The genius of The Golden Mean lies in its artful ability to hover. Lyon brings philosophical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is tragedy?” to earth without pinning them down. She draws the reader into the relationship between two massive historical figures, hints that they are a foil to one another and even leaves them riding off into the sunset together, but she never divulges how their relationship tipped the course of history. One comes away, however, with the sense that it must have.
Aristotle throws himself into thinking; Alexander, into acting. The novel’s lasting impression is that the golden mean lies in the chasm between the two. And that makes The Golden Mean worth falling into.
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.