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The Golden Mean
By Annabel Lyon
Random House of Canada, 304 pages, $33
THIS historical novel adds a refreshingly human dimension to ancient Greek civilization and the world-changing ideas that it produced.
The Golden Mean is Vancouver writer Annabel Lyon's first novel, following two well-received collections of short fiction, Oxygen and The Best Thing for You.
It provides a fictional, first-person account of the philosopher Aristotle, whose quest for balance in his thought and in his life results in his famous doctrine of moderation, or the golden mean.
Recreating a figure so prominent in history, as well as so far removed in time, is an ambitious undertaking, but Lyon's Aristotle is no waxwork doll.
Like John Williams' novel Augustus, or Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, The Golden Mean not only creates a convincing portrait of a much earlier time, but also makes it seem possible to know what the life of a major historical figure might have been like.
At the opening of the story, Aristotle is travelling with his household from the court of Hermias of Atarneus, the ruler of a small kingdom at the edge of the Persian Empire.
Though he intends to go to Athens, Aristotle's plans change when he stops in the Macedonian capital of Pella to visit its king and his boyhood friend, Philip, who asks him to stay and help educate his son, Alexander.
Though Aristotle may seem like an imposing figure to contemporary readers, in Lyon's portrayal he is an emotionally vulnerable man who has difficulty finding his place amid the political intrigues of the royal court.
His relationships with his fellow tutors are fraught with barely concealed animosity, and his home life is struck by tragedy when his wife, Pythias, dies after giving birth to a daughter.
As a philosopher at the centre of a military empire, Aristotle struggles for the respect of tactically minded officials, including the headstrong young prince.
When Macedon goes to war against Athens, he becomes the object of mistrust and bigotry because of the years he spent in the Greek city-state, studying in Plato's academy.
Though most of the book focuses on Aristotle's time in Pella, it is interspersed with scenes from his boyhood in the town of Stageira and his student years in Athens. And though the novel is grounded in historical sources, Lyon has no problem taking liberties with the record.
In one particularly flagrant fabrication, she inserts Aristotle as a medic into the Battle of Chaeronea, a historic encounter in which Philip defeated Athens and Thebes and secured Macedonian dominance over the Greek world.
While such departures from recorded facts may irritate historians, The Golden Mean isn't a dry recounting of names and dates, nor even a Hollywood-style, swords-and-sandals epic.
Rather, the novel illustrates how real life can give rise to monumental ideas, and succeeds in weaving those ideas unobtrusively into the narrative. In one of the final scenes, Alexander even accuses Aristotle of creating his philosophy as a justification for the circumstances of his own life.
"You've built a whole philosophy around the virtue of being you. Seashells are worthy of study because you love to swim. Violence should be offstage because you never got to leave the tent at Chaeronea. The best government is rule by the middle class because you come from the middle class. Life should be spent in quiet contemplation because life never offered you more."
Whether or not this stinging indictment invalidates Aristotle's ideas is a question best left to the philosophers. But for those looking for the human side of Aristotle's life and thought, The Golden Mean is a touching work of historical imagination.
Winnipeg writer Ezra Glinter is off to graduate school in New York this fall.