In many professions today, there’s a lot of talk about striving for “work-life balance.” Although focused on a balance between our work and personal lives, the ultimate goal is to improve and broaden the quality of life. Yet more than 2,000 years ago Aristotle recognized that balance was the key to living the best life we could. His concept of the so-called “golden mean” was that we achieve happiness, both for ourselves and society, by finding a proper mix between the extremes of excess and deficiency.
That concept not only gives rise to the title of Annabel Lyon’s first novel, The Golden Mean: A Novel of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, it is one of several Aristotelean ideas the book facilely explores. In fact, Lyon’s work is almost deceptive in the way its provides the reader an entertaining entree to many of Aristotle’s ideas without the reader necessarily knowing they are exploring them.
Although historical fiction, The Golden Mean provides not only a highly readable compendium of Aristotelean thought but, with the exception of one series of events created out whole cloth, also Aristotle’s life. As the title suggests, the book is set during the period Aristotle served as the tutor to the teenage boy who would become Alexander the Great. Yet the reader is not limited to Aristotle’s discussions with Alexander. In fact, as Aristotle narrates the story, many of the ideas and insight come from his interactions with others and his memories. It also shows what Aristotle the polymath Aristotle, a man as interested and versed in empirical research in biology as abstract ideas in philosophy and ethics.
The idea of extremes is replete in the work. On the one hand, there is Alexander, ambitious and intelligent. On the other hand, there is his half-brother, Arrhidaeus, mildly retarded or brain damaged and whom Aristotle also seeks to teach. On the one hand, Alexander chomps at the bit to become a military leader. On the other hand, post-battle he seems to suffer symptoms akin to what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. On the one hand, Alexander seeks to and will wield power to expand the Macedonian empire. On the other hand, he asks Aristotle at one point, “To make the unknown known, isn’t that the greatest virtue, the greatest happiness?”
Aristotle himself is an example of searching for the mean between extremes. Although he ponders deep philosophical issues in a world that worships a pantheon of gods, he finds divinity in the natural world and science, whether biological or mathematical. Moreover, in several passages Aristotle recounts how he struggles with swings from “black melancholy to golden joy.” In fact, Aristotle’s descriptions suggest he suffers a form of bipolar disorder.
Is all this historically accurate and plausible? Certainly not. But since when does learning about philosophy and history require complete and total adherence to what might be a sparse historical record? In fact, fiction provides an opportunity unlike any other to explore thoughts, concepts and ideas through different eyes and perspective. That the characters actually existed doesn’t negate that value. To the contrary, it may bring us to a better understanding. The key is achieving balance between fact and invention. The Golden Mean is an admirable example of finding the mean between excess and deficiency in historical fiction.
Go still at sundown and you can hear the earth itself humming.
Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean