The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon – Book Review

9780307356208_012009 Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award

How does author, Annabel Lyon, write an acclaimed book about the famous philosopher, Aristotle and his arrogant young student, Alexander the Great, without actually detailing their physical environment?

Perhaps I learned a simple lesson from this book: credit the reader with imagination enough to remember ancient Macedonia from history lessons learned in school. We already know in our imaginations what an ancient town, an ancient castle, an ancient market and an ancient war was like. Lyon doesn’t beat us up with exotic details. She saves details for character development.

What does the golden mean (associated with mathematics) mean to Lyon’s story?

Porter tasks Aristotle with educating a rebellious and high-strung young Alexander. By today’s standards Aristotle would likely seem nerdy and unsociable. But his interest to curb Alexander’s impetuosity, and to balance youthful aggression against weightier knowledge, caution, negotiation and fairness — concepts Aristotle developed through observation over years of study. Form and balance. This may sound like a typical teacher/student relationship, but Macedonia in 356 BC thrives in crude and brutal times. Loftier ideals such as democracy and fairness do not easily co-exist with threatened borders and disrupted trade routes. Kings and princes, queens and princesses kill each other for crowns.

To brush up on Alexander the Great and Aristotle, have a look at what wikipedia has to say.

Lyon’s setting is Pella Macedonia from 356 Bc to 352, when Alexander’s father, a powerful warring king enlists his former boyhood friend, Aristotle, to cultivate his son’s knowledge of science and philosophy. Along the way we are privy to the domesticity and relationship between the scholar and his wife, the birth of a daughter, a second wife, and a son.

There are intriguing segments where Aristotle, an expert in anatomy for all living creatures, teaches his students popular and accepted diagnosis for a range of human ailments, physical and mental. I wanted to shout, Don’t believe it. It’s not like that. But it will be many centuries before new beliefs in the humours improve medicine for mankind.

Porter chooses to have Aristotle narrates this tale of thwarted ambitions, domestic disappointments, fears for country, passion for learning and passion for war.

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