Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Golden Mean

For pretty much every level of education, December is a busy month: there are final exams, major projects, term papers – lots of things come due at the end of the year. In the haste to calculate marks and study for exams, the whole goal of education (learning) can get pushed aside in favour of cramming. Aristotle would, I think, be appalled. His philosophy of education, as laid out in Annabel Lyon's novel The Golden Mean, was that it should never end, and if anything represents a full-stop in the classroom, it's a final exam.

In philosophical terms, the Golden Mean was Aristotle's attempt to create and define a balance between extremes. The mean is golden because it represnts the middle point best suited to the situation, not the mathematical centre of a problem; basically, it recognizes that not all situations require a meet-in-the-middle solution. This philosophy encompassed much of what Aristotle did, as a man, a teacher and a philosopher and Lyon's novel gathers that and, rather than stating what the golden mean is, infuses it into all the layers of her novel. And you might think a story that avoids the extremes wouldn't be all that interesting, but Lyon takes care of that too.

Lyon's Aristotle is based on what must have been years of research, but by making him the narrator, she gets around the trap some writers fall into of trying to display their research on the page. Aristotle sees things and thinks about things and remembers things, and as he tells the reader about them, Lyon is able to couch her material in character-building details that teach the reader about some relevant Aristotelian details, all the while expanding on her fiction.

Like all good historical fiction, The Golden Mean centers around real events, namely the time Aristotle spent as the tutor for a boy who would grow up to be Alexander the Great. Aristotle also spends time with Alexander's older, severely disabled brother, drawing him out of his filthy conditions and teaching him to ride a horse, which gives him great and sudden joy. Education and the the process and importance of learning are through lines in this novel, which is one part present day in Macedon and one part Aristotle's memories of his own childhood education. Life is about learning, Lyon's Aristotle seems to be saying at every turn, you can never really know it all.

There are also a lot of really compelling details about Aristotle's home life and his marriage, which bring out some fascinating bedroom scenes. Sexuality and marriage are facets of Aristotle's life that I had never really thought about (not that I think about Aristotle all that often), but Lyon's rendering of his whole life – both inside and out of the classroom and the home – make him feel like a proper character and not just a historical name. 

And really, Aristotle is a full character, and The Golden Mean is an incredibly seamless novel, which makes you wonder where research ends and fiction begins. The city of Pella is so fully realized that you can almost feel the grime from the dusty roads. The Golden Mean is as escapist as it is educational, a combination it seems Aristotle might approve of.

The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Random House edition)

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