For most people today, classic Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato or Aristotle seem largely irrelevant. At most, their names and ideas are ones we come across in surveys of history or philosophy. Yet despite their seeming irrelevance to modern life, the fact is that many of their ideas are still in use today. Take, for example, the concept of balance.
Balance is a term frequently heard today about how we should live our lives. In particular, phrases like “life balance” or “work-life balance” seem to be hot topics in recent years. The concept aims to help individuals find a proper mix of business and personal activities to live the “best” life we can. Yet Aristotle wouldn’t find that an odd idea. To the contrary, his concept of the so-called “golden mean” was that our we achieve happiness, both for ourselves and in 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 Aristotelian ideas the book facilely explores. In fact, Lyon’s work is almost deceptive in the way it provides the reader an entertaining entree to many of Aristotle’s ideas without readers necessarily knowing they are exploring them.
Although historical fiction, The Golden Mean provides not only a highly readable compendium of Aristotelian thought but, with the exception of one series of events created out of 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 insights come from his interactions with others and his memories. It also shows Aristotle the polymath, a man as interested and versed in empirical research in biology as in 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, 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.