Behind the scenes with Aristotle and pupil Alexander

By Roberta Silman
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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Annabel Lyon is the author of a collection of stories, “Oxygen,’’ and a book of novellas, “The Best Thing For You.’’ Now we have her ambitious first novel, “The Golden Mean,’’ which was published to great acclaim in Canada last spring. Beautifully researched and written, it is the story of Aristotle during the crucial years after he was summoned by his childhood friend, King Philip of Macedon, to come to Pella and teach Philip’s son, Alexander the Great.

Roughly based on the actual events first recorded in “Plutarch’s Lives,’’ Lyon’s novel covers much of the material explored in Mary Renault’s 1969 novel, “Fire From Heaven.’’ However, where Renault’s novel was considered a somewhat sentimental picture of Alexander, Lyon’s book is refreshingly blunt and accessible as it delves into the complicated relationships of Alexander and Aristotle as they interact with a large group of vivid characters who all seem to have ideas about how to educate a ruler.

Told from Aristotle’s point of view, it reminds us that the philosopher was born in Stageira and that he and Philip were childhood friends because Aristotle’s father was the doctor to Philip’s father when he was king. When the book opens in 343 BC, Aristotle is disappointed that he was not chosen to lead Plato’s Academy in Athens after his famous teacher’s death. So Aristotle is completely open to Philip’s invitation to come to Pella where Philip lives with Olympias, the mother of Alexander. The boy is now 13, spoiled, arrogant, and wild.

He has an older half-brother, Arrhidaeus, a boy who is mentally challenged although he was born healthy. History tells us that he may have been epileptic; in the novel, some people believe he was poisoned by Olympias to ensure her son’s ascension to the throne, but as presented by Lyon he seems more within the autism spectrum than anything else.

We learn a lot about Aristotle’s childhood, how he was always a loner, avidly curious about everything, and subject to fits of depression, which he calls blackness. His father, Nicomachus, realizing early that this child was not cut out for soldiering, encourages him to become a doctor, even dragging Aristotle to a gruesome caesarean birth. But he doesn’t really know what he has, and as Aristotle puts it: “His encouragement came in mean doses, and often at random; why was it fine to want to watch the birth of a litter of puppies but idle and wasteful to work out the mathematical relationship between the length of a lyre string and the tone it produced?’’

Nicomachus finally sends him to Illaeus, who teaches the boy philosophy and books (and sex) until the plague takes both parents, and Aristotle finds his way to Plato’s Academy, where he becomes the star student.

But it is during the crucial years in Philip’s household that Aristotle gains more confidence and hones his observational skills, which will stand him in good stead when he writes his famous books after he and Alexander finally part in 335 B.C. Aristotle also matures in his marriage, when he becomes a father, and when he has to watch the agonizing death of his wife, Pythias, and somehow go on. His friendships with the other tutors, his nephew Callisthenes, and the actor Carolus, reveal parts of him not only to the reader, but to himself, and it is testament to Lyon’s talent that she has shaped history into a narrative not only gripping, but also accessible and poignant, even tender. And also coarse and graphic, as when Aristotle goes to war with Alexander or when he discovers the brutalities inherent in sex.

Which brings me to my only caveat about this book: Although I know why Lyon resorted to expressions like “ball-busting,” “kick butt,” and the usual array of four-letter words, I wish she had taken as her model the magisterial novels by Robert Graves, “I, Claudius’’ and “Claudius, the God,’’ written in the 1930s without the four-letter words and modern slang, which did not enhance this splendid book, but seemed jarring.

Still, compared with the riches in “The Golden Mean,’’ that is a minor point. For here we have a novel that is brave enough to raise the universal questions about how a man should live his life; that describes with amazing authority the flaws and growth of one of our greatest philosophers as well as his famous student, who, literally, seems to “swallow the world” before his death at age 32; and that, with luck, may send some of us back to the original texts that still shine with so much intelligence and wisdom. As Aristotle says so clearly at one point to a rebellious Alexander, “ ‘My lessons are to make you think in ways others don’t. To make your world bigger. Not this world’ — I wave a hand to take in the stables, the palace, Pella, Macedon— ‘but the world in here.’ I tap my temple.’’

What could be more relevant to our own troubled times?

Roberta Silman is the author of a children’s book, a story collection, and three novels. She can be reached at


Random House, 290 pp., $24.95