Aristotle wrote much about happiness - but if we are to believe Annabel Lyon, his own lessons were lost on himself. In her debut novel, The Golden Mean, the acclaimed short-story writer shows us life through the great philosopher's eyes, and the view is largely cloudy. Cursed with both "a freakish brain" and a wit "as dry as mouse droppings," this is a man for whom contentment exists only in the abstract.
"I am garbage," he laments. "This knowledge is my weather, my private clouds." It goes without saying he is also challenging company, in every sense of that word.
As the book opens, Aristotle has finished a 20-year stint at Plato's Academy and has been appointed as tutor to the adolescent sons of his childhood friend, King Philip of Macedon. One is a gentle lad with severe cognitive problems; the other, a "violent, snotty boy" who is also a genius, and who will eventually be known as Alexander the Great.
Here is a rare intellectual collision: the wintry-hearted philosopher and the future military commander, whose own incipient depression is caused not by a lack of passion, but a surfeit. Aristotle can't help himself toward happiness, but he has a prescription for Alexander: the Golden Mean, defined as a march toward the middle of two emotional extremes. Unfortunately, it's not an idea the younger man is even willing to entertain. "You prize mediocrity," he scoffs.
It's hard not to agree with him, for Aristotle is certainly emotionally dull, if not dead. This is a man who disembowels live chameleons without blinking and pauses, while making love to his wife, to take notes on the condition of her genitals. Alexander, by contrast, is a deeply sensitive boy who loves his mother, best friend and horse, though not necessarily in that order. His periodic fits of sickening violence seem almost parodic, slaps at a world that demands them from him - scraping off the face of a slaughtered enemy, decapitating a corpse to please a theatre director in need of a prop. His condition only worsens after he leaves Aristotle's tutelage and develops a terrible case of "soldier's heart," or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It must be said that while this Aristotle (history has and will record others) is an unpleasant man, he is also extremely believable
But it's Alexander who ultimately wins the book-long joust with his tutor, since he is a man who not only feels, but also acts. At one point, he interrupts the pompous Aristotle while the older man describes a method of sweetening water. "You've tried this?" he asks. "I've read of it," quavers Aristotle in reply. The exchange stings, and reinforces Aristotle's loneliness: he is a lonely thinker in a world that prizes soldiers. (The book's great irony, however, is that Aristotle seems infinitely more psychologically suited to the horrors of battle than Alexander is).
Still, it is Aristotle's book, and his constant "black bile" cannot help but injure the reading experience somewhat. The invariable rat-a-tat of his speech does little to endear. Case in point: his opinion of the orator Demosthenes. "Bilious, choleric," he grumps. "Less wine, more milk and cheese. Avoid stressful situations. Avoid hot weather."
He then tells us that he's joking - but it's significant that we need to be told.
To be fair, there are numerous moments when Aristotle's stony heart softens; in the company of his young daughter, Pythias, or his coarsely funny servant, Athea; when making music with Alexander's brother, the "idiot prince," or grieving the death of blustery Philip. "My manikin," he says, ascribing his pain to some phantom outside himself, "remembers exorbitantly, lavishly, complexly, in flashes of super-saturated colour ... Philip with both eyes open, laughing under the sea."
Wistfulness of this sort raises the great man's temperature somewhat, though he remains altogether too far from fever. "You want to string together a life of thrills," he admonishes Alexander, and while Aristotle's aversion to wanton pleasure seems commendable, his addiction to its opposite is less so.
It must be said that while this Aristotle (history has and will record others) is an unpleasant man, he is also extremely believable. The Golden Mean is a crisply written, painstakingly researched book, and Lyon ably inhabits "the greatest mind of all time" - hardly a mean feat. This, then, is a virtuous work, though fibrous, fat-free and rarely what you'd call fun. But that is probably exactly as Aristotle would have wanted it.
Cynthia Macdonald is a most immoderate Toronto writer.