The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is the story of the nearly seven years Aristotle spent as the tutor of Alexander, the son and heir of King Philip of Macedon. The narrative is told in Aristotle’s voice, opening with his arrival in Pella, the capital of Macedon. He is accompanied by his wife, Pythias, and his nephew, Callisthenes.
Aristotle’s initial task is to work with Philip’s mentally challenged son, Arrhidaeus. Although he treats Arrhidaeus with compassion and helps him improve both his physical and mental agility, it is Arrhidaeus’ younger brother, Alexander, who consumes Aristotle’s interest and becomes the focus of his attention.
Aristotle is portrayed as highly intelligent and with an unbounded curiosity of the natural world, including human anatomy. Even though the novel is told from his point of view, he remains somewhat aloof and impenetrable. He is subject to fits of depression and has a tendency to weep he knows not why. His conversations occasionally sound stilted and have the flavor of a lecture—as if he were nothing more than a mouthpiece for his ideas.
Alexander emerges as an inquisitive, petulant, arrogant, lonely, willful, ambitious, and brilliant young man, capable of performing atrocities both on and off the battlefield that horrify even his father. Aristotle struggles to reign him in, to teach him the self-control required to live within the gold mean. Their conversations assume the form of verbal sparring—challenging each other back and forth as they debate ideas without arriving at mutually satisfactory resolutions.
Lyon guides us through a period of history replete with examples of male dominance. Her prose is muscular, straightforward, and, for the most part, engaging. However, her frequent use of obscenities and modern phrasing was jarring and incongruous. Such language yanks readers out of historical time and place and thrusts them smack in the middle of contemporary terminology and contemporary cuss words. Their presence is gratuitous, detracts from the setting, and diminishes what would otherwise have been a more enjoyable read.