The fourth century BCE comes eccentrically alive in this award-winning debut historical novel from a Canadian short story writer (The Best Thing for You, 2004, etc.).
Given the subtitle, it risks hubris from the outset, as the noted philosopher (who narrates) describes his journey from Athens (accompanied by his young wife Pythias and “apprentice” Callisthenes) to Macedon, at the imperious request of King Philip of Macedon. The two had been friends as boys, when Aristotle’s father was physician to Philip’s father the king, but have grown apart in every imaginable way. The philosopher’s beloved Athens is only a pale shadow of the glory that was Greece, and Philip’s royal city Pella is the base for an empire expanded by perpetual conquest. Aristotle has been enlisted to tutor Philip’s younger son Alexander, the quick-witted, energetic and temperamental heir to his father’s dream of unlimited aggrandizement. But before this impressively researched, vividly detailed novel settles into a contest of wits and wills between determined teacher and often unmanageable student, Lyon builds a fascinating portrait of the Athenian sage. While insisting that empirical evidence must be amassed and comprehended before theories can be formed, and preaching the need to find a middle ground (or “golden mean”) between any and all extremes, this Aristotle is revealed as a sensualist gratified and enthralled by the world’s often inexplicable plenitude, whether he’s interpreting tragic drama or examining feces or pondering the movements of celestial bodies; demonstrating his emphatically earthbound affection for the bewitching Pythias; or awakening the potential for rationality in Alexander’s seemingly retarded older brother Arrhidaeus (perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character). In her most daring leap, Lyon examines with perfect tact and logic infrequently scrutinized evidence that suggests that this master of analysis and reason may have been clinically bipolar.
As authoritative and compelling as Mary Renault’s renowned novels set in the ancient world. One hopes we may learn more about Lyon’s immeasurably brilliant, unflappably human Aristotle.