Writing Aristotle
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Writing Aristotle Sunday, December 22, 2013
What sort of a personality was Aristotle?  We know little of the man beyond some rough historical details, his will (which oddly enough survived), and a few remarks of ancient authors who probably did not know him personally. We have some of his philosophical writings though most of his work has been lost.  The writings that survive are evidently lecture notes intended for an academic environment; their tone is technical and matter-of-fact but they speak eloquently of methodology: Aristotle carefully observes, makes inferences, tests his inferences through logic and further observation, and makes conclusions (mostly) based on an application of consistent method. He does not persuade rhetorically or dazzle through strength of personality. This spareness and consistent intellectual method, which have much in common with modern scientific thinking, have lent a certain timelessness to his works. But they leave us little sense of what Aristotle the person was like in his day to day life.    

On the bright side, this is a perfect situation for the novelist: a major historical figure whose personality is a blank slate. But as blank as this slate may seem, the novelist must make an important initial choice in approaching Aristotle's character in fiction.  Option one is to treat what we do see in Aristotle's writing style as a dominent personality trait in itself.  In other words, make his character as spare, logical, and methodical as his written words, and make him taciturn where the dominant traits do not apply.  Option two is to imaginatively construct a character not necessarily evident in his writings, but more or less consistent with them.  Either approach would seem acceptable, but option two is preferable, I think, because it gives the novelist more scope to create a real man we might more easily sympathize with and hopefully understand.  On the other hand, option two is risky because the novelist would have to approach the intellectual stature of Aristotle himself to imaginatively do him justice.  Who would be up to this?

A less honest version of option two is possible though, which is for the novelist to exploit the blank slate of his subject for his own purposes.  This is actually a fairly common approach: the historical figure as a rhetorical, ideological, or philosophical hobby horse.  Julian the Apostate, as just one example,  is favorite grist for this sort of mill: Dmitri Merejkowski, Nikos Kanzantakis, and Gore Vidal (among others) have all turned him to varied use even though Julian's character is better known (and therefore ostensibly less malleable) than Aristotle's.    

Annabel Lyon seems to have relied most heavily on option one in constructing the Aristotle that inhabits her novel, The Golden Mean (1).  It has every appearance of being a rigorously honest portrayal of Aristotle and she doesn't make a hobby horse of him. But I've been trying to decide if her portrayal is paradigmatic or problematic, and I've finally decided that it's problematic. Lyon is obviously a gifted writer and has researched her subject thoroughly (as far as I am able to tell, at least--I'm no expert on Aristotle though I've read many of his works over the years). Her picture of Aristotle's time is vivid and full of nuanced details.  She takes special relish in depicting the easy, casual carnality of many of her characters, who are well drawn and mostly convincing.  The kicker is that everything is seen through Aristotle's eyes (including Aristotle). This is what I found most surprising: while Lyon appears to take the more cautious and limiting approach of scrupulously building her character out of what little we actually know of him through his extant writings, she then throws caution to the wind and has this character narrate the entire book in the first person. Wow.

Well, it works to an extent. It's often easy to forget that Aristotle is the narrator who offers scenes up for our perception and manages other character's  conversations because he often assumes the transparancy we would normally expect of a third-person narrator.  But this same transparancy has the unfortunate result of revealing little of the mental currents behind the observations that float the narrative. We see a passive and largely passionless observer taking exhaustive note of what's before him; we do not see a thinker wrestling with the events he portrays. Even when Aristotle makes mention of his black debilitating moods, or his longings to be away from the rough and tumble of court, they are noted with the detachment of an external observer.  We see little of the inner demons that bring those moods and longings to surface. He tells, but he does not show.  Aritotle's emotional flatness is all the more apparent alongside the more lively portrayals of Philip, Alexander, and Arrhidaeus.  This contrast seems all the more awkward because it begs an awkward question: why does Lyon allow Aristotle to show so little of himself yet so clearly has the perceptive ability to show the inner workings of others?

I suppose it all comes down to what you are prepared to accept from the novelist.  I found Lyon's Aristotle too flat for such a giant of the mind, and the awkwardnesses I've described seem to result from inherant features of the novel's plan that could only be resolved by approaching Aristotle's character with more artistic license. Of course then we would have a different book.

(1) Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean, Alfred A. Knopf (2010)        

Related Web Links: Writing Aristotle
The Golden Mean By Annabel Lyon
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