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Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, by Robert Pirsig
A Book Review
Quality simply can’t be defined.
Quality can’t be defined because definitions are products of “rigid, formal thinking” and Quality is recognized by a “non-thinking process”.
In other words, Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.
In other, other words, Quality can’t be defined because it precedes definition altogether.
Robert Pirsig got fired from his job, blew up his family life, and went clinically insane trying to prove that you can’t define Quality.
So, of course, in his follow-up book, Lila, written 17 years later, he spends 500 pages trying to achieve one thing:
Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this book has a lot of deep philosophical discussion mixed with personal journey, except this time it involves a woman Pirsig is involved with named Lila. The central question becomes “Does Lila have Quality?”
This story begins with Pirsig, on a sailing trip to Florida, meeting Lila, a young and confused woman to whom he is simultaneously attracted and repelled. He is attracted because Lila undoubtedly has “biological Quality.” She’s hot. He is repelled because she is confused, she doesn’t know who she is, and intellectually, “she’s nowhere.”
Lila has some baggage too, having drifted from man to man and, as we find out later, destroyed the life of at least one former lover along the way. Near the end of this book, she goes insane, and it’s up to Pirsig — no stranger to insanity — to save her life, and to determine whether they stay together as a couple or not…
...But I don’t want to give too much away! In Pirsig fashion, let me zoom out from the gripping storyline and get into the philosophical.
Pirsig starts the book telling us about the book he was trying to write.
He begins by delving into anthropology and proceeds to critique it for the same reasons he critiqued the objective-subjective duality in his previous book.
Anthropologists aim for objectivity, since objectivity is what modern science recognizes as true, but Pirsig believes that anthropology will only work if it is subjective. Pirsig tells the story of a former colleague, Dusenberry, who studied the Indians (Native Americans) but received little recognition from anthropologists because he immersed himself with the Native American culture and became a part of it. According to the academic view of anthropology, this doesn’t work, but, according to Pirsig and Dusenberry, this is actually how anthropology should be.
Pirsig also dives into Native American culture himself and realizes that it has informed American culture more than we think. He asserts that American values are a mix of Indian and European values: Indians value freedom and equality; Europeans value order and status; Americans value a mix of both.
As he got further in outlining his potential book, he discovered the limitations of anthropology in bringing such a book to life. He noted that he could write an honest and valuable book on the subject, but if he dared call it anthropology it would be either ignored or attacked by the professionals and discarded. He remembered Dusenberry’s bitterness toward what he called “objective anthropology,” but he always thought Dusenberry’s hostility was irrational.
Pirsig later realized that such a book would run against an “unconquerable and invisible wall of prejudice…Nobody on the inside of that wall is ever going to listen to you; not because what you say isn’t true, but solely because you have been identified as outside that wall.” Later, as his Metaphysics of Quality matured, he developed a name for the wall to give it a more structured, integrated meaning. He called it a ‘cultural immune system.” Similar to what Eric Weinstein calls “The Gated Institutional Narrative”. But as Pirsig writes: “[He] saw now was that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with his talk about Indians until that wall had been breached. There was no way he was going to make any contribution to anthropology with his non-credentials and crazy ideas. The best he could do was mount a careful attack upon that wall.”
It’s not that the subject was unimportant, he argued, it’s that it wouldn’t be received well because the structure of scientific principles that it tried to rest on was inadequate to support it. “What was clear was that if he was going to do anything with anthropology the place to do it was not in anthropology itself but in the general body of assumptions upon which it rests.”
This brought him back to Metaphysics. Metaphysics, he noted, “would be the expanded format in which whites and white anthropology could be contrasted to Indians and “Indian anthropology” without corrupting everything into a “white anthropological walled-in jargonized way of looking at things.”
Western culture divides the world into “subjects and objects” or “mind and matter”. This is known as the metaphysics of substance, or MOS.
The problem with the MOS is that values can only exist in the “subject” or “subjective” side of the equation. A subject can have all the values he wants! But what difference will it make? Where are values? They are nowhere in the world. Objects are value-free, the world is indifferent to values, science claims to be objective, that is, indifferent to values. This attitude is everywhere. It has permeated science and all disciplines that aspire to emulate science. Pirsig laments this.
He elaborates: “This is called the ‘fact-value’ dichotomy, and it has been basically unchallenged in Western philosophy for several hundred years. The question quality – values – morals – basically has been banished. They are not part of the object, so they just become part of the subject, and thus subjective.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is familiar terrain. He spent the first book outlining the problem. He spends the second book proposing his solution: The Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ.
To be clear, he acknowledges that the subject-object division has led to modern-day miracles like science, technology, law—things we couldn’t live without. Pirsig isn’t trying to overthrow it; he’s trying to supplement it. He’s saying The MOS is not enough on its own — it doesn’t take into account morals, art, quality, etc. That’s what he’s trying to do with his Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ.
The MOQ states that society operates with two patterns. There is a society that he calls “static” — it regulates our lives and allows us to function in predictable ways. Without the static, we’d have chaos.
But there is another type of pattern that he calls “dynamic” and it occurs when iconoclastic humans appear. Artists, visionaries, sometimes even religious figures see reality in a different way that compels people so thoroughly that they shift society. These people were dynamic — if they saw the world in static ways they would have never made those breakthroughs. They weren’t seeing the world from intellect, limited by the subject-object duality, but from “Quality”. As the book says, “if it were not mysterious and unexplainable, it would not be quality”
The difficulty, though, is that what is termed “insanity” is also part of a “dynamic” pattern. For every Christ or Buddha that changes civilization, there are thousands of crackpots who claim to be doing the same thing but are just distractions. Or in other words, all good new ideas come from dynamic patterns, but all new bad ideas come from those dynamic patterns as well. Some insane people are brilliant; most though are just insane. But all insane people struggle to function in a static society, a condition that Pirsig has experienced in his past life as what is commonly called a nervous breakdown. Lila herself teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and the question of the book is whether her dynamic “quality” is going to prove to be a dead end or a breakthrough.
Dynamic Quality is the cutting edge of life that leads to greatness, and it cannot be described or encapsulated. By definition, it eludes capture; it’s the “a-ha” moment, the breakthrough, the abrupt discovery, the quantum leap. There are a lot of words to describe it.
But here is an important accompanying insight: life cannot exist on pure Dynamic Quality alone.
This is the way he puts it: Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed.
By this point Pirsig’s reflections have brought him to a four-fold division of Quality, namely, inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. These four levels refer to the following domains:
Inorganic: laws of nature, expressing the conquest of inorganic patterns over chaos
Biological: Biology over the inorganic, “law of the jungle,” power, lust, sex, etc.
Social: Social patterns over biology; law; manners; civilizing customs, restraints, etiquette, etc
Intellectual: Response to Quality as desire for truth, creative expression and inspiration
Pirsig discusses how all of these levels of Quality are actually in conflict with each other.
This is because once a new level of organization is created on top of an old one, that new level, while dependent on the level beneath it, will have its own goals that are not necessarily in line with that same level.
For example, a virus will have conflicting motives with a biological organism; an organism can be in conflict with the greater good of society; and perhaps most commonly, an individual's desires can be in conflict with society’s needs.
Pirsig looks at these conflicts through a moral lens. Anytime the lower levels of Quality impinge on the higher levels of Quality, that is an immoral act. It’s immoral when someone abuses alcohol to the point that they injure others in society, and it was immoral for society to persecute Galileo for his scientific theories.
Pirsig’s framework also explains why laws that prevent individuals from indulging in their unfettered biological desires are moral. If you analyze those impulses from a biological lens, they are moral because they feel good. However, from a societal perspective those morals are dangerous and degenerate, and according to Pirsig it is moral for a higher evolutionary system to judge (i.e. society) that those impulses must be kept in check. Of course, a still-higher evolutionary system (i.e. intellect) can then later develop and notice that society is suppressing certain biological values (e.g. masturbation and premarital sex), and, given the introduction of contraception it’s unclear if those societal norms still make sense. That's when you get into a battle between the intellectual and societal notion of value. That is the stage that we have been struggling with for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Indeed: Pirsig argues that the main feature of life in the 20th century is the attempt by intellect to dominate society. Insofar as this intellectual dominance is a response to Quality, he favors it. But his valuation is nuanced because of his deepening sense for the importance of static quality.
“This has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction,” he remarks. The causes of this fantastic social destruction are not hard to find. 1960s Hippies have upheld the values of biology at the expense of the social. The intellectual pattern of amoral objectivity… is to blame for the social deterioration of America, because it has undermined the static social values necessary to prevent deterioration.”
“In its condemnation of social repression as the enemy of liberty, it has never come forth with a single moral principle that distinguishes a Galileo fighting social repression from a common criminal fighting social repression. It has, as a result, been the champion of both. That’s the root of the problem.”
Pirsig believes that the Victorian era was the last period in which social values had been prioritized over intellectual values. The First World War signified the collapse of Victorian social values. The presidential election of Woodrow Wilson marked the transition from social domination of intellect to the intellectual domination of society.
“Before Wilson’s time… intelligence and knowledge were considered a high manifestation of social achievement, but intellectuals were not expected to run society itself… They were expected to decorate the social parade, not lead it.”
The domination of intellect over society came to a further stage with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal was billed as a program for working people, farmers, and laborers, but it was really a new deal for the intellectuals.
“Suddenly, before the old Victorians’ eyes, a whole new social caste, a caste of intellectual Brahmins, was being created above their own military and economic castes.” Pirsig was not excited about this development. As a New York Times review wrote: “Just as the intellectual revolution of the New Deal era undermined social patterns, the Hippies undermined both social and intellectual patterns. Nothing better has been introduced to replace them. The result has been a drop in both social and intellectual quality."
Pirsig, still developing the Metaphysics of Quality, began to see how the tools of the intellectuals (cultural relativism, objectivity, value-free science, etc.), aided the dominance of intellect over society. His worry was we’d develop the valueless world he sketched out in his previous book:
“From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There is no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There is nothing wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.”
“Now that the intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?” Pirsig asks in Lila, referring to the traditional subject object metaphysics described in the quote above.
To be clear, Robert Pirsig didn’t expect the MOQ to be a quick fix for every moral problem in the universe.
“The image in my mind as I wrote it was of a large football field that gave meaning to the game by telling you who was on the 20-yard line but did not decide which team would win...Just as two sides can go before the U.S. Supreme Court and both claim constitutionality, so two sides can use the Metaphysics of Quality, but that does not mean that either the Constitution or the Metaphysics of Quality is a meaningless set of ideas. Our whole judicial system rests on the presumption that more than one set of conclusions about individual cases can be drawn within a given set of moral rules. The Metaphysics of Quality makes the same presumption.”
This brings us back to the original question, the question he wrestles with throughout the book...does Lila, the woman he slept with but who is “nowhere” intellectually -- does she have Quality?
Pirsig uses Lila’s life and mental breakdown to illustrate his “Metaphysics of Quality.” In Pirsig’s view, both static Quality (culture) and dynamic (freedom from culture) co-exist to push society forward. Lila’s problem is that in embracing freedom she let go of a culture that would anchor her. She was all about freedom but her freedom also led to the obvious chaos in her life. For Pirsig, Lila’s dilemma reflects a larger social-construction-of-reality problem: whereas in the East, freedom is integrated with ritual, in the West, we fluctuate between (too much) ritual and (too much) freedom. Between too much static and too much dynamic.
The Metaphysics of quality tried to reintegrate static and dynamic quality.
The book concludes with the following quote:
“Good is a noun. That was it. That was what [Pirsig] had been looking for. That was the homer, over the fence, that ended the ball game. Good as a noun rather than as an adjective is all the Metaphysics of Quality is about. Of course, the ultimate Quality isn’t a noun or an adjective or any thing else definable, but if you had to reduce the whole metaphysics of Quality to a single sentence, that would be it.”
As to whether Lila has quality: “She’s on her way somewhere, just like everybody else. And you can’t say where that somewhere is.”
Quality eludes us all, and in the end Pirsig is no exception. The title of the book is an “inquiry” into Quality. Pirsig spends his life inquiring, and while we seem to get closer, we leave with no complete answers.
We benefit from his attempt, though. As Pirsig says in his previous book: “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.”
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