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Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A Book Review
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells the story of a man and his son, Robert Pirsig and Chris, who, along with his friends John and Sylvia, go on a road trip to San Francisco by motorcycle from their home in Minnesota.
The book is more about Pirsig dealing with his existential angst than it is about the road trip itself. The backdrop is a foil for Pirsig to unpack his philosophy.
Early on, Pirsig admits that this isn’t a novel. If he were a novelist, he writes, “I’d try to “develop the characters” of John and Sylvia and Chris with action-packed scenes that would also reveal “inner meanings” of Zen and maybe Art and maybe even Motorcycle Maintenance. “ This book isn’t really about Zen. Nor is it, as Pirsig admits, much about motorcycle maintenance.
Instead, It’s Pirsig’s intellectual biography – the story behind his lifelong quest to make sense of this world and how he either went clinically insane in the process. Or found enlightenment, depending on how you look at it. He’ll accept either interpretation.
He starts by exploring the apparent conflict between technology and human nature.
The disharmony begins with a difference of opinion on something ostensibly simple: how much one should maintain one’s own motorcycle. The narrator maintains his motorcycle; his friends do not. They are more concerned with how it looks and how it feels, not how it works. Pirsig uses this to divide the world into “classic” and “romantic” lenses.
If we think of the world as a handful of sand sorted into different piles, there are two ways of understanding it. “Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and relating them” while “romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting began.”
Pirsig is trying to reconcile his friend’s romantic or emotional view of life with his classical view deriving from underlying form. The former cares more about how cool it feels to drive a motorcycle, whereas the latter cares more about how the motorcycle actually functions.
The classic lens focused on how things work; the romantic lens focuses on how things feel. Technology creates a bifurcation: Too much focus on the science of how it works (classical), and you lose the art of it (romance). And vice versa.
This bifurcation between how things work and how things feel has led to a broader cultural malaise, Pirsig asserts, “an endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.”
Pirsig praises technology for its substantial material benefits -- granting abundant food, clothing, and shelter – but laments the lack of spiritual benefits. And now that our material needs are being met, we’re more strongly noticing that our spiritual needs are not.
That’s why they’re on a motorcycle trip. They’re trying to get away from “it all.”
Pirsig explains that it’s not technology that’s dividing us, however, but the way we engage with technology.
“Technology is blamed for a lot of this loneliness, since the loneliness is certainly associated with the newer technological devices—TV, jets, freeways and so on—but I hope it’s been made plain that the real evil isn’t the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity. It’s the objectivity, the dualistic way of looking at things underlying technology, that produces the evil.”
This objectivity, this rationality – logic – traps us. We can’t fulfill our spiritual needs by rational means because rationality itself is the source of the problem.
“The only ones who’re solving it are solving it at a personal level by abandoning ‘square‘ rationality altogether and going by feelings alone. Like John and Sylvia here…and that seems like a wrong direction too. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the solution to the problem isn’t that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it’s capable of coming up with a solution.” Like what Jordan Peterson tried to do with truth, with limited success.
This goal – to reconcile technology and the humanities – has Pirsig returning to Bozeman, Montana, where he used to teach.
This time, his goal is even more ambitious. It’s no longer just about reconciling art and science. It’s bigger than that. It’s about reconciling reason and feeling. Eastern and Western philosophy. Religious Mysticism and Scientific Positivism. Truth and Good. The meaning of life, essentially.
Does he succeed? Not exactly. But he does make some compelling attempts that get us closer to doing so.
It all started when a student ominously kept saying to him “I hope you are teaching quality this semester!”
What is Quality? He felt that this answer would unify the art and technology, reason and feeling, etc – it’d answer everything.
He once asked his students to write a 350-word essay answering the question: “What is Quality in thought and statement?”
Neither he nor his students could define Quality, but they still had an ability to recognize it. Quality could not be defined, but we know that it exists, because without it life would be impossible or unrecognizable.
He says that dividing the world between classical and romantic, between subject and object, between reason and feeling “shuts out Quality.”
Thus, he says, “Dualistic excellence is achieved by objectivity, but creative excellence is not.”
His breakthrough moment in figuring out Quality was this:
Quality of any particular thing inheres neither in subject nor object but in the relationship between the two, he argues.
Quality is not a thing – it is an event:
Quality is the point at which subject and object meet… the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible…
Quality is not a subject or an object:
Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.
Quality forms the subject and object, not the other way around. It is a dynamic event, the event at which “awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible.”
Quality underlies all facts as we know them. It’s what we respond to in our religions, our arts, and our sciences. We intuit it before we can intellectualize it. It drives the selection of our facts. It’s what Zen Buddhists perceive when they empty their minds through meditation.
Quality eludes definition. We cannot know Quality because it precedes awareness. It arrives before filters such as time, space, or ego make a mess of raw data. Therefore, even as Pirsig describes Quality, he also warns: “If we do define it, we are defining something other than Quality itself.”
The very definition of “being dull” or “being square” is the “inability to see Quality before it’s been intellectually defined.”
Reason has been trying to trap Quality, but Quality is above Reason.
Pirsig thinks there’s a “genetic defect” within Reason that keeps driving us to do what is “reasonable” even when it’s no longer good.
He blames the division in Western Philosophy between subjects and objects. The division responsible for the belief that only “objects,” that is, things with substantial being, are considered to be objectively real.
To Pirsig, this division elevated the rational at the expense of the Good. This led to chaos in the realm of morals and values, since morals and values were now “subjective” and therefore just arbitrary (i.e. the Good is whatever you feel at any given moment, it’s all in your mind, etc)
Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. As Pirsig notes, you can look through a microscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren’t any there. From a subject object metaphysics, morals exist only in your imagination. No wonder why there’s chaos and moral angst!
Pirsig expounds: “From the perspective of 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 morally 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.”
Pirsig shares this diatribe against Reason with his students, which gets him fired from the University of Bozeman, or what he dismissively calls “The Church of Reason”.
He then gets a PhD at the University of Chicago so he can study the source of Reason and the subject-object metaphysics: The Ancient Greeks.
While studying the Greeks, Pirsig realizes that his enemies are Plato and Aristotle, and his allies are the ancient rhetoricians, the Sophists, as Plato called them. He holds that Plato’s hatred of the Sophists was a part of a much larger struggle – “in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality, even though there is no more agreement in one area than in the other.”
It appears that there are similarities between Plato’s idea of the Good and Pirsig’s notion of Quality. Pirsig acknowledges the significance of the idea of Truth, which became the centerpiece in the progressive unfolding of Western science.
But he also acknowledges Truth’s deficiencies. Truth will never be fully and universally applicable to each and every individual's experience. Therefore, what is needed is an approach to viewing life that is more varied and inclusive and has a wider range of applications. Something that reconciles the Truth and the Good.
Plato dismissed the Sophists as teachers of “ethical relativism,” but Pirsig disagrees with Plato’s characterization. The Sophists were concerned with aretê, virtue, or excellence – i.e., “Quality.”
Pirsig finds in reading Plato not a real concern with beauty or wisdom or love, but rather a device to install Reason above all of them. Truth at the expense of the Good. Pirsig is not trying to take down Truth; he just wants to reconcile Truth and Good.
“…began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an … understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it.”
Pirsig then drops out of college, gets sent to a mental institution, gets divorced, almost loses custody of his son – but I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.
Read the book.
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