I recently took a road trip with my family to California and spent the travel time catching up on some reading. The first book I read was given to me by my grandmother for Christmas, a choice ostensibly inspired by my recent purchase of a motorcycle. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was written in 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig and received widespread acclaim for the novel way in which it presents fresh philosophical ideas. Here’s my review.
Zen is a rather remarkable book in that it brings together many genres of literature into one fairly lengthy but enjoyable book. Depending on what part of the book you’re referring you, it could be categorized as a travelogue, psychological drama, presentation of alternatives to traditional forms of higher education, or innovative philosophical theory.
The whole of Zen appears to be a semi-autobiographical account of a motorcycle trip the author takes with his son, Chris, and two friends. Where they visit is hinted at, but not ultimately important. The important details are the thoughts the narrator shares during the long stretches of road that separate the group’s various stops and personal interactions. The heart of the book is contained in these passages, and it is here that the book is interesting, fresh, and at times strange.
The narrator of Zen (apparently based upon the author, Mr. Pirsig) was once admitted to a mental institution where shock treatment wiped out a great deal of his former memories and personality. What was left is a “normal” individual who finds himself having a hard time relating to his son, and on a quest to remember all he can from his former life. This former life belongs to his ghost, his pre-treatment personality, which he calls Phaedrus. Phaedrus was in some sense an academic and initially was a wholehearted adherant to the ideal that science is greater than art, that reason trumps feeling. But as he explored this worldview, he came to realize that scientific truth was neither eternal nor fulfilling.
“But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.” (113)
But while science alone cannot satisfy Phaedrus’ search for the truth, neither can a life spent in pursuit of good feelings. Phaedrus’ analytical mind easily recognizes the naiveté that is required to ignore the practical importance of logic and technology, and is unwilling to accept its approach either.
At this point, Phaedrus comes across his answer which he sums up with the indefinable word quality. Indefinable, because it is a nonentity from which both matter and beauty are generated. An attribute that can be intuitively recognized, but never contained or quantified.
“One’s rational understanding of a motorcycle is therefore modified from minute to minute as one works on it and sees that a new and different rational understanding has more Quality. One doesn’t cling to old sticky ideas because one has an immediate rational basis for rejecting them. Reality isn’t static anymore. It’s not a set of ideas you have to either fight or resign yourself to. It’s made up, in part, of ideas that are expected to grow as you grow, and as we all grow, century after century. With Quality as a central undefined term, reality is, in its essential nature, not static but dynamic. And when you really understand dynamic reality you never get stuck. It has forms but the forms are capable of change.” (290)
This appears to be the central message of the book, that the dualistic view of reality, which goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle, is flawed. This dualism has led some to embrace reason and science to such an extent that beauty and meaning is ignored, with the ugliness of the industrial revolution exemplifying this extreme. Others run too far the other way and reject practical knowledge or even use of technology because they view it as diametrically opposed to their sense of aesthetic beauty. Pirsig rightfully recognizes these mistakes and suggests that the pursuit and understanding of quality is the solution. Beauty and practicality are not in competition, but must be brought together in order to realize this ideal of quality.
Although this idea is presented in an interesting way, I didn’t find it to be all that profound. To Pirsig, quality is essentially the embodiment of all that exists, and that it is the ideal good in our universe. It is, in effect (and he even says this), God. To me, what Pirsig did in this book was come up with a concept that has existed for millenia…that an undefinable, essentially supernatural thing (for lack of a better word) exists and generates everything, mental and physical, which we can glimpse when these two forms are unified as they were intended. He has essentially used Zen Buddhist terminology to describe an impersonal version of the Judeo-Christian God. In Christian philosophy, God is indeed the creator who made everything perfect, and who Himself is the embodiment of quality by being perfect. I would agree that God has given us both science and art, logic and beauty, and that when we bring these sensibilities together, we come closest to the ideal He intended. But to the Christian, God is much more than an elusive concept that can only be glimpsed when we happen to do things “right.” He is also a loving Being who not only gave us the tools to achieve quality, but also explicit instructions for how to live as He intended, and a Son to pay the price for our failures.
While I found the main thesis of this book to be underwhelming for the reasons stated above, I did thoroughly enjoy portions of it. The narrative is somewhat meandering, but actually works remarkably well as a vehicle for exploring a number of rather deep concepts. In addition to explaining Phaedrus’ theory of quality, Pirsig also spends a fair amount of time on the topics of rhetoric and education. As someone who went to a “classical” High School which had a course in rhetoric taught by someone with a PhD in the subject, I found this part of the book very interesting. I’ll let you read the book for the details, but Phaedrus has some interesting and compelling theories when it comes to education as well as the teaching of rhetoric, and this was the part of the book I most enjoyed. It also occurred to me that Phaedrus’ disgust of rhetoricians’ love of Aristotle is somewhat misguided. He points out Aristotle’s dualistic mistakes, but ignores the concept of ethos that Aristotle describes in his Rhetoric. While Aristotle may not have held ethos to the level that Phaedrus holds quality, the concepts are similar. Aristotle’s pathos is essentially the same as feeling, while logos could be considered synonymous with reason. Aristotle’s third term, ethos, is closer to morality or ethics (a word which has its origin in the term), which could be expanded to equate to Phaedrus’ quality. This may not be entirely true to Aristotle’s meaning, but I couldn’t help wonder why Pirsig didn’t recognize the similarities.
In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and despite its Zen Buddhist-leaning take on the concept of God, I didn’t find anything in it that really contradicted my Christian faith. It really just gave an incomplete (though novel) description of the Christian God as Creator which isn’t a bad thing, but hardly ground-breaking or sufficient basis for what I would consider to be a “correct” worldview. Still, if you’re interested in rhetoric, theories of education, or philosophy as an academic pursuit, I’d recommend this book.