Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: The Church of Reason and Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality

​Cultures are built upon patterns of thought. The nature of these thought structures influence how we discern truth from falsehood, subtly molding our perceptions of who we are and how we ought to live. Every now and then, a mind comes about with such a perceptive intellect that he or she cuts straight through the prevailing ingrained habits, into the unseen core of the system itself. We are mesmerized by their work because it is at once so foreign, yet so unsettling – unraveling the very fabric of our patterns; stirring the epicenter of our souls. ​

The rational system of thought underlying the modern era has evolved into one of the most resilient and consuming constructs of human history. With many opponents, few have provided such searing critiques as Robert Pirsig, who spent a lifetime mounting an argument that the “Church of Reason” systematically breeds a false distinction between man and the entity from which he came.

Pirsig’s gripping book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, fuses an autobiographical novel with a lifetime of philosophical probing, expounding upon his inquiry into the dogma of rational thought. Tracing its role in shaping the way we understand and interact with the world around us, the work culminates in his theory of Quality as the primal substrate of reality.

Lamenting the divide between man and world cultivated by this dogmatic rational system of understanding, Pirsig writes:

“Phaedrus [a fictional representation of Pirisg’s own mental journey] remembered a line from Thoreau: ‘You never gain something but that you lose something.’ And now he 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 truths, 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 empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 372

These scientific empires emerged from the underlying system of rational thought, a construct birthed by Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, later cemented as the universal metric of truth and human understanding by Newton and the dawn of science. Pirsig argues that a full-on commitment to rational inquiry systematically erodes our connection to reality – the original stimulus buried beneath our distinctions and logic. As Alexander Pope humorously muses,

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, let Newton be! And all was light.”

– Alexander Pope

​Pirsig characterizes this paradigm shift in dialectic as the transition from mythos to logos:

​The term logos, the root word of ‘logic’, refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world. Mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos. The mythos includes not only the Greek myths but the Old Testament, the Vedic Hymns and the early legends of all cultures which have contributed to our present world understanding.”

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 344

​Any paradigm shift of this magnitude is bound to have its trade-offs, but this particular shift to scientific rationality has the engulfing quality of rendering all other modes of understanding the world inferior. The shortcomings Pirsig targets in an exclusively rational structure of thought (an attack he mounts throughout the entire course of his book) have incubated for centuries. He writes that these undesirable effects are now creating such large holes in our modern lives that we ought to be able to see straight through the system, right into its problematic core.

The cause of our current social crises…is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is – emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty.”

– Robert Pirsig, Ibid, p. 110

​And so we go on designing economic policies, debating welfare tactics and the role of government, or televising disheartening partisan antics, all the while transfixed on these exterior effects, paying no heed to their source. Naturally the question arises: what is the source? How can we move in a positive direction forwards? Pirsig tells us, and he is not alone:

​My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved … And I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource – individual worth … We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption.”

– Robert Pirsig, Ibid, p. 352

To unveil the depth of Pirsig’s words, we must attempt to understand his elusive conception of Quality. A tall order. Perhaps the most concise definition he gives:

​Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it. ‘ Now, to take that which has caused us to create the world, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself.'”

– Robert Pirsig, Ibid, p. 245

​Quality, for Pirsig, is the soul of everything, the essence, the dharma; it is reality before the mind imposes its distinctions. This thing has been recapitulated by various cultures, religions, cults, philosophies, and other linguistic cloaks since the dawn of language. It is this primal layer of reality that Pirsig calls us to consider attuning ourselves with before moving on to develop complex systems of human interaction. It cannot be found in books, promotions, or well-designed policies, but only by looking inwards. This is where Pirsig’s prescription unites with the most sane calls to action from across the spectrum of disciplines. E.F. Schumacher echoes from the economic sphere:

​Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

– E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 318

​However you want to dress it, the universal remedy is often some variation of a mass introspection; a collective involution. We are called to explore who we are, why we’re here, and what we ought to do; from the wisdom of the timeless rather than the dogma of the times. Only when these foundational depths are present will human systems be wholly imbued with prudence – that holy grail defined by Josef Pieper:

Prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into decisions corresponding to reality.”

– Josef Pieper, Justice, 1957

​We need to design a system, support a culture, where we are encouraged and enabled to explore these depths of our selves. When these existential questions are left untouched, they fester under the weight of the unknown. If you stunt the involution process, neuroses will permeate the cracks of any exterior systems. Many have pointed out the resultant contradictions and afflictions of our prevailing structures, from existentialists to artists, but this is only half the battle. If you reject the entrenched route, you must have a solid alternative. Otherwise, you drift:

​Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He [Phaedrus] couldn’t follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do.”

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 115

​Drifters such as Pirsig find themselves outside the dominant mythos of their culture, and these boundless lands have led many of the world’s greatest minds into insanity. He is no exception, having undergone electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions for paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression. Admittedly, he is a troubled individual. However, many from his following have perpetuated the faint rebuttal found in his book that these diagnosed conditions may just be the Western world’s terms for hard enlightenment – a concept as threatening to the system as it is unfamiliar. Pirsig refers to this potential misdiagnosis as the cultural immune system that operates to insulate collective consciousness from threats to its stability. During a recent interview, he describes the stuff of the experience which has such a dynamic range of diagnosis:

Yes, but then a kind of chaos set in. Suddenly I realised that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either – in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to.”

– The Guardian Interview with Tim Adams 2006

Even with these perils in mind, there is an unspeakable beauty to be found in these eternal ​planes. There is also a mental liberation in moving beyond the imposed patterns of thought we are arbitrarily born into. The times we live in are neither all there is, nor all there ever will be. They are merely temporal manifestations of a particular era’s grapplings with what Pirsig would call Quality – the subsurface, omnipresent stimulus to which all man’s exterior world is a reaction.

“We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 75


​Further Reading: After embarking on the ride of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is an engrossing Guardian interview with Pirsig following the release of his second book, Lila. Pirsig’s personal story is a dark, enchanting trip, the poignancy and intellectual achievement of which is not often found in those who are still living.

As written in the interview, today, Pirsig “…still sails. He lives in rural New England and has just been up to the islands of Maine with his wife on the same boat that he describes in Lila – perfectly maintained, of course. He lives these days in cyberspace, he says, where his ideas circulate. He plans to learn to tango, and visit Buenos Aires. He’s just discovered YouTube. He doesn’t write any more, though, and he hardly reads.”

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