Robert M. Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An Inquiry into Values

by Robert M. Pirsig, 404 pages

Finished on 19th of June, 2023
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A difficult one. Although it was hugely successful, I can’t find many positives about this self-indulgent autobiographical narration which shows no regard for the humans around the author. It made me want to learn more about classic philosophy, though.

🎨 Impressions

This has to be the most difficult book I have read so far. There are many different aspects to this book, but first I feel the need to state that I didn’t particularly like it and that I’m astounded it has been this successful, selling millions of copies.

Robert M. Pirsig, who died in 2017, had many jobs and held a B.A. in philosophy, too. This book is in huge part the autobiography of the first half of his life. The title suggests it’s about Zen buddhism or motorcycles, but it’s about classic philosophy, mental health, failed relationships, and it’s also a piece of the 1970s zeitgeist, I think. First published in 1974, you need to see the era as context. The book did not age well, which is mostly apparent in the way the protagonist’s clinical insanity is treated, and in the way he behaves towards his son Chris, whom he took on long motorcycle roadtrip from Minnesota to Northern California. The trip is the basis for the book and gives it some structure.

During the trip’s many long stretches of highway travel, the author reflects on his past. He used to be a philosophy teacher on the verge of many breakthroughs, apparently a lot more capable than his professors, but when trying to find answers for his biggest project, defining and understanding the concept of Quality, he goes insane, is abandoned by his wife and family and has to undergo electric shock therapy, as was the case during those days. He talks about his own persona before that type of therapy in the third person, calling himself “Phaedrus” after Socrates’ imaginary dialogue partner. That’s because the electric shock therapy changed his personality. It sounds horrible, but it’s actually what happened to the author.

Years later, he is working a low profile job not related to philosophy when he takes his 11-year-old son on this trip, but still thinks a lot about the topics which used to keep him up at night. Understanding and interpreting Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato in a way that’s pleasing to his teachers and finally finding that breakthrough regarding Quality.

During the course of the trip, the relationship between his son and himself doesn’t grow, as you would expect, but takes a turn for the worse. This is mainly due to what would now be seen as rather weak parenting with no regard for the child’s needs. Self-obsession, self-centeredness, no communication. Literally on the last page, there’s an abrupt turn when another of those monosyllabic talks between both gets emotional and the protagonist finally reveals he’s been diagnosed with insanity years ago, which the son didn’t know. This somehow triggers an understanding in the child and Chris is finally able to enjoy the nature and freedom from the backseat of the Honda motorcycle.

To me this feels like the decision of the editor who wanted the story arc to end on a high note, which maybe wasn’t the reality. In the afterword, published 10 years later in 1984, Pirsig mentions that Chris had since died. Murdered at age 22 in San Francisco, right in front of the Zen buddhist center. Pirsig had found a new wife and put another child into the world, implicitly vowing to be a better father this time. This all made me feel quite uneasy.

I would have stopped reading this long book after about a third of it, but I was honestly curious about the relationship of father and son, which made up just a small part of the whole story. Most of it are the thoughts about rhetoric, dialectic, and the role of technology in our modern world, but not in an interesting way. The discussions about technology focus on the motorcycles and how most people take it for granted that technology provides them with options like these today, without much appreciation.

When, at about 40% into the book, finally the central topic of Quality is started to be discussed and he tries to find a definition for it, he comes up with the thought experiment of “What if there wasn’t any quality in the world?” to see if that leads him closer. His answer: The world would be worse because there would be no alcohol, no cigarettes, and everyone would only be riding public transport. This is unintentionally funny to me, but in 1974 that actually was a horrible concept. The book hasn’t aged well, as I’ve stated.

Further into the book, he gets more into Aristotle’s, Socrates’, and Plato’s work surrounding metaphysics, trying to understand the part of reality which isn’t explained. This could have been great, but it’s done in such an unhelpful way. At times it’s high-brow and inconsequential, and at other times just made me lose focus reading it. Maybe I don’t understand classical philosophy well enough, which is a totally viable possibility, but I couldn’t help but think of how much more practical the works of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca was. I understand that the author’s discussion of the philosophers’ ways of looking at the world is a part of the plot to explain him going insane, but I just couldn’t find anything about this that was worth reading. It didn’t entertain me, he didn’t explain it well, I couldn’t feel for him because he was so self-centered, I just wanted to know what became of his relationship to the son.

The last 5-10% of the book were a bit better and more enjoyable to read, because something happened – the relationship deteriorated more quickly and the reasons finally beca me more apparent because the electro shock therapy background isn’t revealed until very late in the book. It was tough to read through those chapters from today’s point of view, though. Maybe the electro therapy changed his character and he was an accepted part of society again, but in that case his behavior towards his son was just atrocious. Or maybe the therapy destroyed him even more, in which case he should never have been allowed to go on this trip alone with his kid. Either way, it’s traumatic to the kid and irresponsible.

The positive thing I took out of this book is that it triggered me to think more about the relationships with my kids, to research more about the 1960s and 1970s zeitgeist, and learn more about Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. Better than nothing. For me, it’s a 3 out of 5 kind of book.

📔 Highlights & Notes

Part I

You can prove the practicality of planned parenthood [to a member of the Catholic Church] till you get tired of listening to yourself and it’s going to go nowhere because your antagonist isn’t buying the assumption that anything socially practical is good per se. Goodness for him has other sources which he values as much as or more than social practicality.

If you try to fix a faucet and your fixing doesn’t work then it’s just your lot to live with a dripping faucet.

“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic…the number system…the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

They value technology. And they’re the ones who need it the least. If all technology stopped, tomorrow, these people would know how to make out. It would be rough, but they’d survive. John and Sylvia and Chris and I would be dead in a week. This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that’s what it is.

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality.

Part II

If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.

You think of as many hypotheses as you can, then you design experiments to test them to see which are true and which are false.

The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about.

It’s sometimes argued that there’s no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times. But this argument, though romantically appealing, doesn’t hold up. The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern society.

[Immanuel] Kant is always superbly methodical, persistent, regular and meticulous as he scales that great snowy mountain of thought concerning what is in the mind and what is outside the mind.

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

It’s an old split. Like the one between art and art history. One does it and the other talks about how it’s done and the talk about how it’s done never seems to match how one does it.

I think present-day reason is an analogue of the flat earth of the medieval period. If you go too far beyond it you’re presumed to fall off, into insanity.

He returned to his notes but it wasn’t long before thought about them was interrupted by a recall of her strange remark. What the hell was she talking about? Quality? Of course he was teaching Quality. Who wasn’t? He continued with the notes.

It wasn’t until three o’clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn’t have a clue as to what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home.

Part III

He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own.

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory.

What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?

And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.

Quality is not a thing. It is an event. Warmer. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object.

I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it.

First of all I should say that I don’t know whether Phaedrus’ claim that Quality is the Tao is true. I don’t know of any way of testing it for truth, since all he did was simply compare his understanding of one mystic entity with another.

Our concepts of space and time are also definitions, selected on the basis of their convenience in handling the facts. This radical understanding of our most basic scientific concepts is not yet complete, however. The mystery of what is space and time may be made more understandable by this explanation, but now the burden of sustaining the order of the universe rests on “facts.” What are facts?

Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art.

Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time.

The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care!

The reality of the American government isn’t static, he said, it’s dynamic. If we don’t like it we’ll get something better. The American government isn’t going to get stuck on any set of fancy doctrinaire ideas.

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors.

When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to “care” about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing. When one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.

The Greeks called it enthousiasmos, the root of “enthusiasm,” which means literally “filled with theos,” or God, or Quality. See how that fits?

The birth of a new fact is always a wonderful thing to experience. It’s dualistically called a “discovery” because of the presumption that it has an existence independent of anyone’s awareness of it.

If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality.

My favorite cure for boredom is sleep. It’s very easy to get to sleep when bored and very hard to get bored after a long rest.

Part IV

He lived in a solitary universe of discourse in those days. No one understood him. And the more people showed how they failed to understand him and disliked what they did understand, the more fanatic and unlikable he became.

The main struggle of the University’s Great Books program was against the modern belief that the classics had nothing of any real importance to say to a twentieth-century society.

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.

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.

Between the lines Phaedrus read no doubts, no sense of awe, only the eternal smugness of the professional academician. Did Aristotle really think his students would be better rhetoricians for having learned all these endless names and relationships? And if not, did he really think he was teaching rhetoric?

“What is the Good? And how do we define it? Since different people have defined it differently, how can we know there is any good? Some say the good is found in happiness, but how do we know what happiness is? And how can happiness be defined? Happiness and good are not objective terms. We cannot deal with them scientifically. And since they aren’t objective they just exist in your mind. So if you want to be happy just change your mind. Ha-ha, ha-ha.”

He shouldn’t have cut it off, Phaedrus thinks to himself. Were he a real Truth-seeker and not a propagandist for a particular point of view he would not. He might learn something.


What is seen now so much more clearly is that although the names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on. In terms of this larger pattern the lines at the end of this book still stand. We have won it. Things are better now. You can sort of tell these things.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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