Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

An inquiry into values
by Robert Pirsig

Zen1974, Bantam Books (1984 edition), 380 pages w/afterword

This book was a staple of my college days, not among the Left—the Left in those days seemed to be as incapable of thinking for themselves as what we see in much of the Right today—but among more the more technical, individualistic reader types.

Pirsig, a technical writer for IBM with a genius-level IQ, recounts his journey on a motorcycle (he doesn’t mention the brand; Wikipedia says it’s a 1964 Honda Superhawk CB77) with his boy, Chris.  They head out across the high plains thru Montana, then down the Oregon-California coast.

The bulk of the story is Pirsig’s first-person reflection of the trials of his alter ego, Phaedrus, who is first a college English teacher, then philosophical questioner who ventures to the would-be sources of all understanding.  An ambitious project to be sure.

Pirsig all the while is connecting the thinking of Phaedrus to Pirsig’s own contemporary thinking on his journey through the mountains and plains of the Great Northwest.  Pirsig uses the motorcycle as a metaphor for life: both the work it requires and the joy it can bring.

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.” — Robert Pirsig

The book alternates between Pirsig making an observation or working out some difficulty on the road—either with his motorcycle, the people he’s with, or his son—and engaging some large philosophical issue the ancients have discussed, which is of profound importance to living our lives wisely today.

I remember when I first read it, I was so enthralled with the insights of Phaedrus, in particular into the nature of Quality, that I skimmed passages where Pirsig discusses current reality.  But take your time with these, too. Here’s where the need for gumption lies.

Phaedrus was so intense he runs into “problems.”  I won’t describe them here because realizing the connection between Phaedrus and the narrator (Pirsig) is one of the chief pleasures of the discovery of reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM).

ZAMM spoke to me as I finished New Pilgrim Chronicles:

In these final weeks of the chronicles, I’ve been rediscovering some ideas absorbed loosely during my youth.  I’m rereading Robert Pirsig’s culture-carrying work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I’d forgotten the vitality of his concept Quality.

Quality for ZAMM is what the Greeks referred to as “excellence” (aretê). Prior to the divergence between Platonic formalism and Aristotelian “methodism,” several philosophers collectively referred to as the Sophists had worked on creating excellence in life.

Is not aretê in politics exactly what I’ve referred to previously as “the sanctification of the nonaggression principle?”

So you see, there’s a connection between the journey into the Free State I’ve reported and the seminal work of Mr. Pirsig.  ZAMM is practically indispensable for getting a handle on the significance of what’s going on at the new Freedom Portal and its implications for citizen empowerment.

Plus ZAMM is an inimitable flight of the human imagination.


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