Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I have been reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I had been warned previously that the book spouted some leftist nonsense, but the people who had told me are guilty of their own ideological hackery. I have found nothing of the sort thus far, though am just about halfway through the book.

High Country of the Mind

The author had a few turns of phrase, almost prose, which I liked. The sort of thing that I do in my blog, the exploration of higher orders of thought, Pirsig calls the “high country of the mind”. Similar to travelling to the countryside or to a remote area or to a mountain in Pirsig’s book, your mind is travelling to higher orders of thought away from the tumult of everyday thoughts. In essence, you enter the world of philosophy and philosophizing.

Pirsig says not many people come up to the high country of the mind. Those who do sometimes get lost or confused (i.e. mental illness, explaining the eccentricities and sometimes madness of some philosophers). Some may never come back because there is no civilization there to help you back. You are essentially following trains of thought where no one has been before. Like the countryside, it is a treacherously beautiful part of the mind.

Maintenance of the Mind

I think there is a subtle comparison between the maintenance of a motorcycle and the maintenance of your mind through philosophy. He says anyone who is interested in learning about or improving their motorcycle to make sure it runs better and “feels right” must have a peaceful state of mind when working on the machine.

I think a parallel line of thought can be drawn for philosophizing, to understand and invest yourself in the understanding of how your mind, your existence, your consciousness and your reality works. You have to have a certain state of mind, like zen for lack of a better word. For myself, the higher orders of thought come more often when I have the time to think, usually spurred by something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or a moment of reflection on past life experiences when I’m writing in my journal.

The Romantic & The Classical

I like how he divides the world into two meta-concepts about the human mind: the romantic and the classical. The romantic approach sees the beauty of things in and of themselves, like an appreciation for the outward appearance of a motorcycle in the book. The classical approach appreciates the underlying form of things (remember Plato?), such as the mechanics and moving parts of the motorcycle’s machine. Pirsig seems to think that the whole of philosophy is bent on reconciling these two concepts, which are constantly at war with each other. Beatniks & squares, art & science, right & left, soul & mind.

My own thoughts on the subject are that the brain is already structured to harmonize both aspects.  They are not meant to be split up or favour one over the other, though sometimes it is easier for people of simpler minds. Your mind is capable of harmonizing the creative soul with logical reason. You reach your full potential by exercising both. Probably what Aristotle meant by being virtuous, I suppose.

Quality & Truth

Pirsig, or rather the first person character, also struggles with the notion of Quality. He posits that defining Quality puts it under the analytical knife because there is no rational or creative way to approach it, since it is precedes rational thought and creative thought. He brings in Kant to explain it as a priori knowledge, like time and space (although Kant himself is a slave of reason). He also proves that we know what Quality is when we see it. That’s how we know it exists. We can make value judgments that something is better than another thing. Quality itself is neither subjective nor objective, but perhaps a third entity unto itself used to understand the real world.

In this blog, I know Quality by another name: Truth. In my first blog post, I asked whether truth was subjective or objective and whether it was rational. I think Pirsig answers the question so far in his book. But the other questions in my post, those remain to be answered. Perhaps not by Pirsig, but there is still half a book to read. It is nonetheless discouraging to know that the first person character went crazy in the pursuit of understanding the concept of Quality and now refers to the ghost of his philosopher as Phaedrus.

Concluding Thought

I have no intention of stumbling into madness in the pursuit of Truth, however much I may be intellectually tired and disturbed by the burden of philosophical questions and answers. Perhaps enlightenment of what the truth is will be a lifelong endeavor. I am prepared to wait for all the pieces to fall into place. I rather enjoy my escapes to the high country and hope there are many more trips to come.

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