R.I.P. Robert M. Pirsig, 1928-2017. Quality, Indeed.


What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.

-– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Introduction

The single most gentle, engaging book on philosophy in the English language is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Brilliant, funny, wise and sad, it was rejected by a reported 121 publishers before an editor at William Morrow recognized it as a masterpiece.

The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.

-– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 1

A brilliant student, graduating from high school at age 14, Robert Pirsig flunked out of college. A profound scholar, he struggled with mental illness and the murder of his oldest son, Chris, a character in Zen. A prolific writer, he only wrote one other book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, which WC, at least found disappointing. Pirsig died April 24 after a long illness.

The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

-– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 20

Pirsig’s work spoke to the children of the 1960s. He was hardly the only American of the time to be attracted by Zen Buddhism. Or to write about it in the context of a motorcycle trip. But Pirsig attempted to bridge Western and Eastern philosophies. Phaedrus, the student of Plato, is more or less a character in Zen as well, the Socratean base of Western philosophy folded in to motorcycle road trip by a father with his 11-year old son. All in a self-deprecating style that is utterly charming.

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.

-– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 25

But one of the most surprising aspects of Pirsig’s writing is how clearly he saw and articulated the problems created by technology. The Internet was a long ways in the future when he wrote Zen, but here’s one last quote.

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. That’s why I went to so much trouble to show how technology could be used to destroy the evil. A person who knows how to fix motorcycles—with Quality—is less likely to run short of friends than one who doesn’t. And they aren’t going to see him as some kind of object either. Quality destroys objectivity every time.

-– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 29

Pirsig focused – for a given definition of “focus” – on “quality.” Pirsig created the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) to explain the connection between quality and morality with reality. It was his life work. What MOQ attempts is to take that separate category, Quality, and show how it contains within itself both subjects and objects. The Metaphysics of Quality would show how things become enormously more coherent – “fabulously more coherent” – when you start with an assumption that Quality is the primary empirical reality of the world.

He had his critics, some of the strident. (“He is surely wrong and I suspect a little mad”) His ideas were co-opted and grossly distorted. (Pirsighian (!) business quality management programs.) But his ideas still have great relevance to the problems of people struggling to have some kind of individual identity in the crazy world that science, technology and social media have created for us.

Both Pirsig’s life and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are stories of the modern soul; fine detective stories of a man in search of himself. Both were beautifully, lucidly written. Pirisg challenged us and offered an immensely large reward.

R.I.P. Robert M. Pirsig, 1928-2017. Quality, indeed.

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