Sunday, February 16, 2020

Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Chris & Robert Pirsig
If anyone saw me sitting in my truck, in a parking garage on Valentine's day at 5:43am in the morning, they would have found a grown man crying.

I had just finished listening to the Audible version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The book is about living a good (quality) life.  There are a number of stories in this book.

There is the story of the first person, who is taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and friends.

There is the story of Phaedrus who is the previous "version" of the first person.

There is the story of actual motorcycle maintenance.

And there is a story of the chautauqua - which ties all of the above stories together.

Some Thoughts on the Book

One problem he is trying to solve is the alienation of people ... conservatives, liberals, hippies, etc.  Somewhere along the line, people began to culturally reject the way society was living.  He tries to understand why and how can we (re)bridge the schism.  This is where he gets into the Romantic and the Classic view of the world.

The question that really got him thinking was from a teacher colleague about if he was teaching his students quality.

The Romantic view is enamored with the final product, as it were.  While the Classic view loves the inner workings.  Quality is a unification of the two perspectives.

The motorcycle, throughout the book is symbolic of any hobby, or career, or job or even the way of living life itself.  The motorcycle is symbolic of technology and modernization.  It's interesting to note, as I'm reading John Sellars' Stoicism I learned the Greek word technē is translated to art and is defined as "a practical skill requiring expert knowledge" (p. 163).

One way to solve alienation is to fall in love with something (a job, a career, a hobby such as motorcycle maintenance) and all of life, and to care about it - to love it - to make an art of it.  Too many people have not fallen in love with acquiring expert knowledge of modern life or how to live a quality life.

One of the most important somethings a person should focus on and acquire expert knowledge is that of philosophy - the art of living.  When you read the book, just substitute his discussions on motorcycle maintenance with the art of living or philosophy, and you will gain a lot of insight.

Attentiveness is needed for quality; you have to give a damn (about the subject/hobby/career/life).

He gets into aretē which has been translated into virtue or excellence (of the soul).  And although Pirsig writes:
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks.  ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it.  ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
... he discounts the virtue aspect of it.  When I look at it from a Stoic perspective, I see aretē is virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance) and a human shows these qualities no matter what the platform or technē / art he expresses himself in.  It is all-encompassing; in living as a quality father, a quality employee, a quality neighbor, a quality chess player, and on and on.

He later writes:
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Pirsig (the first person of the book and Phaedrus) is learning to grapple with the art of being a quality father.  He doesn't do such a good job on the road trip, but by the end, he finally realizes it and we can see the immediate changes in his style of fathering.

The book is a love book.  The love of a practical skill; the love of art; the love of being a parent; the love of being a teacher; the love of quality itself - of workmanship; the love of wisdom - philosophy.

I cried at the end of the book after listening to the epilogue.  Chris (the son), was stabbed to death in San Francisco just before his 23rd birthday.  Pirsig describes the death in detail and then discusses where and what Chris is after his death.

And one more thought ... I loved his description of how we see the present, past and future.  It is as if we are walking backwards.  We see all that we have passed up to the present.  That is all we can see and know.  But the back of our body/head faces the future - it's unknowable.

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