Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (Five Stars)


Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

Five Stars

“We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

I wish I read this book forty years ago. Instead I was reading fantasy and science fiction and tripe like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Not that I agree with Pirsig on everything, but he wrote about things I’m still pondering.

“The ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible. One lives longer in order that he may live longer.”

Normally I read and review a four hundred page novel in three days. This book took several weeks because I kept stopping to look up or ponder things. The bottom line is: this is a deep investigation of life and reality. It’s a mashup of an autobiography and a survey of philosophy.

“Most people stand in sight of spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.”

That Pirsig wrote this in the 1970s before personal computers, the internet, cell phones, social media seems prescient. Reflective of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, which I did read.

“Two realities, on of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another.”

I recommend skipping the foreword. You’re smarter than he gives you credit. You’ll spot the translation error and the point of view shifts. Unreliable narrator. Mind-altered, literally.

“Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”

What little I know of Zen came from Alan Watt’s The Way of Zen. So, I can’t comment on Pirsig’s Zen. I suspect any art or avocation will trigger the described sense of oneness. Since I used to maintain my own cars–yes, Chilton’s and owner’s manual in hand–what he said about the art of maintenance was true. That style of maintenance is now impossible on modern, computer-laden vehicles, for the reasons Pirsig discusses.

“Science itself is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.”

He made Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason intelligible. I’ve read it; it’s opaque. Pirsig’s illustration of the a priori presumption of continuity makes sense. More it’s understandable.

“You have to have faith in reason because there isn’t anything else. But it was a faith he didn’t have himself.”

He tends to set up straw men just to knock down. He’s not as rigorous as he’d have you believe. Some of his arguments are quibbles. For a supposed teacher of rhetoric, he didn’t write well. Oh, it’s good, the weaving of his musings and his story, but the word pictures were not always as clear as you’d expect. Excising the word “just” would improve the readability.

“What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart.”

He makes Quality his absolute. Starting with that undefinable yet intuitively known quality, he parses it into something so arcane that the reader isn’t sure he understands what Pirsig’s talking about. Typical of classically-trained philosophers. Just because he (or we) views something as a hierarchy or a dichotomy doesn’t mean it is.

“The principle of objectivity is not an observable fact.”

Quibbles: He disarms us with western terms: motorcycle, Chautauqua, quality, but he’s really talking about Buddhism. (Read the title.) He dismisses Moses and Jesus for saying “heaven above” but neither of them said those words. Half the references in the Bible are in the same sense of the sky overhead that we use. (He’s getting at something deeper, of course, but shies from saying it.) No, the Renaissance was not caused by Columbus’ discovery of the New World. (Like saying firing on Fort Sumter caused the Civil War).

“The ultimate effect of the non-Euclidean geometries becomes nothing more than a magician’s mumbo-jumbo in which belief is sustained purely by faith.”

Paradox: Pirsig finds that the classic Greece divorce of truth and good both triggered the western development of technology and divorced it from meaning. Due to that separation, modern man can finally feed, shelter and clothe himself without working himself to death, but he doesn’t know what to do with the freedom gained.

“What I am is a heretic who recanted and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul but one, who knows deep down inside that all he saved is his skin.”

I took notes. You should too. Mine filled fourteen notebook pages. This book will cause you to think even if you’re not a student of philosophy, even if you disagree with Pirsig, even if you don’t want to. You’ve been warned.

“Is it hard?”
“Not if you have the right attitude. It’s having the right attitude that’s hard.”


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (Five Stars)

  1. I love this review. I read the book so long ago I barely recall anything but the title. Probably too much going on in life to really ponder. Time for another read. Yes, we all read tripe back then. Probably including Jonathan L. Seagull – hah!

    • My take on Pirsig’s bottom line: Were it not for Plato (and his hand puppet Socrates) and Aristotle, we might all be living in a mythopoetic world, albeit with a late Stone Age technology.

  2. Pingback: Zen for the Ages | Misty Midwest Mossiness

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