Natasha's Reviews > Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
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Jun 07, 10

bookshelves: education, philosophy
Recommended to Natasha by: my dad, about 30 years ago
Read in May, 2010

I just re-read this book and HAD to annotate it because it sent my head swimming. I'd studied quite a lot of philosophy since I read it a year and a half ago and so the philosophies didn't go over my head this time.

Robert Pirsig’s genius in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is to insert classical forms of thought into the backdrop of a cross-country motorcycle trip. He piques our interest by waxing philosophical in an effort to get to the root of the ghost story haunting him. He succeeds in creating the quintessential philosophy book of the 20th Century.

It turns out that the motorcycle is a symbol of the soul.

A brief summary of Pirsig’s “chautauquas” follows, but bear in mind that this list is informational, whereas his book is spirited and transformational. (Chautauqua means “talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.” p. 15)

There are two ways of experiencing a motorcycle:
1. Romantically—riding a cycle down a mountain road, invigorated by the wind rushing past
2. Classically—familiarizing yourself with the working parts of the machine, developing a feel for how tight to secure the bolts.

Romantic experience is “in the moment.”

Classical experience connects the past to the future, allowing us to build on previous knowledge:
1. Systems of Components and Functions—physical working parts which we come to know either:
a. Empirically—knowledge gained by the senses
b. a priori—knowledge gained intuitively (known without prior experience)
2. Concepts—Ideas with the potential to be realized (the thought precedes the creation of the physical object).
a. Inductive ideas start with observing specific examples and end with a general conclusion.
b. Deductive ideas start with general knowledge used to predict specific observations.
Connecting the Romantic to the Classical is Quality. To care about something will increase its quality.

Pirsig creates an analogy comparing knowledge to a railroad train that is always going somewhere:
• Classic Knowledge is the engine and the cars.
• Romantic reality adds the dimension of time—it is the cutting edge of the experience, the moment in time.
• Traditional knowledge is the body of classic knowledge plus the history of where the train has been.
• Quality is the track—the “preintellectual reality” or “the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place” (p. 247). What carries the train forward is a sense of what is good. It is understood intuitively and enhanced by skill and experience.
• If your train gets stuck, understand two things:
o Being stuck eventually produces real understanding as you look for the solution in your train of knowledge. (A classical experience)
o Don’t be afraid to stop and analyze—you can see in patterns not only the physical object but the idea or function of the object. Eventually you will be able to break through barriers.

Creative energy is “gumption” or enthusiasm (enthousiasmos means literally “filled with theos” or God—appropriate since God is the inspiration of creativity).
Gumption Traps (“An examination of affective, cognitive and psychomotor blocks in the perception of Quality” p. 305) :
1. External (Setbacks)
2. Internal (Hangups)
a. Inability to learn new facts—slow down and decide if the things you thought were important are really important or if the things you thought were insignificant are more important than you thought.
b. Ego (falsely inflated self-image)—let your work struggles teach you to be quiet and modest.
c. Anxiety (opposite of Ego; you’re afraid you won’t get it right so you freeze up or don’t try)—“work out your anxieties on paper” (p. 315) Read about the topic, organize your thoughts on paper; remember even the best make plenty of mistakes.
d. Boredom—take a break, rest, or clean out your space.
e. Impatience (results from an “underestimation of the amount of time the job will take” p. 317)—allow yourself plenty of time to finish the job, break the job down into smaller goals.

Quality is understood in Western Culture as arête/excellence.
Quality is understood in Eastern Culture as dharma/”duty to self”.

Early cultures used Rhetoric to teach Quality in terms of virtue, but after some time the technique of rhetoric was corrupted by the Sophists as ethical relativism. (pp. 376-77) Socrates took issue with the Sophists and established dialogues—or the Dialectic (discussions through which the Truth can be arrived at). Excellence became subordinate to Truth. Rhetoric fell from its supreme position of Excellence (Quality) to teaching mannerisms and forms of writing and speaking.

Quality, Pirsig discovers, is "the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions, Oriental and Occidental, past and present, all knowledge, everything." (p. 254)
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Chanelle (new)

Chanelle I've been wondering why you liked this book so much ~ now I know and am very intrigued. Thanks for the great review


message 2: by Martina (new) - added it

Martina Well, your review has sparked intrigue... thank you! I look forward to reading it.


Natasha I keep getting likes on this review, so I was curious about other reviews of the book. I was surprised to see hundreds of likes for one- and two-star reviews, which got me thinking.

The fact that so many people like the low-rated-reviews shows that the 121 publishers who rejected Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had cause to doubt that there was mass appeal for applied philosophy. But William Morrow & Company took a risk to publish it, fully expecting to take a loss, just because they felt it was the sort of book that needed to be out there. Whether you like the book or not, it is good to be in a society where this sort of writing is put into the hands of the people. This book had a profound effect on me (my review tells why). Of course, I wasn't assigned to read it in high school or I might have felt differently about it. Picking it up when I had a passion to really learn was like tasting manna in the wilderness.


David Sarkies Excellent review. Thanks for sharing that with us. When I read it I ended up getting caught up with the technology v nature dichotomy, but I guess that is another way of looking at the classical v romantic.


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