“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M Pirsig is one of the best sold philosophical books of our generation.
First published in 1974 by William Marrow & Company, after being rejected by 121 publishers, the book was sold over five million copies. An absolutely tiring travelogue with a detailed deep dive into philosophy(‘es) puts different questions, opinions, and theories on the table left to one’s inquisition for a better happy living.
Wasn’t that what we all wish for?”
Title: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M Pirsig
Pages: 392 (Excluding Author’s Note and Afterword)
32 chapters narrate the 17-day long road trip of father and son starting from Minnesota to Northern California but the subtext talks about metaphysics of quality and the aspects of Motorcycle maintenance.
It is no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It is not very factual on motorcycles either.
But, the book never tries to disguise itself as only a travelogue or a philosophical read. If you were ever been on a long distance road trip, you would exactly experience the content being delivered. In that sense, travelogue can be considered to be the section that is rather easy to comprehend than the philosophy.
Talking about philosophy, Robert Pirsig even though puts his eggs more on one school of thought compared to other. But, never scared to present the opposite view. All the available thoughts are put across and he even goes ahead to describe the standard scientific approach to evaluating the reasons – Statement of problem, hypothesis, experiment, expected results, observed results and conclusions. He applies his approach to every comparison he makes- from motorcycle repairs to philosophical schools to Euclidean geometry to religion and even to the death.
As they say, any book that motivates the readers to comprehend and analyze than experience it would stay on against the test of times. Well, that was exactly what this book achieved- as he also points out the differences between classical and romantic reasoning. The book goes back and forth referencing to Phaedrus, the ghost who chases the ghost of rationality. In the afterword of this book, Robert addresses this saying:
They (ancient greeks, who form the forefather group of modern day philosophical ideologies) saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.
This statement in itself needs a deep inquisition as he would demand all the way through in this book.
There are quite a few pages exclusively dedicated towards schools of philosophical thought from ancient Greeks – Aristotle, Plato, Copernicus and many so. Robert doesn’t shy away from being critical of each school of thought. Few words would take on the ideological recommendations of the Aristotelean school of thought face on. Even though he agrees himself being a Platoean, he questions some of that recommendation either.
Basically, the book covers various topics that need an open and inquisitive discussion and a deep dive structural analysis over and beyond classroom grade based system (he even promotes his proposal of how no grade based system improves the involvement of student in learning):
- Classical vs. Romantic analysis
- Inductive vs. Deductive logic
- Oriental Philosophy
- Euclidean Geometry
- a priori knowledge
- Object vs. Subject
- Inner peace of mind – means of achieving
- Gumption and the traps
- Subject vs. Method
Rhetoric vs. Dialectic thinking
Even though, I am nowhere close to completely comprehending all the ideas put forward. There are three sections that are immensely capturing:
- Quality: After reaching halfway through the book, we are introduced by to the concept of Quality. It takes over the complete discussion moving from mechanical exercise to deep surgical analysis on different schools of thought. He refers to Indian ideology of Tat Avam Asi (Thou Art Thou) to lead up to proposing Dharma (Quality -Virtue). He refers to Virtue as the form of absolute truth unlike in Greek philosophical fundamentals truth is referred to as a function of time.
- A Priori: This is my most favorite bit in this book. He quotes the example of someone born without senses and his association with the real world. He brings in the doctrine proposed by empiricism which depends immensely on human knowledge gained through only senses. These two sections focus on ‘ZEN’.
- Motorcycle maintenance vs. Systemic hierarchy: This is the best analogy of how the motorcycle is linked itself with the systemic hierarchy that is actively practiced in our society.
In India, however, Dharma is most often preached or rather promoted and discussed as a part of the religious congregation, which some sections could not be accessed to. It throws away the basic underlying principle of ‘Duty Towards Self’ down the drain, which Robert tries to resurrect.
The book at times moves into the zone of questioning what reality is and the Afterword put the question in a much structural fashion than the main book. He takes the example of Chris, who we later know is murdered. He uses his and his wife’s association with the thought of Chris as a reality and if so, physics laws fail to explain where the physical entity has gone once he passes away. He doesn’t take long to circle back and refer to human life is about patterns. We search for patterns in life, success, reasonings, emotions and even death only to cling to something materialistic so that is romantically appealing.
Overall, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is not completely factually true about Zen or Motorcycles. But, Robert gives his everything to change the way we, as humans, appreciate, criticize, comprehend and practice the most fundamental philosophical ideologies which were masked as our characters/ personality. He puts forward the reasoning to use extremely classical approach for a structural thought that could only be confirmed through inductive inferences into quality. Rather than promoting the philosophy, he opens a lot of questions that we need to seek answers for in order to achieve that elusive piece of mind.