Pirsig, Zen, & the Sophists

Zen, The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

and the Sophists: Recovering the Greek Mind

Lecture on Pirsig, Zen, and the Sophists

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a ghost story with three main actors, Pirsig, Chris, and Phaedrus (the phantom of Pirsig's past). The rider is an anonymous person searching for himself and the love of his son. He is unable to communicate with people, particularly Chris, as he is lost in his mind. In his eleven-day journey, the Chautauqua, he recollects his lost memories; and the ghost of Pirsig past,

Phaedrus the Sophist, and Pirsig qua ghost rider reconcile into a whole person. In the dramatic conclusion, the redeemed father can relate to his son through the power of the latter's love to become the radical questioner of all values whom the son had adored before his first mental breakdown. In particular, Pirsig cannot deal with the values of the modern world as he tries to aestheticize technological reality, while still admiring the accomplishments of science. His is a hollow man who is never named during the course of the entire semi-autobiographical narrative.

Pirsig looks for definitive answers to life's meaning in questioning the Ancient Greeks. He undertakes to '"kill" Aristotle to earn his doctorate in philosophy by taking on the Aristotelians at the University of Chicago. His thesis is that an indefinable Quality (areté) of the pre-Socratic Greeks best exemplifies that past world in an age of heros whose deeds were exemplary. He thinks he has found a third way between Plato's rationalism (and his Theory of Forms) and Aristotle's empiricism with its study of particulars. Aristotle, in his Lyceum, created the various disciplines that to this day provide the templates for the modern university. Pirsig felt that Aristotle was responsible for alienating students from the pursuit and love of wisdom because overall education was teleological, designed to make its participants mere job holders who do not ask the big questions. Unfortunately, he cannot define his intuitive ideas before the doctoral committee, who determine his thesis not acceptable. Aristotle "kills'" Pirsig during the doctoral defense because Pirsig did not adhere to standards of justification and verification of values and facts. Pirsig subsumes facts under his values, although he is not clear in his definitions. In short, the committee believed he did not know what he was talking about. The old order triumphs. Pirsig then mentally collapses. During his institutionalization, he undergoes radical surgery on the brain as integral to his therapy. He emerges "healthy," yet not his old self. The story is about his heroism in finding his old self by successfully dialoguing with his eleven-year-old son, recognizing his individuality and needs, while overcoming a near second mental collapse.

As a postscript to this narrative, the murder of Chris in a mugging devastated Pirsig. He emigrated to

Sweden. I surmise from the reading of the book that he found his fellow Americans neither civilized nor cultured. On the latter point, Americans can be considered culturally middle brow. After all, Americans do read quite a bit for their own edification and are fairly well informed on public concerns. An African American has been elected president. That historical achievement can, in large part, be attributed to the success of education, the very institution with which he so cavils. Are Americans uncivilized? No.

However, Americans are not really a civil people in the work force. They work in overdrive in search of the good life, too often measured trivially in monetary denominations. There is much alienation in the work force now because of a deep recession and job instability. Workers are job holders, compulsively working like beasts of burden. They divide their time, and consequently they endure a war of conflicting commitments within their own selves, between the painful demands of their jobs and the private pursuits of their pleasures, some of which are noble, as Americans are a very charitable nation who give much of their resources to the underprivileged, the least advantaged groups with the consensus of the whole of the polity. Again, if citizens look at African Americans as a baseline of the historically wronged, a once pariah status race, the fair-minded critics of our society must conclude that we have undergone a sea change in values. Is the glass half full, or half empty?

Pirsig missed altogether the birth of the Digital Republic of Letters, augured by Google. Google has a monopoly on the digitization of copyrighted books in the United States. Google to date has proven to be a benevolent corporation. Information is power. For the most part, any reader can access for free texts under United States law, often for a nominal fee for individuals, although not institutions.

This newound power provides a great impetus for democratic institutions to empower themselves in public discourse. The danger lies in the real possibilities of a change in policy, personnel, or ownership of Google. The laws of supply and demand are irrelevant where there is a monopoly of informational data. That is why Pirsig's book is only a provocative period piece and not part of the Western canon. He did not have the vision to foresee a revolution in the method of accessing all books in the public domainIn a computer in his or her residence, any student of learning can partake of a national catalog of copyrighted books much larger than the Library of Congress. In fact, libraries have become anachronistic as institutions of power. Ugly technology trumps Pirsig's intuitive notion of Quality. Yes, Aristotle "killed" Pirsig.

Categories of Ideas to Understand, not Explain, Philosophy, which is only an Art Form and Life Style

Narrative—myths—moral tales

Natural Law Theory—precepts of reason

Dialectic—freedom in clash of cultures

Historical Materialism—class conflict

Positivism—progress measured by scientific ievolutions

Discursive Will Formation—conversation among people where the unforced force of the best argument


Critical Theory—hidden Interest groups run the country

The Hero—cycles of history in which there is a return to antiquity to search for models of good conduct

such as the Greeks and Romans

Metanarrative—a tale in which there is one great exposition of all major ideas and classic books of

Western civilization

The Unconscious—most of history is recollecting lost memories

Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

All life is the struggle to recover lost memories. Commentaries on how the quest leads to the good. Madness can be a form of special insightfulness.

1. Repression—unconscious—private world of feelings that cannot be articulated

2. Resistance—people cannot bear to hear the truth about themselves

3. Sublimation—unresolved conflicts transcended by working them into a new for at a higher level of articulation, such as through art, music, work, sports, writings, and so forth

4. Suppression—compulsive obsessive behaviors involve a repetition compulsion to resolve conflict. There is a fixation on unsolved traumas of the past

5. Denial involves shame and hence guilt and anguish—can lead to rage and uncontrolled anger

6. Rationalization is the making of excuses to escape personal responsibility

7. Projection is the mechanism of paranoia where there are feelings of persecution, often involving repressed homosexual feelings that are not acted out

8. Regression means returning to the comfort of the womb that can often induce psychosis

9. Reaction formation leads to compensation for feelings of inadequacy so superiority complexes develop that do not reflect reality

10. Hysterical formation causes symptoms, dreams, ideologies, illusions, and self-deceptions. It is the crux of neurosis. Displacement onto inappropriate objects for acting out occurs with hysterical formation, for instance, Hitler’s irrational hatred of the Jews

Reality testing takes place in the therapy room where through transference there is effected a catharsis or purging of blocked emotions by verbalization. Interpretation sets you free

Allegory of the Cave—few people ever see the Sun and do so at great risk. Most people live in shadows in which secondary narcissism results in objectifying the self as the object of love; hence, affected individuals cannot relate to others.

Sleepwalking through life, in which ignorance is bliss and resistant to fresh information

Fields of Philosophy in Pirsig

Epistemology—knowledge; love of wisdom that is philosophy

Logic—discursive will formation; rhetoric of the Sophists, like Phaedrus; the structure of reason

Metaphysics—what reality is when madness encloses the mind

Philosophy of language—stream of consciousness, an interior dialogue with others throughout life.

Aesthetics—entails the study of beauty and the good

Philosophy of science—conscious life and evolution; a methodology of reliability and verification using the null hypothesis

Ethics—rightful and just conduct

Religion—mythologies that organize a cosmic view of the world

Political philosophy—the social contract from laissez-faire capitalism to the welfare state. The prisoner’s dilemma is an example.

Truth and good (Quality) versus the Dialectic

Pirsig said that Sophists were right in the end. Plato misrepresented them, so the task is to recover their suppressed memories.

There is the Good of the Idea versus the True of empiricism: Plato and Aristotle dichotomized reason forever. Techné, areté, and praxis of the Sophists cut through these dilemmas.

The Great Books “impaired” the world because they enthroned Reason, the so-called Newtonian world, while denaturing reality. Practically, scholars analyze reality into categories and kill students’ curiosity. Everything in education that has been taught is wrong.

The motorcycle is a metaphor for excellence in which maintaining the vehicle is art, which provides a model for working on oneself to pursue the good life. The problems of technology per se are not to be faulted. Zen is having the right attitude in striving for oneness—you and the motorcycle congeal into a unity.

Labor alienates us because of the specialization in the production process. We really do hate our work because it is several forms of oppression. All is attitude in having the right mind set to being a good person, worker, and citizen.

The Chautauqua is the education of Chris, his son, by taking him to the primal experiences of nature and loving it. Pirsig is Phaedrus who is full of aggression. There is a conflict of classic and romantic reason. There is also a critique of education of our universities. It is Quality (seeing the Sun) that creates objectivity and subjectivity in unison. There is a preintellectual reality that is more real than intellectualization at universities.

Rhetoric versus the Dialectic in the narrative.

The protagonist understands, in the end, that reason is our modern mythos in scientism, which trumps quality and the good. Areté is not a concept of reason but a lived reality of experience in Pirsig. He relearns rightful conduct that others should emulate, especially his son. It is quality that discovers Reason and the myths of the classics, compassed by romanticism or the embellishment of feelings to heighten life experiences.

Rafael's School of Athens

Plato and Aristotle

There is also the dichotomy of Science versus Culture. In education, there has been a war of the Ancients versus the Moderns that has been fought in the Great Books versus the modern day isms. Myth versus

Science provides a tension in life. Plato, in his Republic, is pure mind who objectifies selfhood in which a certain narcissism unfolds. Plato believed that men can be forced through the rule of Philosopher Kings to be free because they only saw shadows in their lives. The Allegory of the Cave is the metaphor of how men live their lives in darkness; hence philosophers must force them to be free, no matter what the pain of truth entails in the rational apperception of the forms. Thus, there was to be a political class separated from the demos, who would educate the masses on good conduct through a lifetime. In the end, Plato, later in life had to settle for good laws, given that men were of such poor quality with their human nature and animal instincts. Aristotle objectified reason into facts and categories to reify reality, separated from the Soul of Plato. For Aristotle, reason was logic; not so much how to live the good life. In the end,

Phaedrus originates reality in Quality to synthesize Plato and Aristotle.

Pirsig concludes that Socrates was the greatest Sophist of them all. The Phaedrus of the book and the Phaedrus of history were Sophists, who came to see the good life by living it and educating by modeling good behavior, not talking idly about it in theories, paradoxes, and the devising of scholastic schemes to create a second order reality that only specialists in philosophy had access to.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of The Republic. (360 B.C.E.)

"...my dear Glaucon,… In the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the essential Form of Goodness. Once it is perceived, the conclusion must follow that, for all things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good; in the visible world it gives birth to light and to the lord of light, while it is itself sovereign in the intelligible world and the parent of intelligence and truth. Without having had a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of state."

In the history of philosophy, there are few writings more classic than Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Essentially, it is a paradigm of the physical world and how it interacts with the social world. It is a metaphysical construct of cosmic proportions. In brief, a prisoner escapes from the Cave, taken as a symbol of man’s subjugation to ignorance. The prisoner escapes into the light and sees the truth of reality, namely the world of objects and then ultimately the Forms (the good). The good is the highest value that Plato esteems, accessed by reason (Nous or Mind). He has set himself free by rejecting all previous opinions, founded on convention and mere opinion. The emancipated individual returns to the Cave to relate his discoveries to his fellow man. They want to kill him because the truth does not necessarily set one free but threatens the habits and mores of the mass of men who cannot rise above their habituated slave mentality (the status quo).

Plato concluded that to achieve excellence there would have to be a rule by philosopher kings who would study for most of their lives in seclusion from the rest of the populace and then exercise a benevolent dictatorship. Big lies would have to be told about the nature of the gods to maintain social stability. Women would be allowed to be educated to this eminent status. It would be open to people of achievement, although it would be eugenically engineered to breed a higher type. With the totalitarian regimes of the past century, philosophers like Karl Popper claimed that their seed had been planted in the Republic. Plato thought of his scheme of things as utopian. Eventually, he came to the conclusion of the necessity for laws and great statesmen under the rule of law. He had a practical side to his writings and exposition of Socrates’ teachings (whose written embodiment mainly evolved from Plato’s spin on his remembered encounters. He formed an Academy where students learned the dialectic, the art of conversation to find the truth of the great questions of life, such as what is justice, by a process of question and answer in which the best argument prevails, to the satisfaction of all parties to the debate in an open forum. The Sophists were the ideological enemy because of their emphasis on rhetoric, the craft by which a student learns to win an argument no matter the merits of the premises or the truth of the facts. Aristotle was Plato’s greatest student and, in the end, he turned out to be his greatest detractor. He used an empirical method of fact finding, observation, experiment, and systematizing of knowledge to have a grounded picture of reality in which the eternal Forms became a manifold of everyday forms in their particularity with law-like properties. Plato, like Aristotle, took it for granted that there would be a slave society. To think radically, the philosopher could not be encumbered by obligations to do mundane work. The Allegory of the Cave demonstrates the brutishness of the average man and the necessity for a slave society run by an enlightened and highly educated elite.

The most original and provocative doctrine of Plato pertains to his claim that the dialectic allowed man to recollect lost memories of previous lives. The history of Plato is notional and circular in nature. In fact, it is a process of eternal recurrence. Fatefully, Sigmund Freud would base the doctrine of lost or repressed memories as the fundamental precept of psychoanalysis in his treatment of neurotic patients. The premise is that by an "after education" resurrected memories would be excavated in analysis, consequently to be sublimated into a reinvigorated, asymptomatic personality, who could then function normally, as the truth would have set him free at least to make rational choices in life as to how to live it with his various complexes brought to self-enlightenment.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E)

Aristotle is the foremost pupil of Plato. His Nicomachean Ethics must be read in conjunction with his Politics. He did not believe in Plato’s Forms. Aristotle had an empirical approach to science and ethics, in which he was more concerned with verifiable particulars and justifiable ethics. He propagated a theory of happiness (eudaimonia), in which by living according to the practice of the mean the person could flower into making potentiality actuality. For instance, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. That is then a virtue of a person’s character to be emulated. With his concept of friendship, he formed the basis of the political society, modeled after the family. Friendship assumed justice, temperance, courage, and intellectual integrity or practical wisdom. The best man was the philosopher, who only contemplated the nature of the good in a concrete sense. He was the contemplative man, free of any earthly entanglements. Eventually, he realized that since man is a social and political animal in his nature, he must partake of politics. Otherwise, if the citizen abstained, he would not be living according to his nature. He would then be a just man; so justice and the intellectual life have a common denominator in having attained the functional goal of happiness in life.

There are three forms of friendship, based on utility, pleasure, and common pursuit of the intellectual life for the sake of friends improving one another in the search for wisdom. Utility founders on calculation, pleasure on concupiscence; hence only the intellectual life can be denominated the highest kind of friendship because it is deliberative in nature and results in the mutual enhancement of the other’s happiness. Happiness needs no justification; it is the end state of man’s perfecting himself. To attain one’s excellence entailed a lifetime’s work; it was not just a given. Virtues could be practical or theoretical, and Aristotle devised a scheme appropriate for his times.

Aristotle thought of thinking as the highest activity known to man, in which he would craft his personality in a way to be happy. He would be the man of areté in that he would develop his excellences. In the ultimate sense, he could not avoid political praxis in that he had to be pious in serving the city-state of Athens that gave him his privileges and opportunities. There was this tension between the contemplative man and the political man throughout his life. Aristotle advocated prudence (phronesis) in order to achieve the Golden Mean. His thinking was teleological in the sense that happiness was the goal. How could that be achieved?

“For though this good is the same for the individual and the state, yet the good of the state seems a grander and more perfect thing both to attain and to secure; and glad as one would be to do this service for a single individual, to do it for a people and for a number of states is nobler and more divine.”

Aristotle’s Lyceum was a school, in which a person would be taught to develop his excellences according to a rigorous scheme of courses, culminating in the application of the dialectic. He demoted rhetoric to a lower status, as he associated that branch of study with the much maligned Sophists. Too, he used treatises rather than dialogues to expound his ideas. Aristotle greatly influenced the philosophy of science from his day to the present. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great systematizer of the Roman Catholic canon and Church writings, found his inspiration in Aristotle. Augustine established his City of God on the principles of both Plato and Aristotle. The Church to this day can be considered to have been ideologically founded on Plato’s Forms and Aristotle’s epistemology and ethics. The system has become scholastic in character and hardened into dogmas, as Church teachings have not kept up with modern times, which it really has not been able to reach an accommodation.

In summary, friendship is the basis of a just political society, and happiness the formation of good character within the polity, hence assuming that a good citizen is a just and ethical man, who has actualized his talents and excellences.