TWO WHEELS

In the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Narrator describes the “Romantic” approach to life of his friend John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated, and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the “classical” Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.

In an example of the classical approach, Pirsig explains to the reader that one must pay continual attention: when the Narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana [3] he notices that the “engine idle is loping a little,” a possible indication that the fuel/air mixture is too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on his cycle’s engine. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the feel-good-higher-altitude-mountain-air is causing the engine to run rich. New jets are purchased, and installed, and with the valves adjusted, the engine runs well again.

With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being “In the moment”, and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance) and so on.

The Sutherlands represent an exclusively romantic attitude toward the world. The Narrator initially appears to prefer the classic approach. It later becomes apparent that he understands both viewpoints and is aiming for the middle ground. He understands that technology, and the “dehumanized world” it carries with it, appears ugly and repulsive to a romantic person. He knows that such persons are determined to shoehorn all of life’s experience into the romantic view. Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is “to achieve an inner peace of mind”. The book demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude.

Ancient Greek philosophy in Athens, romantically depicted by Raphael

Pirsig shows that rationality’s pursuit of “Pure Truths” derives from the first Greek philosophers who were establishing the concept of truth, against the opposing force of “The Good“. He argues that although rational thought may find truth (or The Truth) it may not be valid for all experiences. Therefore, what is needed is an approach to viewing life that is more varied and inclusive and has a wider range of application. He makes a thorough case that originally the Greeks did not distinguish between “Quality” and “Truth” – they were one and the same – and that the divorce was, in fact, artificial (though needed at the time) and is now a source of much frustration and unhappiness in the world, particularly overall dissatisfaction with modern life.

Pirsig aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing “irrational” sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not (in his view) rationally explicable. Pirsig seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life.

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