Robert Pirsig & Son, On the Road
Radical Politics &
Pirsig's Zen Pragmatism
By Carl Davidson
Robert Pirsig has probably had more impact on this country's recent
intellectual life than any other living American philosopher. This is not
mainly because of the originality or power of his ideas, although he is both
an original and powerful thinker. Rather, his influence is due to the
exceptional clarity of his writing, which in turn has enabled his two books
to reach a truly mass market. Where the works of other American
philosophers are limited mainly to academic circles, Pirsig's first work, Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold in the millions of copies
and is still going strong after 17 years.
Pirsig's second and latest work, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, promises to
do likewise. "If people are still reading these two books a hundred years
from now," says Pirsig, "I predict Lila will be the one they consider more
Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the story line of Lila
serves as as a setting for a series of Pirsig's "thinking-out-loud" monologues
on a variety of philosophical themes concerning anthropology, American
history, science, technology, psychology and morality. Also like ZMM, the
book's subthemes are connected through the metaphor of the journey. This
time, instead of a man and his son riding a motorcycle through the West, we
have a man and a woman on a boat sailing down the
In Lila, Pirsig creates an opening situation where his narrator and alter
ego, Phaedrus, a writer, meets up with a hitchhiking woman, Lila Blewitt, in
a riverfront bar. He gets drunk and spends the night with her in his boat's
cabin. The following morning the writer is challenged by an acquaintance
of the woman, Richard Rigel. In a tense confrontation, Rigel, who has read
Pirsig's earlier work, blames Phaedrus for the moral decay of our times, in
which he includes the 1960s youth revolt:
"One of the things that angered me most about your book," says Rigel,
"was its appearance at a time when so many young people all over the
country put themselves above the law with criminal acts-- draft dodgers,
arsonists, political traitors, revolutionists, even assassins, all of them
justifying themselves with the belief that they alone can see the God-given
truth that no one else can see."
But what sends Phaedrus into deep thought is Rigel's accusing him of
hedonistic immoral behavior with a "woman of low quality." Readers of
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will know that the concept of
quality rests at the heart of Pirsig's ongoing philosophical quest. His
accuser asks him if Lila has "quality." Our writer-philosopher answers
intuitively that she does, but is not quite sure of his answer. He takes the
rest of the book to figure it out.
While Pirsig's writing is clear, it is neither simple nor unambitious. Lila,
for instance, has two main goals: one is to construct a new "metaphysics of
morals"; the other is to show that Pirsig's ideas are not an off-beat
intellectual side show, but are deeply rooted in the American philosophical
Pirsig starts his philosophical quest in Lila with a fascinating exploration
of the impact of Native Americans in the remolding of the European
cultures brought to the frontier by the first white settlers. While taking part
in a peyote ceremony on a reservation in
the speech patterns of the Indians in the sweat lodge with him:
"Plains spoken. They were speaking the language of the Plains...It was the
kind of Midwestern and Western accent you hear in Woody Guthrie songs."
The plain-spoken and lean language reminds him of cowboy speech,
whether from real life or as portrayed in movies about the West. Then the
peyote inspires a revelation: the Indians speak the dialect better than the
cowboys because they are the source; the cowboys have assimilated the
speech patterns of the Indians, not the other way around. In fact, the entire
culture of the Western frontier is permeated with Native American values,
where they coexist in an uneasy tension with the Victorian, quasi-European
culture of the urban East.
Victorians in America, Pirsig's label for the post-Civil War nouveau riche,
"Always took themselves seriously, and the thing they took most seriously
of all was their code of morality...Smug posing was the essence of their
style...For them the pose was quality. Quality was the social corset, the
ornamental cast iron. It was a quality of manners and egoism and
suppression of human decency. When Victorians were being moral,
kindness wasn't anywhere in sight."
American culture, Pirsig concludes, is essentially a schizoid hybrid of
Native American and European cultures. He uses Mark Twain's heros, Tom
Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to reveal the inner tension:
"Tom was an Eastern person with the manners of a New Englander, much
person, closer to the Indians, forever restless, unattached, unbelieving in the
pompousness of society, wanting more than anything else just to be
free...Of all the contributions
the idea of freedom from a social hierarchy has been the greatest...The idea
that "all men are created equal" is a gift to the world from the American
Indian. Europeans who settled here only transmitted it as a doctrine that
they sometimes followed and sometimes did not."
Pirsig brings this conflict between Native American and Victorian values
to the surface as a way of highlighting his philosophical starting point:
reality basically consists of patterns of value. Here he is attempting nothing
less than elaborating a new metaphysical paradigm for understanding the
"The world is primarily a moral order," asserts Pirsig, and Quality (or
Value, or The Good, or The Tao) is the source of both subjects and objects.
"Value is the front edge of experience" and "experience is the starting point
of all reality," he adds, explaining that "Value is not a subspecies of
substance. Substance is a subspecies of value...substance is a `stable pattern
of inorganic values.'"
This is a hard path for those of us schooled in materialism; we like to
think of the universe, quite naively, as swirling chunks of matter, where
adding anything else only amounts to sneaking religion in the back door.
But Pirsig is familiar enough with current science to expose the limitations
of these metaphors and to challenge us to get beyond the prejudices of
common sense. In both Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, he calls metaphysics "the high country of the mind." It's a
difficult climb, but if you extend the effort and keep up with him, the view
is terrific once you arrive.
Pirsig's method is dialectical. Once he posits Value as the starting point,
his first job is to slice it in two. He approaches the task like a diamond
cutter, mobilizing all his analytical skills to determine precisely where to
strike the first blow. As an aside, he makes a self-criticism about Zen and
the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that work, the basic division was
between the classic and romantic modes of thought. While that distinction is
important, Pirsig doesn't think it's the best way to start.
He finds his answer in a probing study of moral conflict. He uses an
obscure story of a Zuni shaman as a case study, but Twain's characters of
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn serve just as well. Here, both Tom and
Huck are "good" boys, but in different ways. For all his adventures, Tom
never strays too far from social custom and the law, a static approach to
morality. The more delinquent Huck, on the other hand, makes a decision
to do what he has been taught is evil, to help free a slave, out of a more
dynamic impulse of what's right and wrong. The first division, then, is
between static and dynamic quality.
"Dynamic Quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source
of all things, completely simple and always new," Pirsig explains. "Its only
perceived good is freedom and its only perceived evil is static quality itself-
-any pattern of one- sided fixed values that tries to contain and kill the
ongoing free force of life...In the past Phaedrus' own radical bias caused
him to think of Dynamic quality alone and neglect static patterns of
quality...Life can't exist on Dynamic Quality alone. It has no staying power.
The further implication of this choice is its location of the source of
change. In Pirsig's thought, the contradiction between static and dynamic
patterns serves as the engine for evolutionary development, which he sees
as unfolding progressively though history. Pirsig thus sees his theory as
being in tune with both Darwin and the Second Law of Thermodynamics:
"Natural selection is dynamic quality at work," he explains. "There is no
quarrel whatever between the Metaphysics of Quality and the Darwinian
Theory of Evolution. Neither is there a quarrel between the Metaphysics of
Quality and the `teleological' theories which insist that life has some
Here's how it all unfolds. In its evolutionary development, the universe
has generated a hierarchy of progressive and successive sets of dynamic and
static patterns of value. The first level is the molecular or inorganic, out of
which arises the biological or organic as the second level. Out of the
biological arises the third level, the social, which in turn produces the fourth
and final level, the intellectual.
So far there is not much that new here. Others have posited similar
hierarchical dynamic models, most recently those of chaos theory biologist
Ilya Prigogene and other scientists described in Evolution: The Grand
Synthesis by Ervin Laszlo. What makes Pirsig's approach special, however,
is how he describes the relationship between the four levels:
"They are discrete," he explains. "They have very little to do with one
another. "Although each higher level is built on a lower one it is not an
extension of that lower level. Quite the contrary. The higher level can often
be seen to be in opposition to the lower level, dominating it, controlling it
where possible for its own purposes....
Thus against classic materialism, Pirsig asserts:
"In a value-centered Metaphysics of Quality the four sets of static patterns
are not isolated into separate compartments of mind and matter. Matter is
just a name for certain inorganic value patterns.
Then against both classic idealism and positivism, he adds:
"Biological patterns, social patterns, intellectual patterns are supported by
this pattern of matter but are independent of it. They have rules and laws of
their own that are not derivable from the rules or laws of substance. This is
not the customary way of thinking, but, when you stop to think about it you
wonder how you ever got conned into thinking otherwise."
What Pirsig wants to do with all this is set the stage for sorting out
political and moral conflicts with the hope of resolving at least some of
them. Many of these conflicts, he believes, are rooted in confusing the
levels of the moral hierarchy. What might be true and effective rule for
biological patterns of an organism's behavior, for instance, might not make
any sense at all for social patterns.
Pirsig uses computer programming and word processing to explain his
point. A computer programmer uses machine language or code to write a
word processing program, and loads it into a computer. But the English
professor who uses the machine to write the Great American Novel doesn't
have to know anything about the patterns employed by the programmer, and
vice versa. Although the writer's work is supported by the programmer's,
the rules and patterns for writing novels are completely independent of the
programming code. The two levels are connected but independent. The
rules in one have nothing to do with the rules in the other.
The tricky part is the relationship between dynamic and static value on
any given level. Both are required; the dynamic to renew and enrich life;
the static patterns to defend life.
Robert Frost put it as well as anyone in the two poignant lines from his
poem about the stone fences in the
there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down" and "Good fences make
The Good, to the degree it can be defined in Pirsig's metaphysics of
morals, is the ongoing evolution of life and the universe in which it resides
into more diverse and complex patterns of value. Whatever impedes that
process is immoral; whatever enhances it is moral. Further, it is immoral for
the codes or patterns of a lower level to be used to suppress the dynamic
development of new patterns on a higher level; and it is moral for higher
level patterns to contain or direct the patterns of the lower levels in order to
maintain themselves and to enhance both life and freedom overall.
Pirsig offers a fascinating array of examples. Racism, for instance, is
immoral because it tries to use a lower biological pattern of values, such as
skin color, to enforce restrictions on a higher social pattern of values, such
as economic opportunity. Fascism is likewise immoral because it glorifies a
lower social pattern of authoritarianism in order to persecute a high pattern
of intellectual freedom. More controversial, however, is Pirsig's treatment
of violent crime, which is portrayed as a biological threat to social order:
"The idea that biological crimes can be ended by intellect alone, that you
can talk crime to death, doesn't work. Intellectual patterns cannot directly
control biological patterns. Only social patterns can control biological
patterns, and the instrument of conversation between society and biology is
not words. The instrument of conversation between society and biology has
always been a policeman or a soldier and his gun. All the laws of history,
all the arguments, all the Constitutions and the Bill of rights and
military and police..."
Pirsig clearly overstates his case here. If he is trying to make Lenin's
point that every state is in essence a dictatorship of one class over others,
then he is on solid ground. But to suggest that any state, whatever its form,
is "nothing more" than instructions to the military, then he obliterates
important distinctions between different forms of state, such as bourgeois
democracy and bourgeois fascism.
Lila also raises some important issues in passages concerning the current
global crisis of both socialism and capitalism. According to Pirsig, "from a
static point of view, socialism is more moral than capitalism. It's a higher
form of evolution. It is an intellectually guided society, not just a society
guided by mindless traditions. That's what gives socialism its drive. But
what the socialists left out and what has all but killed their whole
undertaking is an absence of a concept of indefinite dynamic quality."
Pirsig finds Dynamic Quality in the market. "A free market is a dynamic
institution...People, like anything else, work better in parallel than they do
in series," he explains. "When things are organized socialistically in a
bureaucratic series, any increase in complexity increases the probability of
failure. But when they're organized in a free-enterprise parallel, an increase
in complexity becomes an increase in diversity more capable of responding
to Dynamic Quality, and thus an increase in the probability of success."
Pirsig is not happy with capitalism overall, even though in Lila his
criticism is mainly cultural. He is at his best dissecting both the hypocrisy
of American Victorianism, which is precisely those "traditional values"
Vice President Dan Quayle is stressing in the election, and the bankruptcy
of "value-free, culturally relative" liberalism. In fact, Quayle could easily be
a stand-in for the character of the neo-Victorian lawyer, Richard Rigel, who
starts the argument over Lila at the book's beginning.
Despite Pirsig's unorthodox approach to the presentation of his
philosophical ideas, he is not alien to the American tradition. He reveals this
at the close of his book with a discussion of the American pragmatists--
Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, George Herbert Mead and John
Dewey. They likewise all attempted to find a "third way" around the
subject-object metaphysics of both classic materialism and idealism.
Pirsig believes his Metaphysics of Quality has made breakthroughs in
advancing this school of thought. How this popular writer is treated in
academic circles remains to be seen-- although a few philosophy
departments are already teaching courses on his work. In any case, if Lila
has anything like the impact of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
Pirsig is bound to become a powerful intellectual voice far beyond the
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