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 Hudson river to 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 Montana, Pirsig is captivated by

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

closer to Europe than to the American West, but Huck was a Western

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 America has made to the history of the world,

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 New England countryside: "Something

there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down" and "Good fences make

good neighbors."


   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

Declarations of Independence are nothing more than instructions to the

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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