“Here, you need to read this.” Thirty-five or so years ago, an artist friend handed me a book. Jenni was right.

          This spring marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. His multi-layered memoir/road journal/philosophical exploration/lecture series remains as insightful as ever.

          He even touches on motorcycle maintenance. In fact, his speculations begin with Pirsig contrasting his constant monitoring and hands on attention to engine details with the laissez faire attitude of his friend John, who leaves his cycle’s maintenance to mechanics and basks in his indifference – until malfunctions flummox him.

          Two motorcycles, four people. Pirsig’s narrator and John drive, with Pirsig’s son Chris riding behind him and John’s wife Sylvia riding pillion on their bike. The foursome ride together from Minneapolis to Bozeman. The couple return home and the Pirsigs continue to San Francisco.

          Within that framework, Pirsig offers insights into the passing countryside, academe (as an instructor and a student), ancient philosophy, parenting and other personal interactions, a complete reworking of western philosophical norms and, oh yeah, coming to grips with the person he was before a schizophrenic break and the electro-shock treatments that left holes in his memory.

          He calls that former self Phaedrus, the title character in one of Plato’s Socratic dialogs. But, while the Platonic Phaedrus is a foil serving to prompt Socrates’ exhortations, Pirsig’s Phaedrus is the outsider – “the wolf,” as it translates from Greek – who attacked the hypocritical complacencies of society.

          The rebellious outsider holds an attraction for inquiring minds. Pirsig’s defiance always finds willing readers. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I value the excitement and inspiration that they elicit. They make me think.

          Proclaiming himself a modern sophist, Pirsig led me to reassess those thinkers that Plato so hated – though, in The Clouds, Aristophanes lumped Socrates in with them.  I saw positive interpretations in the surviving fragments their critics used against them. And, their relativism more accurately reflects the continuing process of reality than the static idealism with which Plato cursed western thought.

          It has been commonplace to deride sophists for taking money for their teachings while Socrates charged nothing. Another observer might conclude that Athenians valued the rhetoric that the sophists taught – and rewarded Socrates accordingly.

          In fact, many of the sophists were so valued by their home cities that they had been sent to Athens as ambassadors.

          Another of Pirsig’s observations, about the reduction of awareness to a limited consciousness, likely lies behind my own concern with that which gets lopped off as we try to isolate individuals from the web of life:

          “From all this awareness, we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness, because the process of selection mutates it.”

          Pirsig’s tool of selection is a knife. SFA Lumberjack that I am, I envision my double axe, which I wielded skillfully until chopping through oak branches helped to wreck my back. A personal corollary is that this deliberate disconnection creates a flaw in the wonderful worlds of mathematics that we have created. Despite producing marvels, they are based on an inherent imprecision.

          The overall goal of Pirsig’s discourse is to define Quality and affix its place in the philosophic landscape. (His conclusion is that it precedes everything.) He delivers his thoughts in asides he calls Chautauquas, in homage to the old lecture/entertainment circuit that sought to enlighten late 19th and early 20th century Americans. (Waxahachie’s Chautauqua building still stands.)

          There are insights on a myriad of topics. These are just some of those that resonated with me. I am more of a skeptical empiricist than he would endorse. But, anyone wanting to investigate the world should find much of value in ZAMM.

          An added benefit is that it serves as an intro to Pirsig’s other book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I find the insights and implications of its sociological study valuable to understanding today’s circumstances.

          I used to buy any used copies of ZAMM that I ran across and save them for those whom I thought would welcome widening their horizons. I’d use the same instructions that were given me:

          “Here, you need to read this.”

            (Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)

Pirsig’s road trip goes on forever

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