Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M Pirsig [Book Summary]

by Nick

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” using motorcycle travel as an allegory, leads us through human reflections on the philosophical and metaphysical order of our world.

Robert Pirsig is an American writer and philosopher named by the British newspaper The Guardian “perhaps the most widely read philosopher in life.” His original work, Zen and the Art of  Motorcycle Maintenance is mainly based on real-life experiences from Pirsig.

To achieve harmony in life, a balance is needed between classical and romantic thinking.

What connects Zen, global meditation and spiritual practice, and fuss with the drives and shafts of an oiled motorcycle? It turns out a lot if you are trying to live a balanced life.

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If you have “classical” thinking, you are prone to science, rationally approach problems and try to create order in a chaotic world. If you are a “romantic”, you accept chaos, understanding the world through emotions and manifestation in general, and not in detail.

Few people can ideally balance these two types of thinking. In fact, many problems and conflicts in our world are rooted in this gap between classical and romantic thinking.

How to bridge this gap and live a balanced and harmonious life? Of course, to go on a journey — one that can teach us how to follow a magical middle way.

From this summary you will learn:

  • how exactly philosophy is related to motorcycle maintenance;
  • why the “romantic” thinker will not himself fix the broken engine;
  • why quality is the perfect balance of the rational and the spiritual.

Western Thought is Divided Into Two Parts, and One Half Operates in a Rational, Dispassionate “Classic” Mode

The story begins with the narrator taking off on a motorcycle trip that he planned with his son Chris and a married couple, John and Sylvia Sutherland.

At the philosophical level, the narrator represents the classical type of thinking, while Sutherlands are romantics.

Using a metaphor for motorcycle maintenance, a classic way of thinking finds expression in the rational knowledge and skill of an engineer or mechanic.

The classical thinker, as a mechanic, understands all the technical details of the functioning of the machine, how they are all interconnected, and, what is important, how to detect and fix a malfunction.

For example, the classical mind is fascinated by the richness of basic symbols and form functions that make the engine work – gears, belts, pistons and all the complex relationships that make a car a machine.

Beyond the scope of motorcycle maintenance, examples of classical thinking include such things as the scientific method, logic, and math.

These areas are backed up by methodological, reliable and rational systems. They comply with the established set of rules that have been tested and verified. Each innovation in the system is built on existing norms, which in themselves are built on the same norms and rules – which makes the classical type of thinking predictable, straightforward and unemotional.

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By and Large, Classical Thinking is Aimed at Establishing Control and Order in the Chaos of Our World.

Romance is the opposite of the classic mindset: thinking is influenced by emotional and creative aspirations.

Unlike the narrator’s “classical” thinking, his travel partners, John and Sylvia Sutherland, represent the “romantic” type of thinking.

Sutherlands do not want to learn how to repair a motorcycle on their own, although it would be much cheaper – and knowing the basics of its operation would make them more confident travelers.

When the spouses’ motorcycle breaks down, the narrator offers a rude, one-handed solution – use a soda can to replace the defective part. This idea terrifies John, as it jeopardizes the sleek, romantic aesthetics of his expensive BMW. He refuses the advice of a friend and insists on taking the motorcycle for repair.

Possessing a classical type of thinking, the narrator does not understand why John prefers to spend money and time on something that can be easily fixed.

However, the narrator soon realizes that the reason Sutherlands refuse to understand how a motorcycle works is that they are outraged by the steady invasion of technology in their lives. Their refusal to deal with technology is simply a way of dealing with it.

In general, romantics are driven by the emotional, inspirational, creative, creative and intuitive side of life. The strengths of classical thinking for romantic-minded people are seen as weaknesses. They see human experience, not as something predictable and controlled; on the contrary, life is full of chaos and emotions, all that classical thinkers ignore or try to control.

The narrator is perplexed by the fact that his friends admire the motorcycle as a beautiful object, rejecting its effectiveness as a powerful machine. Romantics often value aesthetics more than practical applications. To understand a Sutherland car is simply to destroy its beauty!

The Dual Nature of Fedra, a Cured”Madman,” Haunts the Narrator’s Classic Mind

During the journey, the narrator begins to recall and discover parts of his past personality, which he calls Fedr – “crazy,” cured of electroshock therapy.

Fedr was a professor of English and studied philosophy. He struggled with the contradiction of classical and romantic thinking.

He began by studying science but quickly became disillusioned with his emphasis on rationality and ostentatious self-confidence.

Fedr realized that behind each explanation there is always an infinite number of other possible explanations. And he began to look for other ways of understanding the world.

However, when he began to test and question the existing system of thinking, he also began to demonstrate increasingly antisocial behavior and even signs of mental illness.

Fedra was placed in a psychiatric institution and prescribed to undergo electroshock therapy to “cure” him.

Waking up many months later, the narrator remembered little about Fedra and his thoughts. He left his teaching position at the university and moved with his wife and son.

According to the narrator, the mental “breakdown” of Fedra, which some people considered a disease requiring treatment, could be seen in other cultures as a deep moment or period of enlightenment.

The narrator is torn between the struggle with the recurring memories of Fedor and their acceptance. The contrast between his views on life and the prospects of Fedra creates a tension that does not subside until the end of the story.

While the narrator seems to be limited by his classic mind, it soon becomes clear that Fedr could combine classical and romantic ways of thinking.

“Quality” is a Theoretical Solution to Reconcile the Gap Between Classic Mode and Romanticism

Studying philosophy, Fedr began to develop his own doctrine, which served as the reason and ultimately cured his “madness.”

Fedr believed that the contrast between classical and romantic, which occupies a central place in Western thought, is responsible for the dissatisfaction, confusion and lack of wisdom in modern society.

When John Sutherland was unable to start the engine of his motorcycle, he was deeply upset, as this meant an invasion of his reality. This reminded him of the ubiquitous presence of technology, the power from which his romantic mind was so trying to escape.

Fedr believed that if we want to find a way to live that promotes well-being and wisdom, we must mitigate the antagonism between the classical and the romantic with the concept of quality.

Quality is a philosophical approach that includes both classical and romantic thinking, making the romantic side the principles of rationalism.

In his thoughts, Fedr describes the ways in which people consciously and unconsciously choose specific points of concentration from millions of possible stimuli.

Those who are classically inclined tend to know the world and then classify and share it based on individual characteristics – thus creating order out of chaos.

Romantics, by Contrast, Tend to Admire and Magnify the Chaos and Richness of Life Experience.

Quality does not reject either of these approaches, but instead includes both, reflecting them in the vast expanses of the original stimulus pool, from which we collect our versions of “reality” and “truth.”

Living on the principle of quality is not an easy task; the result will be both grief and happiness

Although the philosophy of quality is intended to reconcile classical and romantic thinking, for the narrator it was certainly an exhausting struggle.

Despite his criticism of rationality, established definitions, and blind fanaticism, Fedr, nevertheless, uses all these elements in self-criticism.

For example, when the university in which he taught fell under the influence of the “right” state policy, Fedr felt that academic honesty and freedom were compromised, and in protest, he helped to cancel the university’s accreditation.

Justifying his actions, Fedr compares the university with the church. He says that people who run organizations like the church must abide by the standards that have been set in the “spirit” of that organization.

In fact, the church, like the university, is not the property or the jobs it provides, but instead the spirit and energy of the ideas behind it.

Upon reaching this insight, Fedr scolds himself for so long pursuing only the rational, despite the knowledge that rational explanations cannot provide the only way to understanding. He realized that he was blind to the “romantic” or spiritual side of life.

An attempt to reconcile classical and romantic thought – or the desire for “quality” and balance in one’s life – led to internal conflict and, ultimately, to “madness” for Fedr.

This collapse also hurt his family. Throughout the road trip, the narrator worries that Chris is also showing signs of a threat to mental health – he complains of psychosomatic abdominal pain and shows dramatic mood swings – and the narrator blames himself.

Although Fedra’s crisis forced the storyteller to abandon teaching and move his family to another city, he explains that his son still misses Fedra and everything he imagined. Even if Fedr was the cause of both grief and happiness, at the end of the story the narrator is able to accept his former identity, and father and son, happy, leave on a motorcycle.

The Final Words

Despite the fact that the gap between the natural sciences and the humanities may seem enormous, this does not mean that these two areas are incompatible.

In fact, bridging this gap is absolutely necessary if we want to better understand the complexity of the human condition.

Broaden your horizons. If you are a humanist and don’t know the basics of how things around you — plumbing or a car’s engine — work, make yourself study the mechanics behind everyday technology. If you’re more into the exact sciences, consider reading poetry, or start a self-knowledge diary.

Why You Should Read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”?

  • To find the vital element of a good life;
  • To become artists or another creative individual
  • To open the entire world of possibilities by changing your mindset

This book is available as:

Audiobook | eBook | Print