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“And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good. Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M. Pirsig, who I wrote about here earlier, died this week at the age of 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine after a period of failing health.
Zen is a novelistic autobiography that inspired readers in many ways, including those who did their own road trip across America with or without a motorcycle.
Published in 1974, I read it as I was finishing college and the mix of road story, philosophy, Zen and some actual motorcycle maintenance tips inspired me to take a small road trip after graduation of my own.
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
I would say the book is a classic, and not of the “underground” type, as it sold well then and seems to continues to find new readers.
Though published in 1974, it echoes a lot of the philosophies and issues that the earlier decade brought forward in America and also the “on the road” vibes of the 1950s. Pirsig used as inspiration a motorcycle trip across the West he took with his son Christopher in 1968.
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”
While serving as a soldier in South Korea after WWII, Pirsig encountered the Asian philosophies and he went on to study Hindu philosophy in India. He started a philosophy Ph.D. at the University of Chicago but didn’t continue with it.
He went through a period of hospitalization for mental illness, but after his release he lived in Minneapolis, worked as a technical writer and began writing Zen.
The Zen was real for him. He helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.
“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
He worked on and off on his second book for 17 years. Lila, his look at morals, came out in 1991 and tells of a journey down the Hudson River in a sailboat by his philosopher-narrator, Phaedrus. He encounters Lila, a troubled woman who is nearing a mental breakdown. This book feels like an attempt to complete the “metaphysics of Quality” system introduced in his first book.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”
All quotations here from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 or January 4, 1643. (I have found both listed online, the latter more often.). You probably learned about him in school. He was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. He is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.
But he was also an alchemist, and theologian and he wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies. He explored with great seriousness chronology, alchemy, and Biblical interpretation.
Many authors who have written about him believe that his scientific work may have actually been of lesser personal importance to him than his “fringe science” studies because for a good part of his life, Newton was focused on re-discovering the occult wisdom of the ancients.
On his scientific side, there is the “Newtonian Worldview.” Until the early 20th century, the classical mechanics of Newton and his followers was seen as the foundation for science as a whole. In fact, most people thought that the other sciences would follow suit. But biology, psychology and other sciences didn’t really move in that direction. They did adopt a general mechanistic or Newtonian world view. And many people equate “scientific thinking” with “Newtonian thinking”.
So, did Newton have a purely mechanistic world view? If so, why did he search for the Philosopher’s Stone? Yes, that same stone that was the basis for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – which was originally titled in the U.K. editions Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. Newton’s writings suggest that the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold) was definitely a goal of his research. He also appears to have had an interest in finding the Elixir of Life.
Newton reportedly believed that a Diana’s Tree (an alchemical demonstration producing a “growth” of silver from solution and also known as the “Philosopher’s Tree”) was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.”
In the 1940s, economist John Maynard Keynes studied Newton’s alchemical works and concluded that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason; he was the last of the magicians.”
We should remember that Newton lived in a time when the distinctions between science, superstition, and pseudoscience were still being formulated.
Much of what we know about Newton’s studies in the occult is from his study of alchemy. Newton was deeply interested in all forms of natural sciences and materials science, an interest which would ultimately lead to some of his better-known contributions to science. During Newton’s lifetime the study of chemistry was still in its infancy, so many of his experimental studies used esoteric language and vague terminology more typically associated with alchemy and occultism.
It was not until several decades after Newton’s death that experiments by Antoine Lavoisier and others brought on analytical chemistry and the nomenclature that we are familiar with today.
There was probably more of Newton’s writing on alchemy that was lost in a fire in his laboratory. Newton also suffered a nervous breakdown during the period of his alchemical work. Some historians think the breakdown resulted from the psychological transformation alchemy was originally designed to induce. Others think that it may have been some form of chemical poisoning (possibly from mercury, lead, or some other substance.
Newton wrote in 1704 about his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible. He spent much of his life seeking what could be considered a Bible Code and placed a great deal of emphasis upon the interpretation of the Book of Revelation and studying the Apocalypse. He estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060.
In Newton’s “The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms” there are several passages that directly mention the mythical land of Atlantis. He seems to have believed that Homer’s Ulysses left the island of Ogygia which was home to Calypso, the daughter of Atlas (after whom Atlantis was named). It appears Newton may have also believed that Ogygia or Cadis or Cales was Atlantis, a land as big as all Europe, Africa and Asia, but that it was sunk into the sea.
Isaac Newton has also been connected to various secret societies and fraternal orders throughout history. The evidence is sketchy because of the secretive nature of such organizations, a lack of supportive publicized material, and weak motives for Newton’s participation in these groups.
One movement that seems to have influenced Isaac Newton was Rosicrucianism. The Rosicrucian movement caused a lot of interest in the European scholarly community during the early seventeenth century. When Newton encountered it, there was less sensationalism and it influenced his alchemical work and philosophical thought.
The Rosicrucian belief that some are chosen for their ability to communicate with angels or spirits fit into both Newton’s alchemy and his religious beliefs.
Rosicrucians also claimed to have the ability to live forever through the use of the elixir vitae and they claimed they could produce gold from the use of The Philosopher’s Stone, which they further claimed to have in their possession.
Like Newton, the Rosicrucians were deeply religious, avowedly Christian, anti-Catholic, and highly politicized.
At the time of his death, Isaac Newton had 169 books remaining on the topic of alchemy in his personal library which was considered one of the finest alchemical libraries in the world. He had a heavily annotated personal copies of “The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity R.C.” by Thomas Vaughan (which represents an English translation of The Rosicrucian Manifestos) and other alchemical classics.
Evidence that Newton was a Freemason is less evident, but he is often identified as being a member of several early Masonic Lodges including the Grand Lodge of England. There are few records of early Freemasonry but the modern structure of the organization was partly established during Newton’s lifetime in and around London.
Newton was a member of The Royal Society and many Royal Society members have been identified as early Freemasons. It is clear that Newton was deeply interested in architecture, sacred geometry, and the structure of the Temple of Solomon – subjects that also interested Freemasons.
It would be fun to believe that Newton actually a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. But the Priory itself seems to be mythical. This path is more like the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail of a novel like The Da Vinci Code. Isaac Newton’s membership in the Priory actually does play a role in Dan Brown‘s book as one of the plot puzzles. The “tomb of a knight a pope interred” refers not to a medieval knight, but rather to Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, because Newton was eulogized by Alexander Pope (A. Pope but not the Catholic Pope).
Actually, Newton may have liked curling up in a chair to read our modern day Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail, and even Dan Brown‘s take on him in The Da Vinci Code. The occult side of Newton is as appealing to me as the scientific long shadow he casts.
“Do. Or not do. There is no try.” This little koan from The Empire Strikes Back (the second of the Star Wars movies, or Episode V, depending on your age) has been bouncing around as a meme since 1980 on t-shirts, buttons and then online.
The scene was set in the swamps of Dagobah where a rather whiny Luke Skywalker was being schooled by his mentor, Master Yoda.
I like Yoda. I have read in multiple places that the special effects folks modeled Yoda’s old, wise face (especially the eyes) on photos of Albert Einstein. His voice always sounds like a bit of Kermit the Frog is mixed into it. (Although the puppet was voiced by the wonderful Frank Oz who was not Kermit but was Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, so perhaps I am hearing all of them.)
Yoda, at about age 900, is wise, but only as wise as his writers.
What did he actually mean to teach Luke with those words?
Some people interpret it to mean that since ultimately you will either accomplish a task or not, if you aren’t going to accomplish something, then there is no point in trying. That is quite unsatisfying as a philosophy. Since none of us can know if we will accomplish a task, how can we decide beforehand whether to try?
Since much of what we learn requires failing before we succeed, I don’t think he means don’t try unless you are going to succeed. That approach would leave many things left undone and many things never experienced.
I’ll give Yoda credit for not being that simplistic.
Let us give the quote a bit more context. Earlier in that movie scene, Luke tries to extract his X-wing ship from the swamp and fails. It actually sinks deeper into the water. Luke had been successful earlier with smaller objects, but this one was overwhelming because of its size.
LUKE: We’ll never get it out now.
YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Master Yoda is able to use his mind and The Force to lift the ship from the swamp.
Amazed, Luke says “I don’t believe it!”and Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”
The key then must be in the believing that you can succeed.
It is not that we should not try, but you need to redefine “trying” to be something more than just any attempt. I don’t think Yoda believes that not doing something is an option.
The attempt is not an objective, and unlearning is a large part of learning.
Is it sad that some people have taken cultural references like those in Star Wars films as a kind of philosophy or even a substitute for religion? It is sad to those who have a religion or philosophy. I don’t think it is sad or bad for someone who has neither of those things and is starting on a path.
Can you believe in The Force without equating it to a God that connects and holds everything together? Yes, you can. You can also see it as a cultural reference to that God. I think it works both ways.
Films are like books in holding bits of wisdom. I’m sure that some readers or viewers of the Lord of the Rings, are attached to the line that Gandalf says to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Good advice, and like almost all good advice, difficult to follow. Difficult to do. Unlikely to succeed; therefore, not to try?
I think not.
Yoda is a backwards-grammar speaking little philosopher who has 800 years worth of teaching experience and quotes in him that were gathered (by writers) from religion, philosophy and literature. When he says,”Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” you hear the Buddha. Or maybe Jesus Christ, or the Tao.
But the Buddha he is not.
I don’t think Yoda was exposed to any of Earth’s culture in his far away galaxy. It reminds me of when I first took religion courses in college. As I studied one religion after another that I had known little or nothing about before that time, the major realization was that more often than not we have arrived at the same places by different paths. I believe beings in another galaxy would do the same.
Yoda’s little koans are useful in the same way that the koans are useful.
If you read these quotes:
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
and they resonate for you, how much does it matter who the speaker turns out to be?
Was it Yoda or a philosopher? Are they from scriptures or the dogma? If I reveal to you that it was Einstein, do you need to know that he was spiritual but not religious, a scientist and a believer, someone who sought a theory to explain it all even though he probably knew he would never find it, in order to appreciate his words?
I saw that today is the birthday of Robert Pirsig (born in Minneapolis in 1928) who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values in 1974. That book has sold more than 5 million copies, which is a good number of books but a huge number for a book that is heavy on philosophy.
There is a meme the past few weeks that has re-emerged on Facebook to list ten books that have stayed with you over the years. It is difficult for me to pick only ten, but in my list of books that have staying power and that I will reread or dip back into again and again, Pirsig’s has a solid place.
His tale of a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California is full of his thoughts on Eastern and Western philosophy and a desire to make them work together.
The book opens this way:
“I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon. […] In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. […] I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this.”
Pirsig was a precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9. He skipped several grades, got his high school diploma at 15 and entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry that fall.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes the central character (who we take to be Pirsig, though the book reads like a novel) as someone interested in science but not as a career.
Pirsig was expelled from the university for poor grades and one reason given is that he lost interest in the science when he came to understand that there was always more than one workable hypothesis to explain any given phenomenon. The idea that science had limitations was something of a revelation to him.
He did a stint in the Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge, he settled in Seattle, completed BA in Eastern Philosophy and attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. He also did some graduate work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago.
He married Nancy Ann James in 1954 and they had two sons: Chris (1956) and Theodore (1958). He taught creative writing at Montana State University-Bozeman for several years.
But Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) several times.
Most of his life story appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which was finally published in 1974 after being rejected 121 times.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (subtitle “An Inquiry into Values”) is a first person description of a 17-day motorcycle journey by the unnamed narrator accompanied by his son Chris. (For the first half of the trip, his friends John and Sylvia are also with them.)
Along the way are philosophical discussions (referred to as Chautauquas). The discussions are commentaries on both the present-day journey and the narrator’s past. His past self is a character, Phaedrus (from Plato’s dialogue). Phaedrus was a professor of creative and technical writing at a small college. He became so obsessed with trying to define what it meant to be good or quality noy only as a writer but in life. The pursuit drives him insane. writing, and what in general defines good, or “quality”. His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive ECT therapy which permanently changed his personality.
Through the book’s dialogs with Phaedrus and the people that accompany him or he meets along the way, the narrator is able to reconcile himself with his past. The book also serves as a short course in the history of philosophy of Western and Eastern philosophy.
In 1974, Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow him to write a second book.
Unfortunately, in 1979, Pirsig’s son Chris was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center. Pirsig has written about this in the afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Although he and his second wife, Kimball, considered aborting the child she conceived in 1980, he ultimately decided that this unborn child was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied. This child’s name is Nell.
In 1991, he published Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals which is as close to a sequel to ZAMM but is really a continuation to further develop his “Metaphysics of Quality.” Phaedrus is still searching and is now bouncing ideas off of Lila, an aging, desperate “wharf-bar pickup.”
In the years following the publication of his two books and the death of his son, Pirsig became reclusive. He subsequently traveled around the Atlantic Ocean by boat, has lived in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, England and in various places around the United States. As far as I can find, he currently lives in New Hampshire and does not publish or give interviews.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an important book to me in college. Years later, I picked up a book that is a Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thinking that there must be more to the novel than I had understood in my younger years. Though there probably is more in the book – like philosophical concepts that I floated over – I think what I was looking for was in the first book. I know that what bring me back to the book (and I’m confident that this is true for many other readers) is the searching in my life.