Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Course Hero. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide." September 20, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.


Course Hero, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide," September 20, 2017, accessed December 12, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 1, Chapter 6 | Summary



"Now I want to begin to fulfill a certain obligation," says the narrator, "by stating that there was one person, no longer here, who had something to say." This person is the absent Phaedrus. The narrator says he would rather forget Phaedrus, but "there's no choice other than to reopen his case." The narrator thinks it's time to stop fleeing the mysterious character who's been shadowing him in his thoughts and dreams.

The narrator explains the world Phaedrus lived in—a world where human understanding is divided into "classical understanding" and "romantic understanding." The classic mode is stereotypically masculine, guided by reason and laws. The romantic mode is stereotypically feminine, guided by imagination and creativity: "Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic." The classical world seems bare, rigid, and uninspiring to romanticists; the romantic world seems frivolous, shallow, and hedonistic to classicists. In the narrator's view, one of the world's main problems is that people generally view themselves as being primarily classical or romantic and tend to discount the opposing view.

This dichotomy was what Phaedrus explored, but no one listened. His hearers just thought he was insane. According to the narrator, they were right. He was going insane, but the main cause of his illness, again according to the narrator, was the hostile opinion of others. Estrangement from colleagues and community leads to further estrangement and increasingly weird behaviors. Phaedrus thought and acted in unusual ways, which caused people to draw away from him, further isolating and alienating him. And the situation continued until Phaedrus was arrested and "permanent removal from society."


Whatever the narrator means by "permanent removal," the news of Phaedrus's arrest and disappearance hits the reader with a thump. The reader is left to wonder if Phaedrus is dead or in jail. The reason for Phaedrus's absence is not clear yet, but the narrator leaves no doubt that in some way, Phaedrus was suppressed or martyred because of his ideas. This is surprising news because the chapter's explication of the growing divide between "a classic culture and a romantic counterculture" seems entirely benign and inoffensive.

The explication also seems a bit simplistic. Human nature is too complicated for people to be divided into classics and romantics, but the narrator is not heavy-handedly saying everyone falls into one category or the other. Rather, he's setting up this dichotomy as a way of explaining his view of classical understanding, which he believes is misunderstood by most people.

The narrator devotes only a tiny space to what he calls romanticism. This hints that he favors classical understanding as he defines it. He attempts to convince romantics of the appeal of the classical mode; he doesn't explain why romanticism should be attractive to classical types. But he doesn't really need to. For most readers, the appeal of pleasure, creativity, and beauty is obvious. The narrator's challenge is to make people such as John Sutherland—and by extension the reader—understand the beauty of a motorcycle engine as a metaphor for the appeal of scientific thinking and technology. The engine's beauty lies in the logical way it works, and this is a hard lesson for romantics to learn.

The chapter closes by comparing Phaedrus's analytical abilities to "a very deadly one; an intellectual scalpel." The narrator believes Phaedrus might have been able to solve the classic/romantic divide if he hadn't hurt himself in the process.

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