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 January 23, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 1, Chapter 7 | Summary



The relationship of the four travelers is now under a great deal of strain. The heat is unbearable. At one point, the thermometer reads 120°F. The narrator sees no point in resisting the heat. "It's important now to just live with this and not fight it mentally," he says, but the Sutherlands are at their breaking point.

As he rides the scorching roads, the narrator meditates further on "Phaedrus's knife," the system by which everyone divides the world into meaningful segments. The knife gets only a brief mention as the narrator moves on to compare the universe to a handful of sand. Each individual grain can be sorted into a category, and the potential number of categories is infinite. Color, size, shape, opacity—grains of sand can be divided and subdivided without end. Classical understanding, says the narrator, "is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them." Romantic understanding "is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins." Each method is a valid way to understand the world, but the methods can't be reconciled. The narrator explains it's important to realize the Buddha is just as present in the classic mode as he is in the romantic.

The narrator admits "all this talk so far about classic and romantic understanding" is a strange way to describe a person, but it's a necessary step in understanding the path Phaedrus chose. He goes on to say he "discovered" Phaedrus had been a part of himself only when he awoke from electroconvulsive ("shock") therapy and learned that he, the narrator, had a new personality. "Everything before my waking up was a dream," he says, and "everything afterward was reality." Phaedrus, the personification of the narrator's insanity, has died. Apparently, the narrator still sees much in the world through Phaedrus's eyes.


The narrator both fears and strongly identifies with Phaedrus. His descriptions of Phaedrus sound almost supernatural. Phaedrus is as brilliant as a laser beam: "a single pencil of light of such terrific intensity in such extreme concentration it can be shot at the moon and its reflection seen back on earth." He can go without food for long periods, he appears to commune with a wolf, and he has an "uncanny solitary intelligence." At the same time, he has no friends, he causes his family to suffer, and he doesn't care if people like him. When the narrator mentions "the fear that comes from knowing there is nowhere you can possibly run," he indicates his fear that Phaedrus—whom the narrator believes he had left behind—may return and once again take control of his thinking.

It's becoming clear that Phaedrus was seriously ill while he was wielding the philosophical "knife." (This may explain the narrator's ambivalence about his alter ego's return.) It's equally obvious the narrator believes Phaedrus was fundamentally right: seeing life through "the ghost of normal everyday assumptions" is the wrong way to see it.

Interestingly, the narrator believes "shock" therapy annihilated his personality and exiled Phaedrus permanently, but this could not have happened. ECT can cause memory loss that is permanent in some cases, but it cannot destroy a personality, though it can help eradicate the self-destructive impulses that often accompany psychosis. The "Phaedrus" part of the narrator's brain never disappeared. It's still part of him, though he's still only dimly conscious of it.

Readers now have more insight into the underlying troubles plaguing the narrator. His repression of the memories of his earlier self, a tortured soul seeking answers to enormous existential questions, cannot but lead to great internal turmoil. Now, seemingly so sure of his "classical" understanding of the world, the narrator uses Zen Buddhist philosophy to try to reconcile the "classical" and "romantic" interpretations of the world.

In essence, the goals of Phaedrus and the narrator are the same. Phaedrus sought reconciliation with the knife of rational analysis, categorization, and the search for the one underlying form that provides the basis for the existence and understanding of everything else. He took a path that led to more confusion and suffering. This search is still a central concern of the narrator as well. He uses the same tools of reasoning and logic but now adds a good dose of Eastern philosophy to the mix.

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