Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 4, Chapter 29 | Summary



The travelers stop for a few housekeeping chores; Chris does the laundry while the narrator runs errands. Then they head for a welder's shop. The welder seems rude and uncooperative, but he brightens when the narrator compliments him on his work.

They ride into California, where the narrator immediately notices a difference in the people they see—here people are lonelier. What he calls the primary America—"freeways and jet flights and TV"—has destroyed people's ability to pay attention to their surroundings or notice one another. In secondary America—back roads, farms, and horses—"what was real, what was around us dominated."

The narrator does not think technology should receive all the blame, but he does think technology has a tendency to isolate people. Nevertheless, a person who consistently seeks Quality will become interesting to the people around him, and Quality will spread.

He recalls Phaedrus's reading of the philosophers Aristotle and Plato. Phaedrus finds faults with both men's reasoning and becomes obsessed with besting his philosophy professor in conversation. The narrator explains that Phaedrus went wrong because he wanted to find an overarching spiritual rationality rather than pursuing "individual, personal Quality decisions."


Throughout the book the narrator has been thinking about divisions and ways to unify them, especially the split between the romantic/emotional versus the rational/scientific. Another division arises in this chapter between the ideas of Aristotle and those of Plato. They differed in the way they valued the dialectic. This was a form of thinking about a topic by starting with a philosophical argument and discussing it until truths emerge. Aristotle thought the dialectic was only suitable in some cases; Plato thought it was "the one sole method by which the truth was arrived at."

The narrator notes that Coleridge (a British Romantic poet) said that everyone was "either a Platonist or an Aristotelian." The narrator notes he is the latter but Phaedrus was the former. The reader will note this clean split seems incongruous when the narrator has spent the bulk of his discussions arguing for unifications of seeming opposites.

Phaedrus, however, understands from his own positions that his notion of Quality more closely reflects the ideas of a group of philosophers whom Plato disparaged, the Sophists, than those of Plato. To Phaedrus, there are no absolute truths. Truth is relative and changeable. The Sophists applied this approach to their teachings on virtue. But Phaedrus becomes confused. To have meaning, he wonders, shouldn't standards of virtue be generalized for all people and societies? After more digging, Phaedrus discovers the word virtue translates to the Greek word for "excellence." He realizes the Sophists were teaching about Quality all along. With this epiphany, he becomes disenchanted with Plato and Socrates and concludes that "he has been doing it right all along."

Phaedrus has come to the same conclusion he did with his earlier example of the two horns of the bull and a third possible choice. He selects neither horn, neither Aristotle nor Plato, but a third philosophical point of view. He also realizes the magnitude of his revelation and what it means for his view of humanity and human history. Humanity needs to understand Quality. If people hold blindly to notions that reason, science, and technology can solve all problems, they lose an "understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it."

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