Friday, December 17, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Part 2

The central theme of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) is debatable, but Pirsig talks a great deal about the concept of "quality".  I do not like using this term since it can be confused with our traditional sense of quality, but we'll use his definition here.

In Pirsig's words, what separates a good motorcycle mechanic from a bad one is quality - are they fixing a machine like an automaton or consciously thinking about how all these parts work together?  Quality defines the latter.  The "romantic" mind thinks about the whole motorcycle - the big picture, is aesthetic and subjective.  The "classic" mind focuses on the parts and how they function, and is objective.  The concept of quality seeks to bring these two together.  It provides direction.  Where are you going?  Why are you doing this? 

Reading ZMM did make me think about "quality" in my work and life.  Do I think about how all the parts fit and work together?  Am I looking at the part and the problem?  Pirisig continues listing other examples of quality and also talks about different concepts, such as gumption traps. 

The Great Books of the Western World

A young Pirsig  (i.e. Phadrus) enrolled at the University of Chicago to study philosophy and rhetoric. One of the big men on campus was President Robert Maynard Hutchins who collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop the GBWW, the series of books that makes up the heart of my current reading program.  As part of his highly controversial reforms, Hutchins had the GBWW taught at  UC, while simultaneously having UC pull out of the Big Ten Conference, dropping its football program and trying to end its fraternities. Into this environment, Pirsig was thrust.  This was a strict "Aristotelian" program where rhetoric was reduced to a methodical art - a science.  Pirsig found this suffocating, since he believed Aristotle had moved away from Plato's dialectic, the true "art" of rhetoric.  Since his professors supported the Aristotelian view, sparks were going to fly. 

I imagine this is a common problem that all college students face.  In the end, Pirsig left UC after showing off to his professor how little the man knew. 

Not everyone had such unfavorable opinions of Hutchins. Carl Sagan said that he was "lucky enough" to have studied under him, "where science was presented as an integral part of the gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge."

In conclusion, I thought ZMM was a complex novel that was rewarding, but it demanded an investment of time and energy.  I am glad to have read it but I would not recommend it for most people.

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