Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
Zen motorcycle.jpg
First edition
AuthorRobert M. Pirsig
CountryUnited States
GenrePhilosophical fiction, Autobiographical novel[1]
Published1974 (William Morrow and Company)
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)
Pages418 pp
917.3/04/920924 B
LC ClassCT275.P648 A3 1974
Followed byLila: An Inquiry into Morals 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM) is a book by Robert M. Pirsig first published in 1974. It is a work of fictionalized autobiography, and is the first of Pirsig's texts in which he explores his "Metaphysics of Quality".

Pirsig received 126 rejections before an editor finally accepted the book for publication—and he did so thinking it would never generate a profit. It was subsequently featured on best-seller lists for decades, with initial sales of at least 5 million copies worldwide.[2] The title is an apparent play on the title of the 1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In its introduction, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, "it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."


According to Edward Abbey, the book is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey that Pirsig made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son Chris.[1] The story of this journey is recounted in a first-person narrative, although the author is not identified. Father and son are also accompanied, for the first nine days of the trip, by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland, with whom they part ways in Montana. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of science.

Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator's own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus (after Plato's dialogue). Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a small college, became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or "Quality", which he understands similar to Tao. His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which permanently changed his personality.

Towards the end of the book, Phaedrus's strong and unorthodox personality, presented as dangerous to the narrator, begins to re-emerge and the narrator is reconciled with his past.


In a 1974 interview with National Public Radio, Pirsig stated that the book took him four years to write. During two of these years, Pirsig continued working at his job of writing computer manuals. This caused him to fall into an unorthodox schedule, waking up very early and writing Zen from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., then eating and going to his day job. He would sleep during his lunch break and then go to bed around 6 in the evening. Pirsig joked that his co-workers noticed that he was "a lot less perky" than everyone else.[3]


Philosophical content[edit]

In the book, the narrator describes the "romantic" approach to life of his friend, John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the "classical" narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem-solving skills.

In an example of the classical approach, the narrator explains that one must pay continual attention: when the narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana[4] he notices that the "engine idle is loping a little", a possible indication that the fuel/air mixture is too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on his cycle's engine. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the higher elevation is causing the engine to run rich. The narrator rectifies this by installing new jets with the valves adjusted, and the engine runs well again.

With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints focused on being "in the moment", and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know details, understand inner workings, and master mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance).

The Sutherlands represent an exclusively romantic attitude toward the world. The narrator initially appears to prefer the classic approach. It later becomes apparent that he understands both viewpoints and is aiming for the middle ground. He understands that technology, and the "dehumanized world" it carries with it, appears ugly and repulsive to a romantic person. He knows that such persons are determined to shoehorn all of life's experience into the romantic view. Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is "to achieve an inner peace of mind". The book demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude.

The narrator examines the modern pursuit of "Pure Truths", claiming it derives from the work of early Greek philosophers who were establishing the concept of truth in opposition to the force of "The Good". He argues that although rational thought may find a truth (or The Truth) it may never be fully and universally applicable to every individual's experience. Therefore, what is needed is an approach to life that is more inclusive and has a wider range of application. He makes a case that originally the Greeks did not distinguish between "Quality" and "Truth"—they were one and the same, arete—and that the divorce was, in fact, artificial (though needed at the time) and is now a source of much frustration and unhappiness in the world, particularly overall dissatisfaction with modern life.

The narrator aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing "irrational" sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not (in his view) rationally explicable. He seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like "being in the moment" can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life.

It has been noted that Pirsig's romantic/classical dichotomy resembles Nietzsche's Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy as described in The Birth of Tragedy. For example, in his book The Person of the Therapist, Edward Smith writes, "In his popular novel ... Pirsig also addressed the Apollonian and Dionysian worldviews, naming them respectively classical understanding and romantic understanding."[5]

The self and relationships[edit]

Beverly Gross (1984) writes that Pirsig is seeking a synthesis of "the normal, everyday, functioning self with the person given to extremes, excesses, dizzying heights, obsessions—our crazy self with our sane self, the greatness in us with our ordinariness". The exceptional in the narrator is represented by Phaedrus, who, despite the narrator's attempt to keep him in the past, pushes to the foreground of his mind toward the book's end, threatening the narrator's stability and relationship with his son. However, the narrator's difficulties with his son during the journey also question whether giving up parts of himself in exchange for "sanity" has even helped this relationship. Gross writes, "He relates to mechanical things, not to people. There is beauty in his recognition that personality inheres in motorcycles, riding gloves; there is sadness and sickness in his removal from the personality of people, his own most notably". The Chautauquas, which emphasize the narrator's tendency toward solitary thought and over-analysis, may reflect his avoidance of the problems before him: his relationships and the resurrection of Phaedrus. To the extent that the narrator denies Phaedrus, the Chautauquas are practical, but when he decides that he will admit himself to hospital again, he realizes the undeniable presence of Phaedrus in him, and the Chautauquas are given over to those more abstruse topics.[6]


At the time of its publication, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his book review for the New York Times, wrote,

I now regret that I lack the expertise in philosophy to put Mr. Pirsig's ideas to a proper test, for this book may very well be a profoundly important one—a great one even—full of insights into our most perplexing contemporary dilemmas. I just don't know. But whatever its true philosophical worth, it is intellectual entertainment of the highest order.[7]

Since then, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has become the best-selling philosophy book of all time.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Abbey, Edward (March 30, 1975). "Novelistic autobiography, autobiographical novel? No matter". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Reuters (25 April 2017). "Robert Pirsig, Author Of 'Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance,' Dead At 88".
  3. ^ 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Author' Robert Pirsig at NPR online audio archive
  4. ^ Part II, Ch. 8, pages 80, 81 in the paperback edition for which the image is shown
  5. ^ Smith, Edward W. L. (2003). The Person of the Therapist, McFarland & Company Inc, p. 97.
  6. ^ Gross, Beverly (1984). "'A Mind Divided against Itself': Madness in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'". The Journal of Narrative Technique. 14 (3): 201–213. JSTOR 30225102.
  7. ^ https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1974/04/16/148805272.html?action=click&contentCollection=Archives&module=LedeAsset&region=ArchiveBody&pgtype=article
  8. ^ https://philosophynow.org/issues/122/Robert_Pirsig_and_His_Metaphysics_of_Quality

External links[edit]