Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mantainence

  • May 30, 2022

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a fictional autobiography of Robert Pirsig. But I didn’t pick up the book to learn about Mr. Pirsig, and most probably, he didn’t intend to tell people about himself. Rather, Mr. Pirsig uses this book to introduce a philosophical idea and uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor to make his point. Just a note, this book doesn’t teach motorcycle maintenance. It is just a metaphor. However, once you start reading the book, be ready to have a fun ride. It is written by a master writer.

I think this book could be an introduction to eastern philosophy, and a major development in western. This book combines eastern and western philosophy and finds a middle ground. Personally, I feel it presents an idea that is a superset of all philosophies in the world. And it is an idea that I encountered a lot in the 21st century, but maybe it wasn’t popular back in the 1970s (when this book was written).

The main argument of this book is that we are obsessed with dividing this world into subjective (romantic) and objective (classical) philosophies. We think that people either enjoy art and beauties or use scientific methods to describe the world. But thinking of this world using just subjective and objective lenses does no good. Instead, Mr. Pirsig introduces the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. What he means by this is that there is beauty that exists in this world that cannot be defined. We must pursue this beauty to the best extent. The world exists as it is. Most probably, we won’t be able to define it. So, a better focus to live a fulfilling life is to pursue highest quality in everything, but not get too obsessed with perfection. Highest quality is impossible to reach. And while pursuing quality, enjoy the ride.

If I were to follow Mr. Pirsig’s philosophy while writing this, I should do my best to write a high-quality review. I must describe the book while keeping you engaged to my best extent. But if I try to pursue perfection, and seek absolute truths of writing, I am most likely going to kill creativity. I will become rigid with my thoughts, and probably miss a lot of higher quality.

Let me try to explain Mr. Pirsig’s argument using his opinion on truths. And let me introduce some philosophy I learned from this book. Apparently, people like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato were obsessed with defining everything in this world. I remember from my writing class that I tried to use Aristotle’s method of rhetoric (and got a B+). These ancient philosophers believed in absolute truths. They thought that humans can define a good life and achieve it using rationality. Mr. Pirsig argues against this school of thought. In fact, he has some strong opinion against Aristotle. Mr. Pirsig does not believe in absolute truths, and strongly believes in relative truths. He believes that there is a lot of uncertainty and defining the true beauties of this world is impossible. Therefore, we must do our best to pursue the highest quality and enjoy the ride.

If you want to get an introduction to philosophy, read some Aristotle bashing, and read a book that will make you cooler, this is it. It is fun, engaging, and as I said before, a work of a master writer. One suggestion though, remember that this book was written in 1973. Some ideas that are obvious today weren’t back then. I don’t think this will be an issue, but it surely will improve the quality of your reading.