Robert M. Pirsig


Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Completely scientific

The laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Skilled Enough

Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Comfort and mood

Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Chemistry Professor

Why does any life survive? It’s illogical. It’s self-contradictory that life should survive. If life is strictly a result of the physical and chemical forces of nature then why is life opposed to these same forces in its struggle to survive? Either life is with physical nature or it’s against it. If it’s with nature there’s nothing to survive. If it’s against physical nature then there must be something apart from die physical and chemical forces of nature that is motivating it to be against physical nature. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all energy systems “run down” like a clock and never rewind themselves. But life not only “runs up”, converting low-energy sea-water, sunlight and air into high-energy chemicals, it keeps multiplying itself into more and better clocks that keep “running up” faster and faster.

Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What’s the motive? If we leave a chemistry professor out on a rock in the sun long enough the forces of nature will convert him into simple compounds of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and small amounts of other minerals. It’s a one-way reaction. No matter what kind of chemistry professor we use and no matter what process we use we can’t turn these compounds back into a chemistry professor. Chemistry professors are unstable mixtures of predominantly unstable compounds which, in the exclusive presence of the sun’s heat, decay irreversibly into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. That’s a scientific fact.

The question is: Then why does nature reverse this process? What on earth causes the inorganic compounds to go the other way? It isn’t the sun’s energy. We just saw what the sun’s energy did. It has to be something else. What is it?

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
I’m Bad, I’m Bad

Sometimes I think I’m bad, Lila, and then someone like you comes along and shows me how.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

This city always made him feel like walking. In the past whenever he’d come here he’d always walked everywhere. Tomorrow he’d be gone.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

If it’s possible to imagine two red blood cells sitting side by side asking, “Will there ever be a higher form of evolution than us?” and looking around and seeing nothing, deciding there isn’t, then you can imagine the ridiculousness of two people walking down a street of Manhattan asking if there will ever be any form of evolution higher than “man,” meaning biological man.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

Once you understand something well enough, you don’t need to run from it.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Free Market

A free market is a Dynamic institution. What people buy and what people sell, in other words what people value, can never be contained by any intellectual formula. What makes the marketplace work is Dynamic Quality. The market is always changing and the direction of that change can never be predetermined.

Edward Adamson Hoebel + Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Cowboys and Indians

To prove the point Phaedrus intended to reverse the situation: instead of showing how a cowboy resembles an Indian, he would show how an Indian resembles a cowboy. For this he’d found a description by the anthropologist, E. A. Hoebel, of a Cheyenne Indian male:

Reserved and dignified, .. [the Cheyenne male] .. moves with a quiet sense of self-assurance. He speaks fluently, but never carelessly. He is careful of the sensibilities of others and is kindly and generous. He is slow to anger and strives to suppress his feelings, if aggravated. Vigorous on the hunt, in war he prizes the active life. Towards enemies he feels no merciful compunctions, and the more aggressive he is the better. He is well versed in ritual knowledge. He is neither flighty nor dour. Usually quiet, he has a lightly displayed sense of humor. He is sexually repressed and masochistic but that masochism is expressed in culturally approved rites. He does not show much creative imagination in artistic expression but he has a firm grip on reality. He deals with the problems of life in set ways while at the same time showing a notable capacity to readjust to new circumstances. His thinking is rationalistic to a high degree and yet colored with mysticism. His ego is strong and not easily threatened. His superego, as manifest in the strong social conscience and mastery of his basic impulses, is powerful and dominating. He is “mature”, serene, and composed, secure in his social position, capable of warm social relations. He has powerful axieties but these are channelized into institutionalized modes of collective expression with satisfactory results. He exhibits few neurotic tendences.

Now if that isn’t a description of William S. Boyd playing Hopalong Cassidy in twenty-three or fifty or however-many films, there never was one. With the single exception of the Indian “mysticism” the characterization is perfect.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Pencil and Pen

If scientists had simply said Copernicus was right and Ptolemy was wrong without any willingness to further investigate the subject, then science would have simply become another minor religious creed. But scientific truth has always contained an overwhelming difference from theological truth: it is provisional. Science always contains an eraser, a mechanism whereby new Dynamic insight could wipe out old static patterns without destroying science itself. Thus science, unlike orthodox theology, has been capable of continuous, evolutionary growth. As Phædrus had written on one of his slips, “The pencil is mightier than the pen.”

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Majority and Minority

No minority has a right to block a majority from conducting the legal business of the organization. No majority has a right to prevent a minority from peacefully attempting to become a majority.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Warning Sign

Look around, and if you don’t see any women walking by themselves, watch out!

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

They’re always so calm afterward. That’s when they start thinking about how to leave you. The minute before they come you’re the Queen of the World but the minute after you’re just garbage.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

When you take steps forward into the unknown you always risk being smashed by that unknown.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Human Rights

What is meant by “human rights” is usually the moral code of intellect-vs.-society, the moral right of intellect to be free of social control. Freedom of speech; freedom of assembly, of travel; trial by jury; habeas corpus; government by consent—these “human rights” are all intellect-vs.-society issues. According to the Metaphysics of Quality these “human rights” have not just a sentimental basis, but a rational, metaphysical basis. They are essential to the evolution of a higher level of life from a lower level of life. They are for real.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Biological Crimes

The idea that biological crimes can be ended by intellect alone, that you can talk crime to death, doesn’t work. Intellectual patterns cannot directly control biological patterns. Only social patterns can control biological patterns, and the instrument of conversation between society and biology is not words. The instrument of conversation between society and biology has always been a policeman or a soldier and his gun.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Eager Lawyer

Any further discussion would be like a lawyer who, after swinging the jury in his favor, keeps on talking and talking until he finally swings them back the other way again.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
The Lifeboat Problem

It’s the lifeboat problem. If you get too involved with too many people with too many problems they drag you under. You don’t save them. They sink you.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

That was the hardest thing to deal with during his own commitment. Not the insanity. That came naturally. The hardest thing to deal with was the righteousness of the sane.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

Yet, ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what happens in the philosophology that calls itself philosophy. Students aren’t expected to philosophize. Their instructors would hardly know what to say if they did. They’d probably compare the student’s writing to Mill or Kant or somebody like that, find the student’s work grossly inferior, and tell him to abandon it. As a student Phaedrus had been warned that he would “come a cropper” if he got too attached to any philosophical ideas of his own.

Literature, musicology, art history and philosophology thrive in academic institutions because they are easy to teach.

You just Xerox something some philosopher has said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it. Actual painting, music composition and creative writing are almost impossible to teach and so barely get in the academic door. True philosophy doesn’t get in at all. Philosophologists often have an interest in creating philosophy but, as philosophologists, they subordinate it, much as a literary scholar might subordinate his own interest in creative writing. Unless they are exceptional they don’t consider the creation of philosophy their real line of work.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Hammering Facts

It is a huge cultural phenomenon and it is very serious. We build up whole cultural intellectual patterns based on past “facts” which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don’t throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact. A contradictory fact has to keep hammering and hammering and hammering, sometimes for centuries, before maybe one or two people will see it. And then these one or two have to start hammering on others for a long time before they see it too.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Metaphysics is not Reality

Historically mystics have claimed that for a true understanding of reality metaphysics is too “scientific”. Metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand-page menu and no food.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Fat Lady

..Trapped and going crazy with claustrophobia underneath a fat lady inside the Statue of Liberty. What a great allegorical theme, he’d thought later, for a story about America.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

The insanity is the adjustment. Insanity isn’t necessarily a step in the wrong direction, it can be an intermediate step in a right direction. It wasn’t necessarily a disease. It could be part of a cure.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Poor Chief

Out West among the Indians it’s a standing joke that the chief is the poorest man in the tribe. Every time somebody needs something he’s the one they go to, and by the Indian code, “the generosity of the frontier” he has to help them.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
World as a Puzzle

The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do. There are always some pieces like platypi that don’t fit and we can either ignore these pieces or we can give them silly explanations or we can take the whole puzzle apart and try other ways of assembling it that will include more of them. When one takes the whole ill-shaped, misfitting structure of a subject-object explained universe apart and puts it back together in a value-centered metaphysics, all kinds of orphaned puzzle pieces fit beautifully that never fit before.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”

Once a thief is caught a whole string of crimes is often solved.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Lila”
Something is Happening

— Nothing is happening.

— There’s always something happening. When you say “nothing is happening” you’re just saying nothing is happening that fits your cliché of what something is.

— What?

— It’s hard to explain. Something is happening right now and you think it’s unimportant because you’ve never seen a movie of it.


Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

You always suppress momentary anger at something you deeply and permanently hate.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Technical Buddha

To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.

The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha.. which is to demean oneself.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Newton’s Law

So I go on.

—For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.

—Of course.

—So when did this law start? Has it always existed?

John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.

—What I’m driving at,—I say,—is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.


—Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere.. this law of gravity still existed?

Now John seems not so sure.

—If that law of gravity existed,—I say,—I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still common sense to believe that it existed.

John says:

—I guess I’d have to think about it.

—Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
And what that means,—I say before he can interrupt,—and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.

—Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?

—Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as education.

—You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?


—That’s absurd.

—You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.


Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Exclusive circle

John has gathered wood but it’s too big and the wind is so gusty it’s hard to start. It needs to be splintered into kindling. I go back over to the scrub pines, hunt around through the twilight for the machete, but it’s already so dark in the pines I can’t find it. I need the flashlight. I look for it, but it’s too dark to find that either.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Classic Esthetic

There is a classic esthetic which romantics often miss because of its subtlety. The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an esthetically free and natural style. It is esthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Glass Insanity

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way. There is only one access to him that I can see as passable and we still have a way to go.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Photographic Mind

Inside I see that Bill is a mechanic of the ‘photographic mind’ school. Everything lying around everywhere. Wrenches, screwdrivers, old parts, old motorcycles, new parts, new motorcycles, sales literature, inner tubes, all scattered so thickly and clutteredly you can’t even see the workbenches under them. I couldn’t work in conditions like this but that’s just because I’m not a photographic-mind mechanic. Bill can probably turn around and put his hand on any tool in this mess without having to think about where it is. I’ve seen mechanics like that. Drive you crazy to watch them, but they get the job done just as well and sometimes faster. Move one tool three inches to the left though, and he’ll have to spend days looking for it.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Phædrus’ Law

The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
A Priori Motorcycle

It’s quite a machine, this a priori motorcycle. If you stop to think about it long enough you’ll see that it’s the main thing. The sense data confirm it but the sense data aren’t it. The motorcycle that I believe in an a priori way to be outside of myself is like the money I believe I have in the bank. If I were to go down to the bank and ask to see my money they would look at me a little peculiarly. They don’t have ‘my money’ in any little drawer that they can pull open to show me. ‘My money’ is nothing but some east-west and north-south magnetic domains in some iron oxide resting on a roll of tape in a computer storage bin. But I’m satisfied with this because I’ve faith that if I need the things that money enables, the bank will provide the means, through their checking system, of getting it.

Similarly, even though my sense data have never brought up anything that could be called ‘substance’ I’m satisfied that there’s a capability within the sense data of achieving the things that substance is supposed to do, and that the sense data will continue to match the a priori motorcycle of my mind.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Real Church

It began with reference to a newspaper article about a country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar. One can guess that some classroom laughter started at this point. The college was well known for drunken partying and the image vaguely fit. The article said a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. The building in question was not holy ground. It had been desanctified. That was the end of it. The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn’t tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Japanese Bicycle

Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Seed Crystal

He was just stopped. Waiting. For that missing seed crystal of thought that would suddenly solidify everything.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Reflections on TV

Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV it’s a shame more people don’t switch over to it.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
The Good and the Bad Facts

The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care!

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Peace of mind

Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial to technical work. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good work and that which destroys it is bad work.

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too, as attested by the ability of Hindu mystics to live buried alive for many days. Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Another’s mind

The effort of fathoming what is in another’s mind creates a distortion of what is seen.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Long Break

When you first see that you have to go back and take it apart all over again it’s definitely time for that long break.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Yes or No

The Buddha nature cannot be captured by yes or no questions.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Live Right

Some could ask, ‘Well, if I get around all those gumption traps, then will I have the thing licked?’

The answer, of course, is no, you still haven’t got anything licked. You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.

But if you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six. What I’m trying to come up with on these gumption traps I guess, is shortcuts to living right.

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
We’ve won it

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.