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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An Inquiry into Values

By Robert Pirsig
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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), using the allegory of a motorcycle road trip, guides you through one man’s questionings of the philosophical and metaphysical order of the world.

Key idea 1 of 6

Western thought is split in half, and one half is the rational, unemotional “classical” mode.

The narrator’s journey begins at the start of a motorcycle road trip he’s planned with his son, Chris, and a married couple, John and Sylvia Sutherland.

On a philosophical level, the narrator represents the classical mode of thinking, while the Sutherlands represent the romantic.

Using the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance, the classical mode of thought finds its expression in the rational knowledge and expertise of an engineer or mechanic.

A classical thinker like a mechanic understands all the technical details that make a machine function, how they all fit together and, importantly, how to find what’s wrong and fix it if the machine malfunctions.

When presented with an engine, for example, a classical mind is fascinated by the rich underlying symbols and functions of form that make a machine work – the gears, the belts, the pistons and all the complicated interactions that make a machine what it is.

Looking beyond motorcycle maintenance, other examples of classical thinking include things such as the scientific method, logic and mathematics.

These fields are underpinned by highly systematic, reliable and rational systems. They abide by an established set of rules that have been tested and verified. Each new innovation within a system is built upon pre-existing norms, which are themselves built upon the same standards and rules – thus making the classical mode of thought predictable, straightforward and unemotional.

Ultimately, the classical mode aims to bring control and order to the chaos of the world.

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