Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Robert M. Pirsig

American Writer and Philosopher best known for his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" and "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals"

"So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully, then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all."

"Programmes of a political nature are important and products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outside from there."

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

"Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A's. Originality on the other hand could get you anything -- from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it."

"Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster."

"A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance."

"A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down to write one deliberately. Culture-bearing books appear almost accidentally, like a sudden surge in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are a part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren?t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that?s the standard cultural attitude. But they don?t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy."

"A fragment comes and lingers from an old Christian hymn, "You've got to cross that lonesome valley." It carries him forward. "You've got to cross it by yourself." It seems a Western hymn that belongs out in Montana. "No one else can cross it for you," it says. It seems to suggest something beyond. "You've got to cross it by yourself." He crosses a lonesome valley, out of the mythos, and emerges as if from a dream, seeing that his whole consciousness, the mythos, has been a dream and no one's dream but his own, a dream he must now sustain of his own efforts. Then even "he" disappears and only the dream of himself remains with himself in it."

"?Duty toward self? is almost an exact translation of the Sanskrit word ?dharma?, sometimes described as the ?One? of the Hindus. Can the ?dharma? of the Hindus and the ?virtue? of the ancient Greeks be identical? Lightning hits! Quality! Virtue! Dharma! This is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine ?virtue?. But arˆte. Excellence. Dharma! Before the church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. Arete implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency?or rather, a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency that exists not in one department of life but in life itself."

"A person filled with gumption doesn?t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He?s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what?s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That?s gumption."

"A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who's bound to have some characteristics of Quality"

"A rush of wind comes furiously now, down from the mountaintop. "The ancient Greeks," I say, "who were the inventors of classical reason, knew better than to use it exclusively to foretell the future. They listened to the wind and predicted the future from that. That sounds insane now. But why should the inventors of reason sound insane?""

"A single thought begins to grow in his mind, extracted from something he read in the dialogue Ph‘drus? What is good, Ph‘drus, and what is not good... need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

"A slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and-whip grading, a mule mentality which said, If you don?t whip me, I won?t work. He didn?t get whipped. He didn?t work."

"Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness."

"A lifetime of blows tends to make a person unenthusiastic about any unnecessary interchange that might lead to more. Nothing friendly has been said or even hinted at and much hostility has been shown."

"A finely tempered nature longs to escape from his noisy cramped surroundings into the silence of the high mountains where the eye ranges freely through the still pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity."

"Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic."

"An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality."

"An evolutionary morality argues that The North was right in pursuing that war because a nation is a higher form of evolution than a human body and the principle of human equality is an even higher form than a nation"

"And from time to time you find your county road takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it takes you into some farmer?s backyard."

"And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good?Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

"And what is written well and what is written badly...need we ask Lysias or any other poet or orator whoever wrote or will write either a political or other work, in meter or out of meter, poet or prose writer, to teach us this? What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good...need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

"Anxiety is sort of the opposite of ego. You?re so sure you?ll do everything wrong you?re afraid to do anything at all. It results from over-motivation- leading to errors that lead to an underestimation of one?s self. Work out your anxieties on paper and read. This calms the mind."

"Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You're so sure you'll do everything wrong you're afraid to do anything at all. Often this, rather than "laziness," is the real reason you find it hard to get started. This gumption trap of anxiety, which results from over-motivation, can lead to all kinds of errors of excessive fussiness. You fix things that don't need fixing, and chase after imaginary ailments. You jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors into the machine because of your own nervousness. These errors, when made, tend to confirm your original underestimation of yourself. This leads to more errors, which lead to more underestimation, in a self-stoking cycle. The best way to break this cycle, I think, is to work out your anxieties on paper. Read every book and magazine you can on the subject. Your anxiety makes this easy and the more you read the more you calm down."

"Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience. As such it is completely predictable. It is verifiable by anyone who cares to do so. It is reproducible."

"All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. Its very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, "Get out." You know there's an explanation for all this somewhere and what it's doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn't what you see. What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were a part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes."

"Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ?quality? cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct."

"Aret‚ implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency... or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself."

"Aristotle has always been eminently attackable and eminently attacked throughout history, and shooting down Aristotle's patent absurdities, like shooting fish in a barrel, didn't afford much satisfaction."

"Art is anything you can do well. Anything you can do with Quality."

"Art is the Godhead as revealed in the works of man."

"As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn?t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself. That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don?t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A?s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything ? from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it."

"Between the subject and the object lies the value. This Value is more immediate, more directly sensed than any ?self? or any ?object? to which it may later be assigned. It is more real than the stove. Whether the stove is the cause of the low quality or whether possibly something else is the cause is not yet absolutely certain. But that the quality is low is absolutely certain. It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed? Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation: that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague, wooly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not just a judgment about an experience. It is not a description of experience. The value itself is an experience. As such it is completely predictable. It is verifiable by anyone who cares to do so. It is reproducible? Quality is more real than the stove. Whether the stove is the cause of the low quality or whether possibly something else is the cause is not yet absolutely certain. But that quality is low is absolutely certain. It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and oaths and self are later intellectually constructed."

"But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There?s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding."

"Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who?s bound to have some characteristic of quality."

"Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn't be discouraged. Money wasn't the point with a book like this."

"Civilization, or "the system" or "society" or whatever you want to call it, is best served not by mules but by free men."

"Coastal people never really know what the ocean symbolizes to landlocked inland people--what a great distant dream it is, present but unseen in the deepest level of subconsciousness, and when they arrive at the ocean and the conscious images are compared with the subconscious dream there is a sense of defeat at having come so far to be stopped by a mystery that can never be fathomed. The source of it all."

"Cultures are not the source of all morals, only a limited set of morals. Cultures can be graded and judged morally according to their contribution to the evolution of life."

"Dialectic generally means "of the nature of the dialogue," which is a conversation between two persons. Nowadays it means logical argumentation. It involves a technique of cross-examination, by which truth is arrived at."

"Dialectic, which is the parent of logic, came itself from rhetoric. Rhetoric is in turn the child of the myths and poetry of ancient Greece. That is so historically, and that is so by any application of common sense. The poetry and myths are the response of a prehistoric people to the Universe around them made on the basis of Quality. It is Quality, not dialectic, which is the generator of everything we know."

"Even in the presence of others he was completely alone."

"Even though quality cannot be defined, you know what quality is."

"Everyone's just about out of gumption. And I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource -- individual worth."

"Familiarity can blind too."

"Fantastic, Ph‘drus thinks, that he should have remembered that. It just demolishes the whole dialectical position. That may just be the whole show right there. Of course it's an analogy. Everything is an analogy. But the dialecticians don't know that."

"Flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. 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."

"For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses."

"For me, a writer should be more like a lighthouse keeper, just out there by himself. He shouldn't get his ideas from other people all around him."