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"

"The Church of Reason, like all institutions of the System, is based not on individual strength but upon individual weakness. What's really demanded in the Church of Reason is not ability, but inability. Then you are considered teachable. A truly able person is always a threat. Ph‘drus sees that he has thrown away a chance to integrate himself into the organization by submitting to whatever Aristotelian thing he is supposed to submit to. But that kind of opportunity seems hardly worth the bowing and scraping and intellectual prostration necessary to maintain it. It is a low-quality form of life."

"The city closes in on him now, and in his strange perspective it becomes the antithesis of what he believes. The citadel not of Quality, the citadel of form and substance. Substance in the form of steel sheets and girders, substance in the form of concrete piers and roads, in the form of brick, of asphalt, of auto parts, old radios, and rails, dead carcasses of animals that once grazed the prairies. Form and substance without Quality. That is the soul of this place. Blind, huge, sinister and inhuman: seen by the light of fire flaring upward in the night from the blast furnaces in the south, through heavy coal smoke deeper and denser into the neon of BEER and PIZZA and LAUNDROMAT signs and unknown and meaningless signs along meaningless straight streets going off into other straight streets forever. If it was all bricks and concrete, pure forms of substance, clearly and openly, he might survive. It is the little, pathetic attempts at Quality that kill."

"The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is."

"The cycle you?re working on is a cycle called ?yourself.?"

"The doctrinal differences between Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself."

"The explanation, I suppose, is that the physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It's psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are big but the psychic distances between people are small, and here it's reversed."

"The followers of Heraclitus insisted the Immortal Principle was change and motion. But Parmenides' disciple, Zeno, proved through a series of paradoxes that any perception of motion and change is illusory. Reality had to be motionless. The resolution of the arguments of the Cosmologists came from a new direction entirely, from a group Ph‘drus seemed to feel were early humanists. They were teachers, but what they sought to teach was not principles, but beliefs of men. Their object was not any single absolute truth, but the improvement of men. All principles, all truths, are relative, they said. "Man is the measure of all things." These were the famous teachers of "wisdom," the Sophists of ancient Greece."

"The funny thing about insane people is that it is kind of the opposite of being a celebrity. Nobody envies you."

"The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way."

"The halo around the heads of Plato and Socrates is now gone. He sees that they consistently are doing exactly that which they accuse the Sophists of doing... using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn most in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves."

"The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aret‚."

"The hippies had in mind something they wanted, and were calling it ?freedom?, but in the final analysis ?freedom? is a purely negative goal. It says something is bad. Hippies weren?t really offering any alternatives other than colorful short-term ones, and some of these were looking more and more like pure degeneracy. Degeneracy can be fun but it?s hard to keep up as a serious lifetime occupation."

"The idea that all men are created equal is a gift to the world from the American Indian."

"The ideas, the things I was saying about science and ghosts, and even that idea this afternoon about caring and technology?they are not my own. I haven?t really had a new idea in years."

"The Immortal Principle was first called water by Thales. Anaximenes called it air. The Pythagoreans called it number and were thus the first to see the Immortal Principle as something nonmaterial. Heraclitus called the Immortal Principle fire and introduced change as part of the Principle. He said the world exists as a conflict and tension of opposites. He said there is a One and there is a Many and the One is the universal law which is immanent in all things. Anaxagoras was the first to identify the One as nous, meaning "mind." Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated. It's here that the classic mind, for the first time, took leave of its romantic origins and said, "The Good and the True are not necessarily the same," and goes its separate way. Anaxagoras and Parmenides had a listener named Socrates who carried their ideas into full fruition."

"The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before isaac newton... And what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people's heads! It's a ghost! Mind has no matter or energy but they can't escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don't get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It's that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it's just that that doesn't make it bad. Or ghosts either. Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Law of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts... We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past."

"The logic of science was infallible, and if the scientists were sometimes mistaken, this was assumed to be only from their mistaking its rules."

"The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can?t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don?t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn?t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it?s right. If it disturbs you it?s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine?s always your own mind. There isn?t any other test."

"The Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ, is simply a philosophic answer to the question of what is Quality, or worth, or merit, or value, or betterness or any of the other synonyms for good. There are many possible answers but the one the MOQ gives is that you can understand Quality best if you don't subordinate it to anything else but instead subordinate everything else to it."

"The more you look, the more you see."

"The more you read, the more you calm down."

"The most moral activity of all is the creation of space for life to move around."

"The mythos. The mythos is insane. That's what he believed. The mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality of this world is unreal, that is insane!"

"The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neanderthal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is."

"The next time you have trouble getting started on a writing project, consider that it may not be the words that are blocked but your vision . Try looking hard at your subject--beginning with the upper left-hand brick."

"The number of hypotheses available to explain any given phenomenon is infinite."

"The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. What?s new? is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow"

"The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there."

"The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality."

"The pencil is mightier than the pen."

"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outwards from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value."

"The primitive tribes permitted far less individual freedom than does modern society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive life - the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay alive. From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress is quite clearly reason itself."

"The Professor of Philosophy has made a mistake. He's wasted his disciplinary authority on an innocent student while Ph‘drus, the guilty one, the hostile one, is still at large. And getting larger and larger. Since he has asked no questions there is now no way to cut him down. And now that he sees how the questions will be answered he's certainly not about to ask them. The innocent student stares down at the table, face red, hands shrouding his eyes. His shame becomes Ph‘drus' anger. In all his classes he never once talked to a student like that. So that's how they teach classics at the University of Chicago. Ph‘drus knows the Professor of Philosophy now. But the Professor of Philosophy doesn't know Ph‘drus."

"The Professor of Philosophy seems quite aware of what has happened. His previous little eye-flick of malice toward Ph‘drus has turned to a little eye-flick of fear. He seems to understand that within the present classroom situation, when the time comes, he can get exactly the same treatment he gave, and there will be no sympathy from any of the faces before him. He's thrown away his right to courtesy. There's no way to prevent retaliation now except to keep covered."

"The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple indeterminate, relative ones."

"The Quality, the aret‚ he has fought so hard for, has sacrificed for, has never betrayed, but in all that time has never once understood, now makes itself clear to him and his soul is at rest."

"The rain has lifted enough so that we can see the horizon now, a sharp line demarking the light grey of the sky and the darker grey of the water."

"The range of human knowledge today is so great that we're all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely between them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him."

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

"The real evil isn't the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity. It's the objectivity, the dualistic way of looking at things underlying technology, that produces the evil."

"The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know. There's not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn't suffered from that one so much that he's not instinctively on guard. That's the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, give it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don't give it opportunities. One must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with Nature: one logical slip and an entire scientific edifice comes tumbling down. One false deduction about the machine and you can get hung up indefinitely."

"The real ugliness lies in the relationship between people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use."

"The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of style to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it's not just depressingly dull, it's also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality in this world and it's real, not style. Quality isn't something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start."

"The results of Socrates' martyrdom and Plato's unexcelled prose that followed are nothing less than the whole world of Western man as we know it. If the idea of truth had been allowed to perish unrediscovered by the Renaissance it's unlikely that we would be much beyond the level of prehistoric man today. The ideas of science and technology and other systematically organized efforts of man are dead-centered on it. It is the nucleus of it all."

"The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. "Art" when it is opposed to "Science" is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association. The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws... which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic."

"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?"

"The solutions all are simple - after you have arrived at them. But they're simple only when you know already what they are."

"The success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems the result of this culture-bearing phenomenon. The involuntary shock treatment described here is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed."

"The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine's always your own mind. There isn't any other test."

"The thing to understand is that if you are going to reform society you don?t start with cops. And if you are going to reform intellect you don?t start with psychiatrists. If you don?t like our present social system or intellectual system the best thing you can do with either cops or psychiatrists is stay out of their way. You leave them ?till last."