Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Book Summary, by Robert Pirsig

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1-Page Summary of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974. The book tells the story of a motorcycle trip across America by a man who is trying to figure out how to live his life. He explores many different philosophies, including Eastern and Western philosophy and religion, as he tries to find answers for living a balanced life that incorporates technology without degrading human life.

The narrator starts his motorcycle trip in Minneapolis, Minnesota and ends it near San Francisco, California. He is accompanied by a couple named John and Sylvia Sutherland. The Sutherlands are uncomfortable with technology but use the journey to escape from it. They also depend on technology for their comfort as well as survival. This hints at a larger problem that society faces with technology: Is it good or bad? What is its root cause?

A group of people travel together to Bozeman, Montana. They are going there for a specific reason related to the narrator’s career as a teacher and his past experiences. While in Bozeman, he goes on an adventure with his son through the mountains outside that city. The trip is significant because it involves exploring the inner world of spiritual development as well as details about his difficult relationship with his son.

Throughout the book, the narrator weaves together a story about his travels and observations of life. He also tells a story about another character named Phaedrus who he meets on his travels. The narrator’s relationship with Phaedrus is mysterious at first but then it becomes clear that Phaedrus represents the narrator’s past self before he had therapy for nervous breakdowns and shock treatment. These treatments resulted in a new personality for him, which explains why he gave himself this name to represent his old self. He wants to resolve issues from his past so that they can help solve present problems with Chris (his current partner).

Full Summary of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Overall Summary

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an interwoven story that follows two plots. The first plot details a cross-country motorcycle trip taken by the narrator and his eleven year old son, Chris. The second plot focuses on the life of Phaedrus, who is a philosopher obsessed with Quality. As they travel, the narrator inserts philosophical discourses called Chautauquas into his narrative about their journey.

In the first section of this chapter, the narrator discusses his and John’s dislike for technology. Technology is a way to understand things rationally by using facts and figures. However, people who prefer that method are missing out on things like emotion and intuition. In addition, those who use technology tend to be more logical than romantic—the opposite of John and Sylvia’s personalities. The narrator says he prefers a classic approach, which involves being analytical rather than emotional or intuitive when solving problems.

As the travelers move through Montana, they learn about Phaedrus’s life. He was a scientific prodigy who dropped out of school because he lost faith in science to explain the world. For several years, he explored other kinds of truth and eventually got a job teaching English at Montana State University in Bozeman. The travelers stay with Robert and Gennie DeWeese, friends of Phaedrus’.

The narrator and Chris leave to hike a mountain. On this trip, the narrator describes Phaedrus’s attempts to pin down the concept of Quality: that which makes something good. Torn between whether Quality is a subjective or objective phenomenon, Phaedrus eventually comes to the epiphany that it is in fact neither. Quality precedes subjectivity and objectivity—in fact, it is what allows for the separation of the world into subjective and objective realms in the first place. During their hike, Chris complains about having to go on this trip with his father (Chris) because he doesn’t want to be there; however, when they reach camp at nightfall, Chris becomes very happy because it’s so beautiful up there. The next day after breakfast they start hiking again but Chris gets tired quickly and starts complaining again until finally he decides not to continue anymore even though they are close enough from reaching their destination –the summit–of Mount Sentinel where he wanted them both to go together as a family before his son moves away from home for college in California later that year. The narrator then realizes how much time has passed since his wife died many years ago because now his son will also move away from him just like she did when she was alive too except back then he felt sad while now instead of feeling sad he feels relieved that soon everything will change again as if nothing had ever happened before.

After the narrator’s father dies, he goes on a motorcycle trip to escape his grief. On his way, he stops at several places and gives lectures about quality as it relates to motorcycles. He talks about how stuckness can foster innovative ideas for higher quality in bike maintenance, how gumption is necessary for sustained work of high quality, and how people who are too rigid in their thinking get caught up in gumption traps that prevent them from seeing the value of Quality.

The narrator’s dream of the glass door recurs, and he realizes that it signifies his divided identity. He recalls spending time with Chris as Phaedrus and concludes that he will have to explain his mental state to his son. The narrator describes Phaedrus’ enrollment in an interdisciplinary program at the University of Chicago and how he studied Greek philosophy obsessively. There, Phaedrus had a confrontation with someone who was against Quality philosophy, which made him completely insane. He was then hospitalized for electroshock therapy.

As the narrator and Chris travel towards San Francisco, their relationship is strained. The narrator plans to send Chris home and then check himself into a hospital. He explains that he has been mentally unstable before, but his son doesn’t believe him. This distresses Chris greatly because he fears that he may suffer from the same illness as his father. They both realize that Phaedrus was not insane after all, since they were separated by glass at the asylum. The narrator begins to reconcile his identity once again, and they ride in high spirits towards San Francisco together.

Chapter 1

A narrator and his son ride a motorcycle through the American Central Plains. It is a muggy July morning, and they see many things that are interesting to them. The narrator points out an animal to his son, but realizes that he is too young to appreciate what he sees. Traveling by motorcycle offers a much more active experience of one’s surroundings than does riding in a car.

Chris and the narrator are on a trip from Minneapolis to Montana with the narrator’s friends, John Sutherland and his wife Sylvia. They prefer quiet roads over highways so they can enjoy their time together without distractions. The narrator spends his time on the motorcycle pondering important questions like “what is good?”

Chris would later go on to write about this philosophical question in an essay called “What is Good?”

The group stops for a rest, and one of the members thinks about people on their way to work. The four resume traveling, but they notice something is wrong with John’s bike. Although he doesn’t want to learn how to fix it himself, the narrator urges him to do so because there aren’t many places that can repair his motorcycle in middle America.

The narrator also recalls a time when he visited the Sutherlands’ house. He noticed that they had a leaky faucet and John tried to fix it, but failed. The couple didn’t try to fix it again because Sylvia was angry about it.

The author realizes that John and Sylvia are distressed by technology. They’re like the beatniks, hippies, or other people who react against society’s mechanistic tendencies. The narrator doesn’t think this is a good idea because he thinks technology can be used for positive purposes as easily as it can be used to cause problems.

Chapter 2

The group enters the prairies of the Great Plains from the Central Plains. The narrator recognizes inclement weather on the horizon and remembers a rain-soaked trip to Canada he took with Chris several years before. That trip ended early because his bike broke down, but it was actually because he ran out of gas.

The group is now lost. John suggests that they turn around and go back, but the others disagree. The narrator remembers a time when he took his motorcycle to get repaired at a mechanic’s shop. He was not happy with the work they did on it and had them fix it again, but this time he went there himself to supervise their work.

Chapter 3

The travelers are on a prairie and they get caught in a storm. They find shelter at a town, where the narrator knows which motel to stay at. Chris then asks for ghost stories, but the narrator initially says ghosts don’t exist. Chris tells his friend believes in ghosts, so the narrator goes back on what he previously said about them not existing because things like science can’t be rational all of the time, just as people believe in ghosts without any actual proof that they exist either.

John and Sylvia are surprised by the narrator’s ideas. He goes on to tell them about a man named Phaedrus, who was obsessed with hunting ghosts but became one himself in the end. Chris asks more questions, and his dad tells him to go to sleep.

The narrator is telling the reader that Phaedrus has seen this land before and led them to the motel. He also confesses that he lied about science and ghosts, which are actually ideas from Phaedrus. The narrator hopes to be able to sleep after making this confession.

Chapter 4

A narrator says that a Chautauqua requires a list of valuable things. He provides an enumeration of the materials and provisions necessary for long motorcycle trips, which includes three books: a manual for maintaining motorcycles, general maintenance guidebooks, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

The narrator wakes Chris and the Sutherlands up early. They head out in a cold, blustery wind. When they stop for breakfast, John and Sylvia are upset at the narrator because it’s too cold to eat outside; they insist on waiting until it warms up before continuing their trip. The author muses that this is an example of how people tend to be intolerant of physical discomfort but not technology-related discomfort.

Chris is upset that the group wants to stay at a scenic spot. He asks them to leave and find another place to camp out for the night.

Chapter 5

The group is forced to travel through a more populated area in order to cross the Missouri River. As they reenter the prairie, the narrator thinks about how John and he approach motorcycle maintenance differently. John refuses to use improvised parts for his handlebars because they’re not factory-issued.

The narrator and John view motorcycles differently. The narrator focuses on the scientific reasoning behind them, while John is more interested in their artistic appearance.

While setting up camp, Chris acts out and disobeys his father. He complains a lot, which annoys John and Sylvia as well. The boy refuses to eat dinner and walks away from the group complaining of stomach pain.

The narrator tells John and Sylvia that Chris’ stomachaches are not related to anything physically wrong with him. These pains were diagnosed as precursors of mental illness, but the medical professionals lack the empathy and concern of family members.

Chris returns to the tent and goes to sleep with his father, whining all night. The narrator has trouble sleeping because he’s afraid that Phaedrus will claim Chris.

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Chapter 6

The group is still on the boat, sunburned from a night without shelter. Chris complains about another stomachache at breakfast. The narrator decides to tell more of the story by describing Phaedrus’s world because he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to leave him out right now. He hopes that discussing Phaedrus’ ideas will help bury him forever.

The narrator explains that the world can be understood in two ways. Some people see the world with logic, and others see it with emotion. The narrator compares motorcycle riding to maintenance of a motorcycle: riding is an emotional experience, while maintenance is logical.

The classic approach aims to make sense of the world in a logical and systematic way. Romantics, on the other hand, can view this as dull and joyless. That’s why classic and romantic ways of thinking are often at odds with one another, although people rarely straddle both approaches.

The narrator of Phaedrus says that the context in which Phaedrus lived was one in which there were opposing ideologies. Because of this opposition, others thought he was insane, and because he was perceived as being insane, his ideas made him even more so. This detachment from reality culminated with his arrest and removal from society.

The group stops for gas and coffee, and the narrator explains to Chris that he must eat with the rest of the group or not at all. Back on the road, they continue riding their motorcycles. The narrator continues thinking about Phaedrus’s rational thought process. He demonstrates this by dividing a motorcycle into its power-delivery system, ignition system, etc.

The narrator explains that the classical approach to understanding a motorcycle is flawed because it eliminates the surface impression necessary to understand what a motorcycle is; it ignores the observer of the motorcycle; it leaves no room for value judgments, and its knife-like divisions give an inaccurate picture of how things are organized.

According to the narrator, Phaedrus used logic to cut things into smaller and smaller pieces. He tried cutting so far that he hurt himself in the process.

Chapter 7

The narrator and his friends arrive in a small town, where it’s very hot. They continue to travel, and the narrator realizes that he shouldn’t fight against discussing Phaedrus.

Phaedrus was a philosopher who talked about the tool that people use to understand their surroundings. He said that this tool is used to separate out what we see and hear and make sense of it, but he also pointed out that in order to truly understand how this works, we need to look at the individual making these observations.

The discussion of classic and romantic understanding is necessary to introduce Phaedrus, because the man must be described obliquely. The narrator wants John and Sylvia to move slowly on the highway, but they quickly outpace him. He continues his contemplation while he walks behind them.

The narrator describes Phaedrus’s background. He was a very intelligent man with an IQ of 170, which is extremely high. He was also an isolated person who remained unknowable to his family even after many years together. The narrator recalls a “fragment” in which he encounters a timber wolf in the woods and sees himself as the wolf.

Phaedrus studied the ghost of reason because he wanted to study his own identity. If he could destroy reason, he could liberate himself. The narrator says that it is time to explain who he is and how Phaedrus relates to him. At a party several years ago, the narrator felt overwhelmed by carousing and went to lie down. When he awoke, it was in a hospital room with no idea why or how he got there. He figures out that his recollections prior to waking up were dreams, and learns from doctors that after being treated for some kind of mental illness (which they wouldn’t specify), the narrator developed a new personality and memory set but still thinks like Phaedrus did before treatment. The narrator comes to understand that Phaedrus had been destroyed by court-ordered electroshock therapy; however, since their bodies are now one person’s body instead of two separate people’s bodies at different points in time,the narrator can never run away from him/herself because when they’re asleep during dreaming hours or unconscious due to trauma or drugs etc., they are actually conscious as themselves.

John and Sylvia are angry at the narrator because he doesn’t move fast enough. They continue riding, but a light shower begins to fall. The rain stops, and they reach the top of a hill where they admire the land before them.

Chapter 8

The travelers reach Miles City, Montana. They’re in a better mood than the previous day because they got some rest and relaxation at a hotel. The narrator tunes his motorcycle, which is an activity done by rational people to improve the machine’s performance. He says that this process of tuning his motorcycle is similar to systematic hierarchies that are used throughout society; however, he rejects the idea of rejecting these systems as a way to address their shortcomings.

The author goes to a mechanic’s shop, and notices that the mechanic works well despite his disorganized workspace. The author meets up with John, Sylvia, and Chris for dinner as he explains that right-wing politics dominate Montana. He then tells of how Bozeman was so conservative that it deemed Eleanor Roosevelt too much of a radical to speak there at the college. The author recognized a bench Phaedrus slept on while making his way to Bozeman.

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Chapter 9

A group of people in the Yellowstone Valley are on a journey. The narrator begins to tell stories about logic, which is the process of reasoning or drawing inferences from premises known or assumed to be true. There are two types of logic: inductive and deductive. Inductive logic extends particular observations to form general truths, whereas deductive logic does the reverse by using general laws to make conclusions about particular cases. Some problems can’t be solved without a combination of induction and deduction; this approach is called scientific method—a disciplined interweaving of induction and deduction that allows us to solve complicated problems.

The narrator first explains the steps of the scientific method. He then says that it’s most important part is coming up with a hypothesis, which can be tested to explain a phenomenon. The author also says that mechanics’ most important work isn’t physical labor, but rather analysis of forms and structures.

While driving, the narrator and his companions almost crashed into a car that was towing a trailer. They stopped at a bar to rest.

Chapter 10

The narrator explains that Phaedrus is looking for the ghost of rationality. He quotes Albert Einstein, who said that some people pursue science because they’re ambitious, others because it’s useful to society, and yet others do so out of a desire to escape into an eternal world. Phaedrus falls into the latter category.

By the age of fifteen, Phaedrus had already completed a year in university biochemistry. He became fascinated by the formation of hypotheses because they seem to be supplied neither by nature nor by the mind alone. However, he concluded that any phenomenon can be explained with infinite possible hypotheses which discredit scientific method as a route to truth and make it harder for stable truths to exist.

Phaedrus believes that the scientific method is flawed, because it doesn’t lead to truth. He was once a student who believed in this method, but he later realized that it’s not effective. Therefore, if we want to find out what really matters in life and make our world better, we should stop looking for answers directly ahead of us and start searching from different angles.

Chapter 11

The narrator wakes up and feels very familiar with his surroundings. The group decides to travel on a road that Phaedrus would take often. He took these trips in order to work out his thoughts away from institutional constraint.

After dropping out of college, Phaedrus enlisted in the military. He was sent to Korea and experienced a different culture than he had before. The narrator recalls fragments of his time there, including meeting people from other countries and reading books about Eastern philosophy while on a boat back to America.

After Phaedrus returns from Korea, he spends two weeks in deep thought. After this time, his search for truth is finished and he decides to enroll in a university to study philosophy. The narrator describes how the group traveled through the mountains of Montana during their ascent.

Montana is a mountainous area, and it parallels another kind of mountainous area—the one that exists in the mind. Phaedrus goes through this mental terrain, but he reads texts with a critical eye at first.

By reading David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Phaedrus begins to gain a better understanding of the classicist versus romanticist conflict. Hume is an empiricist who believes that all knowledge stems from sensory input (sense impressions). This in turn means that humans cannot deduce causation or establish natural laws because they possess sense impressions alone. It seems then that Hume’s conclusions invalidate empirical reason.

Later philosophers, such as Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder, reacted against Hume’s skepticism. They claimed that humans have innate concepts to understand the world around them; these concepts are reinforced by sensory input but do not change because of it. The narrator gives an example about motorcycles: they exist in our minds before we ever see or touch one and don’t change when we experience them firsthand for the first time.

The narrator believes Kant’s philosophy is revolutionary and amazing because it makes a breakthrough in reason. According to the narrator, Phaedrus performs a similar shift in reason by reconciling romanticism with classicism.

Chapter 12

The narrator distinguishes his Chautauqua orations from the work a novelist might do. He prefers to consider John and Sylvia as friends rather than characters, but he acknowledges that his philosophical musings necessarily distance him from them. The narrator tells his companions about the man they will visit in Bozeman, an abstract painter named Robert DeWeese who teaches at the college where Phaedrus works. He is an old friend of Phaedrus’s and the narrator worries that DeWeese will expect him to be like Phaedrus was when he knew him. The two had a habit of reacting to events in bafflingly opposite ways, and their opposing perspectives make each think the other has access to a special type of knowledge.

Though the narrator’s account of Phaedrus’ life is unclear, it seems that after he had his epiphany about Kant’s philosophy, he moved to Montana. There, he studied Oriental philosophy in India and had difficulty with Zen meditation.

One day, Phaedrus’s teacher explained that the world is illusory. This made him wonder whether the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was illusory. He decided to leave India and go back to America. Once he returned, he became a journalist and married a woman with whom he had two children. His life turned out fine, but when they moved to Montana, his anxiety about illusion resurfaced because it reminded him of his old beliefs from India and led him on an intellectual journey once again

Chapter 13

The narrator is nervous to return to the college in Bozeman, because it holds a great deal of significance in Phaedrus’s personal development. Teaching there made Phaedrus very anxious, because he has always been solitary and prefers not to be around people. Moreover, right-wing state politicians began to suppress academic freedoms at the college, and Phaedrus protested this mistreatment by working hard with other faculty members on his campus to remove the college’s accreditation.

Phaedrus tried to take down the accreditation of a university, and some students were outraged because they felt it was an affront to their school. In response, he gave a lecture in which he compared his actions to stripping a church building of its religious significance; removing the accreditation from that school would simply mean that no one had faith in it anymore. The real power of the university is what’s inside people’s minds, so taking away the physical campus doesn’t matter as much as losing faith in what the institution stands for.

The author praises Phaedrus’s speech and explains that true adherents of the Church of Reason are beholden to truth alone, not to any sort of university bureaucracy. Though Phaedrus’s behavior was impolitic, he was spared from outright condemnation because people recognized that he simply spoke out his obligation to pursue rational truth.

The author also observes that Phaedrus’ devotion to the Church of Reason likely came from his understanding of its weaknesses. He understood that it was not enough, so he devoted himself fanatically to a cause in which he didn’t quite have faith.

Chapter 14

The group arrives in Bozeman, Montana. The narrator feels like he’s home, but also slightly out of place because it’s a different time than when he grew up there. He meets DeWeese and his wife at their house on the ranch where they live together. They have a conversation with the DeWeeses and some other people from town who are visiting them. The narrator mostly tunes out from the conversation, but notices that John is getting into an argument with DeWeese about whether or not to trust him/her (the identity of which is still unknown).

During dinner, some of the guests arrive and DeWeese mentions that he had trouble assembling his barbecue. This leads to a discussion about how Japanese bike manuals require peace of mind for proper assembly because they don’t provide instructions on how to assemble a machine that would satisfy the person who assembles it. Thus, true craftsmen are different from those who follow instructions because real work is more like art than following directions. Rotisserie barbecue assembly is even compared to sculpture in this passage.

The narrator gives a long speech that confuses the guests. The DeWeese family asks him to explain his ideas further, and he tells them that his opinions are based on the tension between reason and emotion in today’s world. He says that rationality needs to be expanded so it can offer solutions to people’s unhappiness with their own culture. It is like when Columbus landed in America; reason had been shifted before then, too.

The narrator tells the story of Phaedrus. He was a Greek rhetorician who is immortalized in Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The ancient philosopher invented reason and DeWeese says that when reason is excavated, his ghost reappears. The narrator goes to bed at two in the morning after being instructed by DeWeese on where he should go camping with Chris later in the trip for some fun.

Chapter 15

After two days of hanging out, John and Sylvia leave Bozeman. The next day, the narrator and Chris revisit the college where Phaedrus taught. When they enter the building, Chris gets uncomfortable and runs off. The narrator explores the building alone, finding Phaedrus’s old classroom with a ghostly presence.

A woman finds the narrator in a classroom and asks him if he’s Phaedrus. She is shocked to find out that he isn’t teaching anymore, and she treats him with great reverence. The narrator leaves the classroom and goes into an old office where he remembers all of his philosophical breakthroughs. He also recalls Sarah coming by Phaedrus’s office to ask about Quality, which made him think about how prescriptive his writing approach was. Because he can’t determine what exactly Quality is, he asked students to write an essay on what it means to them.

The students are having difficulty with a certain essay assignment, and Phaedrus wonders how people can recognize Quality by evaluating things as good or bad yet be unable to say what it is in explicit terms.

Chapter 16

The narrator and Chris begin their hike through the mountains. He compares their trek to Phaedrus’s journey into madness. The narrator explains that he has found fragments of thought from Phaedrus, but has tried to piece them together to figure out what drove him insane.

Phaedrus’s nonmetaphysical explanation of Quality hinges on his teaching of rhetoric. He gives students assignments aimed at teaching them how to make their own observations instead of simply reiterating memorized facts or techniques. He realizes that the best way to instill this kind of thinking may be to abolish grade-giving in education, and asks one of his brighter students to write an essay on the topic. She delivers a persuasive essay, and Phaedrus decides to withhold his students’ grades for an entire quarter because he wants everyone else’s perspective on it as well.

Phaedrus also teaches them how to think critically about what they observe in everyday life through rhetorical analysis.

Chris is stubborn and refuses to do a task. Phaedrus continues to talk about his idea that students are not graded on how they perform. The goal of the new system is to give more freedom for those who want it, but also make sure that everyone gets an education based on their own motivation, rather than grade-based or other external factors. At first, A students aren’t too thrilled with this because they enjoy the challenge of learning for grades and accolades. But as time passes, B and C students start joining class discussions and begin working hard in school so they can get good grades later on down the road. D and F students have no interest whatsoever in joining the discussion though because it would mean putting themselves out there where their work could be criticized by others around them–they don’t want any part of it!

At the end of a term, Phaedrus asked his students what they thought about not being graded. Most people preferred grades but the best students didn’t want them. He notes that grading can hide bad teaching and it’s unfair to not give grades without giving clear goals for improvement. So he looks at other ways of assessment, but goes back to using grades in the next semester.

Chapter 17

Chris becomes visibly demoralized as the hike continues. The narrator recognizes that his son fears he won’t be able to climb the mountain. To distract Chris, he tells a story of how he and his wife came across a bull moose when they camped in this same area years before. When Phaedrus was teaching English class, there was an assignment where students were supposed to define Quality for him. His students were confused because they had no idea what it meant to define something like Quality. Therefore, instead of defining it himself, Phaedrus decided not to give them any definitions at all. He wanted them to figure out the definition on their own so that they would have a better understanding of what Quality means. After doing some research into this topic, his students realized that they became more interested in English than ever before because they learned something new about it from Phaedrus’ unorthodox method of teaching them.

Chris struggles with the climb, and his father believes that he’s treating it like a way to fulfill his ego. He thinks Chris is trying to do it on his own, without any help from others or the mountain itself. His son failed in an attempt to climb Mount Kailas when he was younger because he didn’t respect how holy the mountain was for other people who were climbing it at the same time as him.

Chapter 18

Phaedrus starts to examine the concept of beauty, but is turned off by its intellectual rigor. He arrives at an understanding that we can’t define it, but he’s bothered by his refusal to define a central concept.

Chris is angry about the hike, but the narrator doesn’t condemn his son’s behavior. The pair continues hiking and the narrator recreates Phaedrus’ image of a world without quality. He uses this revelation to divide the world into classic and romantic spheres.

Chris pretends to have hurt his ankle. The narrator takes on Chris’s share of the equipment, and they continue hiking. While resting, Chris begins crying, and the narrator laments his son’s egotism. He emphasizes that Quality is a bridge between romantic and classic thought because it cannot be analyzed or defined in any way. As he and Chris hike on, Chris’s mood seems to improve slightly. They then set up camp for the night.

Chapter 19

At night, the narrator dreams that a glass door separates him from his family. He wants to open it but he never does because he thinks that Chris will be unable to relate to him. The next morning, Chris tells the narrator about a dream where they meet on top of a mountain and see everything from there.

Phaedrus is asked by the Bozeman English faculty if Quality is subjective or objective. He spends a lot of time thinking about it, but can’t come up with an answer that makes sense to him. So, he decides to reject both possibilities: Quality isn’t either subjective nor objective; instead, they are two parts of something larger called “Quality.”

Phaedrus has a tripartite model of reality, but he decides to revise it. He concludes that Quality is the reason why there are two worlds in the first place: subjective and objective. It also explains subjectivity and objectivity. Therefore, Quality is more important than those other concepts. As Chris sprints up the hill, he declares himself victorious even though Phaedrus isn’t done yet.

Chapter 20

The narrator and Chris take a nap on the summit. When he wakes up, the narrator hears some rockslides. He is concerned about what he said to Chris in his sleep. The two of them talk more about the narrator’s sleep-talking and decide that ascending to the top of this mountain isn’t wise because it’s dangerous. They begin their descent down from the mountain together.

Phaedrus believes that Quality is a preintellectual reality. It’s different for everyone because each person has his or her own experiences with it. Phaedrus, however, thinks of Quality as an absolute monism much more than the trinity he had previously envisioned. He then pulls out the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and realizes that his concept of Quality corresponds to the Tao exactly.

Chapter 21

While descending the mountain, the narrator wonders if it’s true that Tao and Phaedrus’ Quality are one and the same. However, what really matters is that Phaedrus expanded reason; before his philosophizing, people would have thought certain ideas were irrational.

Chris and the narrator make it to Bozeman, Montana. They check into a hotel so they can rest for the night without bothering Mr. DeWeese or his family.

Chapter 22

The next morning, the narrator and Chris say goodbye to the DeWeeses. They then leave Bozeman and begin a new Chautauqua about Jules Henri Poincaré. He was like Phaedrus in that he wanted to test scientific reasoning limits. During his lifetime, different mathematical systems were invented which demonstrated an uncertainty in supposedly rational disciplines. Poincaré addressed this problem by proposing an attribute of facts that made some better than others. This melding of art and science brought tears to the narrator’s eyes when he read it because it reminded him so much of Phaedrus’ thesis on Quality.

The narrator and Chris drive through Missoula, Montana. They continue westward on a logging road and stop to camp for the night. Chris admits that he has diarrhea, but they go to sleep anyway.

Chapter 23

The narrator’s recurring nightmare is described in detail. He dreams that he is walking through a deserted city with his wife and sons, but they are separated by a glass door. The narrator realizes that his wife is grieving because she thinks the glass door separates her from her husband’s coffin. In reality, it does not; instead, it separates him from the rest of his family as they mourn for him after he has died.

Chapter 24

The narrator wakes up from his nightmare, feeling disoriented and worried. He and Chris get back on the motorcycle, and he begins a Chautauqua that equates an awareness of quality with caring about what one does. He will illustrate these concepts by showing how they come together in motorcycle maintenance.

The travelers eat breakfast and the author helps Chris write a letter to his mother. On the road again, the author continues talking about motorcycles and how they work. He begins by describing what happens when people get stuck on problems while trying to repair them. People tend to think in rigid ways rather than approaching problems dynamically, which causes them to be unable to solve their problem. To avoid this situation, it’s important for people not just know why things are happening but also understand how they can change what is happening so that it fits with their goals. This process will help them find solutions that can fix their problem and move past being stuck without changing anything else in the world around them.

The narrator and Chris have driven the motorcycle through Grangeville, Idaho and are now entering a desert.

Chapter 25

In the following passage, the narrator discusses a different kind of stuckness. He talks about how people can get “stuck” in their views on technology and its usefulness. The problem is that they don’t see technology as an art form but rather something to be feared because it’s not natural or intuitive. However, there are ways to make technology better so that people will want to use it.

Technology can be boring and tedious, but it’s made more interesting by stylization. However, the narrator feels that this isn’t enough to improve technology. Instead of just making things look better without changing their functionality or purpose, people should make technology more useful and appealing in a way that also makes sense. It requires peace of mind to achieve this connection between what is good and why something is good.

Peace of mind comes from a calmness of body and mind. It requires one to perform work without desire, which is achieved by focusing on the task at hand. This leads to Quality Work, which allows you to see yourself as part of the larger picture rather than an individual separated from it all.

The narrator and Chris are camping out for the night. They’re going to go into Oregon tomorrow. The narrator thinks about how his son is familiar, but also unfamiliar to him at times. He wonders if genuine connections with others are possible.

Chapter 26

The narrator thinks that he will probably never sell his motorcycle. He remembers a poem and recites it to himself as he rides along the countryside.

The author then discusses the importance of motivation and how it can be used to perform quality work. He also states that gumption traps exist, which are things that can drain an individual’s motivation and ability to do good work. The author believes that by identifying these gumption traps, people will know how to avoid them in their own lives.

The author divides the gumption traps into two categories: external and internal. External setbacks include malfunctioning parts or machinery, while internal hang-ups are caused by the individual himself.

There are three types of “gumption traps,” which prevent people from doing what they want to do. The first is the truth trap, which prevents someone from understanding a problem intellectually. The second is the muscle trap, which prevents someone from being able to physically move in a way they need to. And finally there’s the value trap, where one has an incorrect view of how things work and can’t change their thinking about it even when presented with evidence that shows they’re wrong. Repairers can overcome this by slowing down and having genuine interest in motorcycles so that they see them differently than before and have different approaches for fixing them

The narrator and his son stop for lunch. The narrator thinks about how the two of them have a relationship that is stuck in a value trap, and he wants to discover why. He realizes that he can’t see what’s right in front of him because of their differences in values. He tries to come up with some explanations, but ultimately decides that he doesn’t understand it at all. He wonders if there is any significance behind his dream about separating from Chris by means of glass doors, and reflects on whether or not they are really so different after all.

In the passage, the narrator talks about how ego can be a trap for people. Ego makes one more likely to believe flattering details and less likely to believe unflattering ones. The author suggests adopting a modest outlook so that you are not trapped by your ego.

Another gumption trap is anxiety. When one becomes nervous, they commit errors that make it harder to recover from the mistakes. The best way to avoid this is to separate working out anxieties from repairing the damage caused by those anxieties. Boredom can be avoided by taking a break or getting used to doing certain tasks over and over again. Impatience can be staved off with good organization skills and without time pressure.

The narrator and Chris rest in a small, relaxed town. As they resume travel through the desert, the narrator continues his Chautauqua, explaining that there are times when neither yes nor no is appropriate. In fact, mu is often more effective than either answer at getting to the heart of a problem. This concept can be applied to many things—the nature of Buddha cannot be encompassed by yes or no; mu also appears in science and reveals that we need to widen our view of something before we can understand it properly; even motorcycle maintenance questions sometimes require answers other than just “yes” or “no.”

Finally, the narrator explains how to avoid making mistakes. One must be comfortable with the tools and materials used in motorcycle construction and repair, as well as have a good feel for them.

The author concludes his discussion of gumption traps by warning that simply knowing about them isn’t enough to prevent one from falling into them. One must live one’s entire life in a way that avoids these traps and channels Quality at all times. This attitude prevents one from viewing motorcycles as objects separate from oneself, and allows for seamless work with the motorcycle.

Traveling on the road, the narrator notices that people appear more distracted and alienated than ever before. He concludes it’s because they have reached the West Coast; those who live here are focused solely on themselves. The narrator condemns this lifestyle as impersonal, self-centered, and egotistical; they have gone too far in their obsessive self-improvement. After traveling 325 miles total that day, Chris and he finally pull into Bend to set up camp at long last for the night.

Chapter 27

In this chapter, the narrator describes in more detail his recurring nightmare. In the dream, he sees a shadowy figure standing between him and Chris who is on the other side of a glass door. The narrator realizes that the shadow figure is afraid of him. He lunges at it to reveal its face, but wakes up before he can do so because Chris has woken him up.

Chris wakes up the narrator, because he was yelling in his sleep. The narrator explains that he wasn’t talking about Chris; instead, he was dreaming of a man named Phaedrus. He realizes that this means Phaedrus is coming back to life and that it’s inevitable. The narrator feels sorry for Chris, but knows what must be done when Phaedrus comes back to life.

Chapter 28

The chapter opens with a flashback. A six-year-old Chris and Phaedrus are driving in the car, looking for bunk beds. They drive around for hours but can’t find any, so they return home empty handed. The mother is furious that they wasted all that time. This seems to inspire Chris to seek hospitalization when he reaches San Francisco with Phaedrus.

The author decided to tell the story of Phaedrus. He asks his friend Sarah where he could find more lessons on Quality, and she recommends ancient Greek philosophers. From there, Phaedrus decides to apply for a program at the University of Chicago that focuses on different disciplines in an attempt to synthesize those ideas into Quality.

Chris asks the narrator why they’re traveling. The narrator tells him that their goal is simply to see the country, but Chris doesn’t understand this answer. He wants to know more about his father’s past and how it relates to their travels together.

Phaedrus is admitted to the program by the interim acting chairman. He interviews with the permanent chairman, but they have a difference of opinion on methodology and substance. Phaedrus returns home disappointed that his principles might be wrong. He researches both men’s writings and finds them obscure—perhaps deliberately so.

Aristotle’s ideas were so influential that they’re still being debated today. They had a huge impact on the history of thought, and even now people are trying to figure out if we should keep his ideas around or move on from them. One character in the book is a very prominent Aristotelian scholar at the University of Chicago. He has an assistant who reports back to him about Phaedrus’ work—he hasn’t heard anything about it until he reads Phaedrus’ letter soliciting feedback for his upcoming lecture series at the university. The student tells Aristotle’s assistant that everything indicates that Phaedrus will likely argue against Plato and Aristotle when he presents his theses about Quality; this disappoints Aristotle’s assistant, because he really wanted to publicly debate these issues with someone who shared his perspective.

Phaedrus is deluded into thinking that he can understand and learn everything about the world. He writes to his Chairman, but the chairman suggests that he study with a Philosophy department instead because Phaedrus’s letter sounds like megalomania. Although Phaedrus says he enjoys interdisciplinary studies, his desire for competition means that even though it’s been suggested that he change programs, he sticks with the one in which he has already been admitted.

Phaedrus’s family travels to Chicago, and he must support himself by teaching rhetoric full-time at the University of Illinois. Phaedrus studies the Ancient Greeks obsessively, becomes convinced that their legacy has caused damage in western society, and believes he needs to reject his Greek cultural surroundings in favor of a pre-Greek Quality. This will make him seem insane because people believe what Aristotle says is true.

The narrator and Chris arrive at the town of Grant’s Pass. They’re forced to stay in a motel because of damage to the motorcycle’s chain guard. The narrator is frustrated about having to repair it, since he plans on selling it shortly after that.

Chapter 29

The narrator and Chris do some errands in town. The narrator finds a welder to repair the chain guard, which he does skillfully. He seems uninterested when complimented on his work.

The author believes that people on the coasts, like in New York and San Francisco, are more isolated than those who live in middle America. He attributes this to a dualistic view of technology. In order to overcome this isolation, he thinks it’s important to pay attention to quality.

Phaedrus reads Aristotle with great care, because he knows that his professor will dismiss him as a poor student. Phaedrus also disagrees with the professor’s ideas, and thinks the professor will try to criticize him whenever possible. As he studies, Phaedrus becomes angry at how elaborate Aristotle’s taxonomies are of thought and rhetoric. He also doesn’t like how vague Aristotle is about dialectic in his writings.

Plato is the next philosopher to be studied in class, but Phaedrus disagrees with Plato’s view of rhetoric. He thinks that rhetoric can be used for good as well as evil. Phaedrus loses track of time while studying and preparing for his presentation on Quality, so he arrives late to class. The Professor tries to engage him in a discussion about it, but all this does is make him more determined not to talk at all. He sits silently through the rest of the lecture as the professor continues talking and asking questions from other students; when it’s finally his turn to speak after being asked a question by another student, he takes too long and everyone moves on before he has an opportunity to answer them properly.

Plato rejected Sophistic rhetoricians because they threatened his idea of truth. The narrator says that the Greeks were teachers of virtue and excellence, which is why Phaedrus analyzes Hector’s character to clarify those concepts. From there, he realized that what motivated Greek heroes was quality, which is what he calls arête. He realizes that this concept transcends history and unifies all things.

Socrates then realizes that Plato has made the concept of ‘good’ into a specific thing. Aristotle is able to manipulate it later and place it in a less important position, thereby explaining why western society puts little emphasis on quality.

Chapter 30

In the University of Chicago, Phaedrus’s Philosophy professor is out sick for many weeks. During this time, he studies Plato’s text, Phaedrus. He becomes ill and his sanity starts to falter because he has to work 20 hours a day. After several weeks, his class meets again but now it is taught by the Chairman of the Committee. This time around, Phaedrus knows that his ideas will be questioned in public because this person hates him and always tries to humiliate him. The Chairman explains the dialogue and says some things are analogies while others are not as they seem at first glance. When someone raises their hand to question Socrates’ observations about love being like “a winged horse” (which isn’t an analogy),the Chairman asks them if they know what Socrates was talking about when he used those words (it was actually a metaphor). But then Phaedrus quotes from another source that proves how wrong Socrates is on that point, so now everyone thinks both sources contradict each other even though one wasn’t originally meant as an analogy anyway! Then the Chairman gets mad and tries to trick people into thinking there’s something wrong with what Phaedrus said before but instead it turns out that everything he said came directly from one of the articles written by the chairman!

In the next class, Phaedrus tries to defer to the Chairman, but the Chairman snaps at him nastily. After this class, Phaedrus stops attending. His lectures at Navy Pier grow more and more frenzied, and his grip on reality dwindles. He stops sleeping. He loses track of time and wanders around aimlessly in Chicago while he waits for Quality to make itself clear to him.

The narrator and Chris pull off the freeway and into a motel for the night. Chris asks when they can go home, but the narrator doesn’t know. He complains about their journey. The narrator begins to wail on the floor in a way that reminds him of his time at the mental hospital.

Chapter 31

Because the narrator is gone, it’s apparent that Chris wants nothing to do with him. The next morning, he’s definitely not happy to see his dad and behaves in a way to let him know. As the day passes, they ride south along the coast on their motorcycles. They stop for lunch before taking off again. During this time, the son grows frustrated with his father’s aloofness and desire not to spend some quality time together; however, eventually it turns out that all he wanted was reassurance from his father about whether or not he still loved him as much now that Phaedrus was gone…

The narrator observes that Chris’s inquisitive, combative nature reminds him of Phaedrus. The two stop at a diner, and Chris says he has no appetite because of a stomachache. The two then ride to a cliff, where the narrator explains to Chris that he is going to send him home. He warns his son that he may be predisposed to insanity like himself and should seek help if it happens again.

Chris asks the narrator why he didn’t open the door between him and his family at the hospital. The narrator realizes that this could be another dream, so he tells Chris about his time in a psychiatric hospital as Phaedrus. He recalls more of his memories from that time, including one where Chris thought he was insane because he wouldn’t open that glass door to see his father.

Chapter 32

The narrator and Chris continue driving along the coast. Chris has a difficult time understanding that his split identity is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something he needs to work on for himself.

The two take their helmets off and can now communicate in a regular tone instead of yelling. The narrator tells Chris that he’ll be able to have his own motorcycle when he’s old enough, but only if he takes care of it and has the right attitude.

The narrator reminds Chris that he should not have any trouble dealing with his motorcycle since he has the right attitude. He mentions how optimistic and confident people are, which is evident by their demeanor. People feel as though they can accomplish anything because of their immense optimism and confidence.

Afterword

Pirsig believes that his career is best viewed the way the Ancient Greeks viewed time: with the past receding from view and the future coming up from behind. His book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was declined 121 times before it was published, but neither he nor his editor expected it to be successful. Its popularity has dominated Pirsig’s outlook, while its success remains unknown.

Pirsig’s book is a culture-bearing work. It offers a positive way forward for people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The countercultural ideology was based on negativity rather than positivity; Pirsig’s Zen approach to life offered an alternative that would resonate with people seeking something more meaningful in their lives.

Chris has been murdered in a botched robbery. He was a student at the San Francisco Zen Center and Pirsig’s grieving causes him to recognize that Chris was not an object, but a “pattern.” His death removed the central part of this pattern entity and he likens it to spirit or ghost.

Pirsig’s wife becomes pregnant, but they initially consider abortion. They decide to keep the child and name her Nell. Pirsig thinks of Nell as a way to repair his damaged life after Chris’ murder.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Book Summary, by Robert Pirsig
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