Rhetoric in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Published: 2024-5-26
Tagged: essay writing rhetoric

Cover of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

At the end of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", there's a delicious series of scenes that I particularly like. It describes the escalating war between Phaedrus and the Chairman for the Committee on Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods. It's just so charming to read about two adults savaging each other with words and logic that leads to dramatic images like this one:

Now he is speechless. He can’t think of a word to say. The silence which so built his image at the beginning of the class is now destroying it. He doesn’t understand from where the shot has come. He has never confronted a living Sophist. Only dead ones.

I always assumed these scenes were there to inject some action into what would be a boring treatise about Greek philosophy. But on a recent reread it dawned on me that this is not so; Instead, the emotional crescendo was put there to emphasize the role of rhetoric in Pirsig's concept of Quality.

Actually, not too long ago, I dipped my toes into the field of rhetoric. Specifically, the classical kind, because, well, I like starting things at the beginning. What moved me to do it? I wanted to make my writing better, but none of the help I found elsewhere addressed the problems I was facing. Hell, I couldn't even describe those problems clearly to myself.

But before any of this toe-dipping occurred, I came upon a video by the Director of UChicago's writing program, Larry McEnerney, in which he describes a pattern of writing that readers want to read. That felt related to my problems. But it gave me no threads to follow up on. Until, one day, probably on HackerNews, someone mentioned Joseph M. Williams. Williams was a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago, and he produced guides with titles like, "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace."

I devoured two such guides immediately. In them, I found more patterns for improving writing through clarity, brevity, and coherency--all about getting ideas from one cranium to another. That really spoke to me because, up until then, the only writing instruction I received was centered on templates. And I hated templates. I loathed the five-paragraph essay. It all felt constraining and artificial. But patterns, now, those were like building blocks that offered a structured kind of freedom.

That made me wonder, however: where had these blocks come from? If I knew that, maybe I could find more. Or even produce my own.

Yet again, I found myself without any leads. But during one reread, I caught a reference to someone called Stephen Toulmin. He turned out to be a British philosopher that developed an interesting model of arguments. That model was popular among scholars in the field of rhetoric.

Rhetoric? Rhetoric!

I skimmed Wikipedia about it. It looked promising. I swiftly obtained "Rhetorical Analysis" by M. Longaker and J. Walker. Bingo. This was it. Structure. Patterns. Effects. I skipped the chapter on style--rhythm and image--and kind of glossed over the parts that, in Aristotelian fashion, enumerated a million categories for every way to express an idea. But what was left changed how I approach writing and, more broadly, how I understand communication.

Back to ZAMM. The emphasis on rhetoric there made me realize that Pirsig's book itself is structured around rhetorical principles. In fact, I think there was no other way for Pirsig to do what he set out to do.

Consider what Pirsig labels as the divide between classical and romantic understanding. The classical side, embodied in dialectic, rationality, and the scientific method gave us, without being too shy about it, the modern world. It's great for finding out why a light switch doesn't work. Or what's inside an atom. But it doesn't do well with questions like, "Should abortion be legal?" or "Who is in the wrong, Palestine or Israel?".

The romantic side fairs even less well. It's useful for, hm, at least gesturing at unknown things, or for communicating indescribable experiences. Our world would be much poorer without poetry, true. But romantics' emphasis on subjective experience quite readily morphs into extreme relativity, rendering it useless for figuring things out. Abortion? Reality isn't real, man. You'd know that if you contemplated my sculpture--yes, that pile of Kleenex tissues that represents how fleeting truth is ($50,000, real bargain for someone who vibes with art, man).

So Pirsig, who taught rhetoric at the University of Illinois-Chicago (Chicago, again!), puts it in the hands of his protagonist, Phaedrus, who uses it to finally figure out Quality. But Pirsig uses that same tool to explain and persuade Quality to his readers.

How? I'll use probably my favorite part of classical rhetoric--stasis theory--to explain.

Stasis theory is a method of invention, that is, a way of questioning a topic to find things to say about it. It's composed of four types of questions:

ZAMM doesn't answer these in that sequence. Rather, it goes back and forth as Pirsig encounters obstacles. Like, for example, the conjecture that Quality exists: Pirsig first gives us a rather weak reason to believe it does in the beginning of the book when he contrasts his approach to motorcycle repair with that of John's. I think he even labels it "caring" at some point, and while it does make some sense, there's not enough meat there to accept that Quality is this huge world-changing idea that he makes it out to be.

However, about half way through the book, when Phaedrus is challenged about whether Quality is objective or subjective, Pirsig comes up with a much stronger answer:

"A thing exists”, he said, “if a world without it can’t function normally. If we can show that a world without Quality functions abnormally, then we have shown that Quality exists, whether it’s defined or not.”

He goes onto describe a world that, of course, looks completely abnormal: no poetry, no sports, no tasty food, no fashion--just everyone wearing bland clothing, eating cornmeal, and not doing much else besides existing. (He then points out how similar that is to ancient Sparta as well as Soviet Russia and Communist China--all great imagery).

With that out of the way, Pirsig focuses the majority of the book on the "definition" and "quality" questions of stasis theory. These necessarily interweave because his target is quality/Quality itself. What I mean is that the definition of quality/Quality is something that is good or desirable, so by describing all the good things about Quality, he's also gesturing at its definition. Quality is desirable, for example, because its lack leads to hatred and suffering:

Well, it isn't just art and technology. It's a kind of a noncoalescence between reason and feeling. What's wrong with technology is that it's not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven't paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these. "But now where these are assured, the ugliness is being noticed more and more and people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and esthetically in order to satisfy material needs.

(I don't think he ever produces a concise definition, but maybe that's a thread he left for Lila, ZAMM's sequel?)

Finally, for the last question of stasis theory, that of policy, Pirsig reserves only a few words. The discussion around definition & quality of Quality already suggest it, so there's no need to go beyond just a few sentences at the end of the book:

My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that's all. God, I don't want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There's a place for them but they've got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved.

The structure-pattern suggested by stasis theory is, I think, the reason behind ZAMM's lasting impact as something more than a travelogue. The questions leave few stones unturned, few gaps where a reader might lose interest or decide that Pirsig is talking nonsense. It's also what makes the book so approachable--because, after all, the primary goal of rhetoric is to persuade, and that's impossible to do without clarity and coherency.

To be clear, the persuasion I'm talking about isn't the dirty kind that we associate with the word "rhetoric" these days. Rather, it's the noble kind that marries eloquence with wisdom--because, to paraphrase Rome's most gifted speaker, Cicero, eloquence without wisdom is dangerous, but wisdom without eloquence is useless. ZAMM has plenty of both.


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