And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good – Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
The Phaedrus dialogue doesn’t seem to be one of Plato’s most popular nor one of his most-frequently examined dialogues. Those who study Plato seem to focus far more attention on The Republic, Phaedo, Crito and The Apology of Socrates (which I have also written about and provided a reading-of via the Zensylvania Podcast). Phaedrus just isn’t one of the dialogue’s that is identified as required reading in mainstream academic or recreational philosophy.
But for those of us who may be interested to expand our appreciation of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an examination of Phaedrus is not only useful – it is probably requisite. I make that comment with a certain degree of self-consciousness as I’ve not found very much scrutiny of Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue in the popular commentary on Pirsig that I’ve reviewed since taking the book seriously in 2014. While drafting this essay, I couldn’t recall whether significant attention had been given to Phaedrus in Di Santo & Steele’s Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so I pulled my copy off the shelf to remind myself. The guidebook is a wonderful companion to ZAMM but I don’t find a significant comparative or analytical study of the two works. Frankly, that rather surprises me.
At this time, my assumption is that mainstream western philosophy hasn’t been interested in re-opening many of the matters that overlap between Phaedrus and ZAMM. Most particularly, matters of rhetoric and its place in academia seem to be something western academic philosophy studiously avoided throughout the twentieth and these early decades of the twenty-first century that we’ve experienced so far. So that’s what we’re going to do here – examine Phaedrus as a channel-deepener to Pirsig’s books and also for possible insights into living the kind of life we want to live.
A Reading of Phaedrus
As the August 2022 Episode of the Zensylvania Podcast (S02, E17), I published a reading of the Phaedrus dialogue. You can think of that reading as a companion to this essay (or vice versa). I hope the reading is useful to those who may be dis-inclined to read the Phaedrus for themselves. Perhaps you have time constraints such that it isn’t convenient to sit down with a printed or digital copy. Maybe you just prefer to consume information in audio format. Or maybe you’re already read the Phaedrus and are interested in an audio version to augment your understanding or appreciation of it. Whatever the reason you have for listening to the Phaedrus, I hope my version is of value.
For my own engagement of the text, recording and editing an audio version of the Phaedrus was an interesting process. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to read a text aloud for some time, it is an exercise that I recommend. What I have found is that reading a text aloud results in a better understanding of the words on the page compared to simply reading it silently. The rhythm of my reading adapts to the sentence structure and to the pace of actually saying things rather than merely taking them in through my eyes. Quite literally, by reading aloud, more of my brain is occupied in the process of engaging the text. I sometimes find words and/or word combinations which challenge me when reading aloud that I simply zip by when reading. How the name “Alcibiades” sounds simply doesn’t matter in a silent reading….the collected letters of the name are enough to consistently signify a person or character named Alcibiades. I also find that reading aloud forces me to engage all of the words of the text; I can’t ignore or skip them, whether by distraction or impatience, as I might when reading silently. In short, reading aloud forces me to establish an expanded and more thorough relationship to the text and, to a limited extent, to re-organize my insights into related texts, such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Not at all coincidentally, a significant underlying theme of Plato’s Phaedrus is a contrasting of Socrates’ preferred dynamic, conversational style of philosophy and teaching called dialectic with a more static, written method which we can think of as rhetoric. Spoken words versus written text. With the Zensylvania podcast we have the advantage of being able to present both systems at once. In a sense, we’re able to do something that Socrates…or for that matter, 1970s era Robert Pirsig really couldn’t do…provide you with a written essay simultaneously to my recorded human voice. I suppose the only thing we’re missing so far is the live back-and-forth of a conversation. Well maybe you can help out. I’m happy to record a conversation or dialectic exploration of the ideas in Plato’s Phaedrus contrasted with the motorcycle zen themes. And add it to the episode.
Here in the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be looking at this matter of the contrast between dialectic and rhetoric as solely a consideration of competition among ancient Greek philosophers for students – as we will see that it is. Nor should we consider it quaint pre-occupation of a twentieth century American neo-pragmatist with a moderate pre-occupation with motorcycles. Because indeed, when we look around us, the distinct offerings of a primarily verbal and interactive modality with a primarily literate and non-interactive model is critical to every part of our modern culture. From pre-school to adult learning, as individuals and as a species, we face a critical problem of how best to communicate. To share information. The matter of rhetoric versus dialectic is, indeed a deeply significant cultural matter. And perhaps that is one justification for Robert Pirsig to have considered his book a culture-bearing book. Well, hopefully the exploration that follows will reveal some insights for us.
Who is Phaedrus?
Beginning with the Plato, Phaedrus is presented as a young friend and disciple to Socrates. Phaedrus escorts Socrates on a walk outside of the city gates to read an essay and engage Socrates in a dialectic exchange. The essay which Phaedrus reads to Socrates (and which is the anchor of the dialogue that Socrates and Phaedrus will have) was obtained from Lysias, a friend of Phaedrus, and a contemporaneously famous rhetorician.
A note about pronunciation. I proceed on the understanding that the appropriate pronunciation of Phaedrus is….Fay-druss. That is the way I pronounce the name in the my reading of the dialogue and how I have always felt the name ought to be pronounced. When I decided to read the dialogue for the podcast, I pondered using alternative pronunciations such as “Fay-uh-druss”, “Fie-druss” and “Fee-druss”. I admit that I was rather less interested in choosing a pronunciation that classics scholars might approve than with choosing a version that fits my appreciation of both the ideas in the books and, perhaps strangely, North American automotive culture. This latter consideration tempted me to go with “Fay-uh-druss”.
I was motivated by the word “Phaeton”. This term was borrowed from horse-and-buggy carriage-making of the 1800s into early automotive coach building. Many of the earliest automobiles were situations where the motor, transmission and chassis (frame) were built by one company and a coach-builder would create and attach the body and all of the rest of the vehicle by custom order. A phaeton was a sporty, open car with no permanently installed roof. When I think of the phaeton as an automobiles, what comes to mind are big old classics from the 1920s through to the early 1940s. Cords, Duesenbergs, Packards. Big old cars with hand-made coaches that still drew their design inspiration from elegant horse-drawn carriages. A phaeton carries the slightest reminiscence of a chariot. The kind of thing you’d expect Gatsby to drive.
Via carriage-making in the 1800s, the term phaeton ultimately derives from, appropriately enough, Greek mythology. Phaethon was a son of Helios – the god and personification of the sun. Phaethon’s story is that he travelled to the sun-god’s palace in the east to find and connect with his father. Eventually, the two meet and Phaethon asks to drive Helios’ chariot for a single day. Helios’ declines Phaethon’s request, describing the various dangers Phaethon would encounter if he tried to drive the celestial chariot. Helios advises Phaethon that only he, Helios, is able to control the horses. Still, Phaethon persists in his pleas and eventually Helios relents, allowing Phaethon to drive the chariot. Inevitably, the ride is a disaster. Phaethon cannot keep the wild, powerful horses under control. The chariot careens wildly, first coming to close to the earth, scorching it then soaring too far away and leaving the earth frozen. Eventually, Zeus steps in and strikes Phaethon with a lighting bolt to bring the wild careening ride to an end. Phaethon dies and his body falls into the river Eridanus.
It is a remarkable story for a number of reasons. Most prominently, of course, we have that name Phaethon to connect to Plato’s (and Pirsig’s) Phaedrus. The word ‘phaos’ is the ancient Greek root-word for light (think photon) and we can clearly see how both names, Phaedrus or Phaethon, link to light and brightness. Just as clearly, we have this wild and tragic story of a son fatally failing to drive his father’s chariot – a vehicle far outside of the son’s abilities. It’s a cautionary tale archetype for anyone handing the keys to a powerful vehicle to a younger generation. This comment and observation of handing the keys to a powerful vehicle to a younger generation should be viewed as a meaningful and important metaphor. And it couldn’t have been more perfect for Pirsig to reference in the naming of the primary character in a father-son motorcycle journey. While the relationships between Pirsig, Phaedrus and Chris in ZAMM are not as transparent as the Helios-Phaethon relationship, the connotations are there.
As a metaphor, this handing over the reins of power should be considered and understood beyond merely joy-rides. In fact, this is a central issue. In handing the reigns of his chariot to his son, Helios was not merely dealing with a couple of horses and some wheels…he was handing over control of a fundamental and essential component in the operation of the cosmos. And when things went wrong for the young and incompetent Phaethon, it was Phaethon that crashed and burned, not Helios.
This is a critical matter. For Socrates in addressing his Phaedrus, his concern is to steward his relationship to a protege to guide him away from a Phaethon-like destruction. Similarly Pirsig wishes to guide his son, Chris, away from mental-health disasters that an earlier version of himself (his very own Phaedrus) experienced. And we today have our relationships to our following generations and the matter of finding the best way to guide them away from a ride that they may not be competent for and which could very well end in oblivion. It is an ultimate existential matter, isn’t it?
Which brings up the matter of Zeus’ lightning bolt. In the Greek myth, the lightning bolt destroys Phaethon. In ZAMM, the lightning bolt which liquidated a personality (destroying Phaedrus) took the form of electro convulsive shock therapy which Pirsig underwent. The synchronicity is almost too terrible and chilling to consider.
When I was first drafting this essay, an image search using the terms “motorcycle” and “chariot” revealed a variety of images that seem to be simultaneously inevitable and bizarrely improbable. Particularly old black and white photos which depict an insane Mad Max version of the chariot race scenes in Ben-Hur. If the spirit of Pirsig’s Phaedrus can be depicted in an image, I propose this one which I’m going to call Thus Spake Phaedrus.
Exploration of the Phaethon myth brings new insights into the characters and events of both Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It addresses how things work in our world and who bears responsibility for ensuring that they are maintained and enabled to work to our benefit. It also addresses what happens when power and responsibility is handed to people who aren’t competent to handle it. For Phaethon, he was destroyed. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an incompetent and under-prepared Robert Pirsig eventually undergoes shock therapy. There is also an encapsulated version of the myth in the anecdote when Phaedrus/Pirsig took his Honda to a repair shop where some incompetent mechanics bashed around and damaged the bike. In that setting, Pirsig himself was Helios who ended up taking his chariot home with the decision that it was his responsibility to address.
In Plato’s story, Phaedrus is clearly the bright youth or student. The relationship depicted between Phaedrus and Socrates does not seem to be presented as a father-son relationship. It does seem to be a relationship of an older male teacher or mentor to a younger male student or prodigy. I’m not certain of the parameters of relations of those kinds in ancient Greece and will defer further observation of that to some other time. This mentor relationship is fundamental to the Phaethon myth as well. Appropriate mentorship of a younger generation is one of the greatest of responsibilities of an older generation. This is a feature of ZAMM and something we’ll come back to later in this examination.
In the Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates spends considerable time using a chariot and horses metaphor to explore the themes of love and the human “soul”. So linking exploration of the metaphysics of humanity to the technologies of transportation is at least as old as Greek mythology. Pirsig’s use of the metaphor is again established as entirely consistent and justifiable in context of the mythology and the reference material of the Phaedrus dialogue as sources.
In ZAMM, Phaedrus is the name that Pirsig gives to an earlier version of himself – a younger, brighter and more endangered version of himself. Arguably a version of himself that was not adequately mentored – at least not as presented in ZAMM. A version that was perhaps more in keeping with the mythological Phaethon than the Phaedrus of Plato’s work. In consideration of this, it seems to me that the Phaedrus persona most closely aligns to Pirsig as a student up to a time before he attended the University of Chicago (while teaching at the University of Illinois’ Navy Pier campus).
At around that time (and still before the lightning of shock therapy struck), the persona of the character shifted to be more aligned with Lysias (who does not personally appear in the dialogue – we understand him only through the text that Phaedrus reads – which is a significant and appropriate thing when considering the dialogue). Indeed, as Pirsig was both a student and a teacher at that time, it may be most accurate and appropriate to think of the character at that time as being an incomplete transition from a Phaedrus-state and to a Lysias-state.
And so who is Phaedrus? Simply put, Phaedrus is that younger version of ourselves who we can remember as still bright and full of potential. Phaedrus is also our next generation for whom we have tremendous responsibility and concern. Phaedrus is our protege and the young person who is no longer a child but not quite an adult and a peer. Phaedrus is our ambition, our hope and our light.
Who is/was Lysias
Pirsig has explained that he was confused when choosing the name Phaedrus and perhaps ought to have chosen the name Lysias. Whether that is factually correct or not, Pirsig preferred that we proceed as though it were true. I am disinclined to go with Pirsig’s preference on this.
In Phaedrus, Lysias is a rhetorician and seems also to be a suitor for the affections and tutelage of Phaedrus (at least, a reading of the essay seems to suggest this). Socrates disapproves of Lysias in nearly all ways. He doesn’t like his rhetoric and he doesn’t want to lose his disciple to Lysias.
I am not convinced by Pirsig’s claim that his own errors in judgement led him to choose the name Phaedrus instead of Lysias. The Phaethon myth is too well aligned to ZAMM to be a complete coincidence. Had Pirsig used the name Lysias, this connection would be largely out-of-reach. Also, it seems correct that a mid-forties aged Pirsig might perceive his younger self as a bit of a golden-child.
However, a not-quite-young-anymore Robert Pirsig, with a family and no longer able to be a rising intellectual star, that person is certainly able to be named Lysias. In ZAMM, Pirsig describes taking-up the cause of rhetoric and the Sophists. He rebels against Plato, Socrates and academia itself. He wolfishly describes going to Chicago as if he were an intellectual hit man.
“Great Universities proceeded in a Hegelian fashion and any school which could not accept a thesis contradicting its fundamental tenets was in a rut. This Phaedrus claimed, was the thesis the University of Chicago was waiting for…..if someone else were to produce a thesis which purported to be a major breakthrough between Eastern and Western philosophy, between religious mysticism and scientific positivism, he would think it of major historic importance, a thesis which would place the University miles ahead. In any event, he said, no one was really accept in Chicago until he’d rubbed someone out. It was time Aristotle go his.” (Chapter 28)
The passage refers to Phaedrus’ attitude when he received some resistance or rejection to an attempt to enroll in the University of Chicago’s Interdisciplinary Program in “Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods” which included oversight from the University’s philosophy, English, Chinese and Classics professors. When asked what his substantive field was, Phaedrus explained that it was English composition. The committee chairman rejected the field (which one may simply re-term rhetoric for this essay) as methodological rather than substantive. And it is a root consideration..is composition substance or only method. Consideration of this question is what made Phaedrus feel so wolfishly akin to Lysias.
Historically, Lysias was a rhetorician at the time that Socrates, Plato (and a bit later Aristotle) were dominant intellectuals and scholars of their day. Lysias was a speech-writer and clearly was not a political nor intellectual friend of those proto-academics. When I read Plato, I am frequently concerned by his contemporaneous political intentions. I don’t quite trust that Plato was a fully objective and unbiased source of information. When I approach Plato, I can’t help but think of contemporary partisan politics to wonder how much of what Plato put to paper was a kind of thumb-on-the-scale rhetoric and how much was an earnest and faithful representation of either Socrates’ ideas or Plato’s own.
So here’s an irony about reading Plato in general and the Phaedrus in particular. Despite the fact that Plato advocates for a dialectic method of learning and mentorship via the character called Socrates – he clearly employed rhetoric and writing as vehicles for his philosophy. This is unlike the actual Socrates, from whom no written material is available. So Plato used rhetoric in attempts to intellectually undermine and devalue rhetoricians.
A note about pronunciation. I went with “Liss-ee-us” in my reading but was tempted to go with “Lie-see-us”. The latter version seems to evoke the relationship of the name to it’s root-word origin meaning wolf…as in lycanthrope.
In ZAMM, the scenes wherein Phaedrus is in a kind of conflict with his instructors at the University of Chicago and presents himself as a “wolf” or lone wolf…and this is Pirsig’s confusion between wanting to portray himself as an intellectual wolf among the sheep on the one hand but a kind of radiant golden-child on the other.
Clearly there is room for both personas. Our personalities are mutable over time. Different versions of ourselves are continuously emerging -perhaps now we are a gold-child version of ourselves with hope of rising to glory and power and then again, what seems to be mere moments later, we are a Phaedrus – wolfishly hunting things down…and again at some other time, perhaps we are Helios or Zeus.
This mutability over time is no small consideration, either for ZAMM or for our own lives. I certainly recall times when the golden-child version of myself was most dominant. At times, I can bring that feeling to mind again – either by reliving those times in my memory or approaching some endeavor in a similar manner. However, as I am undoubtedly in the second half of the life, it would be somewhat disappointing if I still viewed myself as that rising golden-child. For me, however, there isn’t any confusion between a Phaedrus version of myself and a Lysias version of myself. While I remember golden-child days and can revive golden-child spirit, it is clear that I am not fundamentally that earlier version of myself. In a sense, I am expressing a significant disagreement with “inner child” notions that suggest adult persons are the living and current embodiment of their childhood – that there’s a child within us currently and always. This seems to me to be a diminishing and confusing perspective – as with Pirsig’s uncertainty whether to name a character with one name or another.
So again, returning to an earlier question…who is Lysias. Well Lysias was an established and respected rhetorician. He was a nemesis to Socrates, Plato – a threat to the foundation of all that was and is academia. Lysias and rhetoric was the alternative mentor for Phaedrus…and for all of western Philosophy. As a speech-writer, Lysias is a political reality outside of the ivory towers. For Plato – Lysias is the anti-academic. But Lysias is also the advocate of literacy and technology. Composition is his field. And here we must confront the question whether that is a methodological or a substantive area. Lysias is the wolf in the garden of academia.
Outside the City Gates
At the beginning of Phaedrus, Socrates explains that he takes his learning from engaging with people within the city. It is his environment. The setting for Socrates requires interaction with others. Dialectic is dependent upon what we may refer to as urban settings.
In the Phaedrus dialogue, however, Socrates and Phaedrus leave the city sit by a river under a plane tree, They have brought the ideas of people with them in the form of a written essay. These facts will become interesting to consider later in this essay where we have a reminiscence of dialectic exchange between Thoth and Thamus. The written essay is what allows Phaedru and Socrates to leave the city – the dynamic source of the themes.
ZAMM also begins with an explanation of getting out of the city. The narrator undertakes his Chautauquas with the reader in the role of listener. If we accept the Phaedrus as a kind of template…Pirsig (the author) is our Plato; the narrator is our Socrates as well as our Lysias and our Phaedrus.
Within the Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates presents a story of two Egyptian gods, Thoth and Thamus, at the invention of the technology of writing. Thamus argued that writing would be a benefit to humanity by expanding human memory. Thoth argued that writing would actually erode human capacity for memory and general/practical living and knowing. Thoth argued that reliance on writing would mean humans would not use their memories but would instead use writing to remember. These arguments relate directly to Pirsig’s ideas of static and dynamic quality – where static quality is in the writing while dyanmic quality is in the active memory of the human.
A significant theme of ZAMM is a struggle with technology and our capacity to live satisfying lives. We may no longer think of writing as a technology – which shows just how ancient it is and the extent to which Thoth’s argument is correct. Cell phones and all things internet are contemporary exhibitions of the theme. Pirsig saw technology as a threat to humanity’s ability to live in the cutting edge of reality; Thoth also saw this threat. Today, we can go to a park with wonderful natural scenery and observe people staring down at a hand-held screen. Or we can casually pose a thought in conversation and have an individual quickly relay a relevant piece of information gleaned from a vast trove of digital information. And just as quickly forgotten.
Via the parable of Thoth and Thamus, Socrates laments a situation where written documents leads to people generally knowing less…as they rely on the documents to provide knowledge. This is the ivory tower of academia versus the workshops of trade schools; book learning versus lived experience; theory versus practice. Professional specialization versus generalization.
Despite Socrates (and therefore Plato’s) apparent preference for a dynamic quality experience of learning via dialectic, academia has evolved into a rhetorical form. When academia was significantly more restricted in size, this situation was perhaps less prominent than it is today. I might suggest that the more dominated by rhetorical forms, methods and patterns that academia undergoes, the more it will be prone to the faults of rhetoric that Plato observed.
Pirsig seems to agree with Plato that dynamic approaches that result in greater general knowledge and ability of students is preferable.
Rhetoric is not just writing, it is arguing for a particular end. Today, we see rhetoric as primarily presenting of arguments to achieve a case or policy. When education is designed around achieving a rhetorically-designed end, anything outside of serving that end is disregarded or held as problematic. Unfortunately for the students, that also means that their training is also held to the specialization of the rhetorically-designed end.
Through Socrates, Plato advocates for Dialectic – the exploration of information, ideas and truth through dialogue and he saw rhetoric/writing as being in conflict with this. As reminiscence rather than memory. Not cutting edge of reality.
Conversation rather than essay…exchange that is in the moment, dyanmic.
Rhetoric is consistent with Pirsig’s static quality
Dialectic is consistent with Pirsig’s dyanmic quality
Rhetoric is the production of artifacts; dialectic is the lived experience.
Sitting Under the Plane Tree
In Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus choose to take up a place under a plane tree (platanus) to have their discussion. The plane tree is closely associated with the Academy of Plato and Aristotle.
This act of sitting under a tree is a critical metaphor and symbol and deserves some consideration in reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or more broadly in life.
Trees occupy a significant presence in ZAMM; trees are frequently mentioned to help establish the setting and the situation. They are a landmark and a reference. Most frequently, and memorably, referenced in ZAMM are pines. Pines seem to hold a special, almost primordial position in Pirsig’s aesthetic environment. Pines are present in the anecdote when Pirsig and his son Chris foreshortened a trip in a rain-storm “But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.” Pine trees occur in brief passages of this sort as a kind of continuous, stabilizing presence, but they are not the kinds of trees that one sits under.
In chapter three, the riders must take shelter and John Sutherland has pointed out a convenient spot. The narrator recalls that there is a “better one if you turn right at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.” While this surprises the other riders, the cottonwoods act as a memory anchor for the narrator and for us.
In chapter eight, the narrator visit’s Bill’s cycle shop “under some shady trees.”; this scene follows an extensive description of the narrator performing inspection and tuning tasks on the motorcycle due to some concerning performance he’d observed.
In chapter fifteen, while the motorcycle’s chain adjustment link is being serviced at a repair shop, the narrator and his son firs sit on a church’s lawn then “…walk under shady trees on very neat sidewalks past neat houses….he prepared his lectures in the peripatetic manner, using these streets as his academy.”
Chapter seventeen..they are mountain-climbing and Chris “sits under a tree and rests. He doesn’t look at me, and that’s how I know it’s bad….is afraid to face the possibility that his fear creates: that he may not be able to climb the mountain at all…”
In the final chapter of the book, there is an extended revelatory scene where Chris is finally freed-up from his sheltered and limiting position on the back of the motorcyle and is able to see the trees…”The road continues to twist and wind through the trees..some of these branches over the road are hanging so low they’re going to konk him on the head if he’s not careful….the sunlight makes strange and beautiful designs through the tree branches on the road.”
This is a zen moment for the motorcycle-ride-as-meditation. Pirsig names the coastal manzanita and this seems to serve as Pirsig’s bodhi tree.
In Buddhism, the Buddha is described as sitting under a Bodhi tree. One of the archetypal images of Buddhism is a person seated in a lotus-position under the canopy of a tree. This is the tree of awakening. The original bodhi tree is a fig tree with the latin name Ficus religiosa.
Sitting under a tree is a thing that nearly every person is capable of. I mean that in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Sitting in the shade of a tree is a fundamental experience. Indeed, a fundamental pleasure. One that we can do at any age and, in many cases regardless of the surrounding events of our lives if we choose to.
At my present home, the front porch of the house sits under the canopy of what is most likely a thirty- to fifty-year-old Crimson King Norway maple tree. It is one of the most comfortable and relaxing places of our home to be. And indeed, the tree lends a welcoming coziness to the entire block that we live on. People want to park their cars under our tree. Meanwhile the back deck and patio sit under a forty-foot tall Balsam Fir.
Living in a major urban centre without trees is one of the most destructive of conditions that we have allowed in modern society. The environments which we have created that are devoid of trees denies access to a fundamental human experience – just sitting under a tree.
In the Phaedrus dialogue three is also a reference to taking learning from an oak or a rock…this idea of taking learning directly from nature rather than from teachers. The grasshoppers are muses….nature and the natural world rather than dogma and prescriptive doctrines. It is a sentiment that sits comfortably with Zen philosophy and with the scenic passages of ZAMM. Most notably, Pirsig takes learning directly from the nature of the landscape and from the atmosphere. Throughout the book, he is observing weather and temperature and geography. But he also seeks to find learning in the real-world of his motorcycle’s behaviour. Here we may take “nature” to refer to anything that exists in the physical (or natural) world compared to what exists only in the mind.
Throughout western Philosophy and certainly within Plato, there is a common conjoining of “the good” and “truth”.
Socrates disapproves of rhetoric and writing as an inadequate replacement for direct living and interaction. He also disapproves of rhetoric and writing as a form that enables a departure from truth.
in the sections of ZAMM where the narrator recalls teaching experiences in Bozeman, Montana as well as his interactions with the University of Chicago when he reveals his area as “English composition” and is accused of being a methodological field. In essence it is revealing Pirsig’s interest in rhetoric and mainstream American philosophy’s disinterest in the same.
Early in ZAMM, the narrator refers to the truth knocks on the door…go away, I’m looking for the truth. This sentence can refer to his own knocking on the door of the University of Chicago’s philosophy department door. Go away, I’m looking for the truth says Plato and academia to rhetoric. The truth, as far as Pirsig can see is in quality and may well be revealed using composition. Rhetoric.
Pirsig advises a student to start with a single brick and work outwards from there. This is a form of advocating inductive reasoning.
The language of myth and metaphor is used in part because it shows the relationship of the use of language to lived and experienced reality. Socrates compares the grasshoppers and plane trees to mythical creatures, gods and events. What we have is a contrasting of subjective narrative-based reality with objective observable facts and remembered experiences. These, too, are central themes of ZAMM and can provide interesting insight into Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality.
In the Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates laments that documents are read to be believed rather than to be critically engaged. This is not a small theme in our contemporary society when the internet and various forms of mass media provide vast quantities of information. We must ask ourselves…do we read in order to believe or do we read to critically engage? To what extent are we participating in subjective narrative-based realities or objective facts and experiences. Are we competent to reject a forced choice between the two and instead synthesize these into an intelligently and authentically experienced whole?
At the end of the Phaedrus dialogue, Plato includes what may be either a backhanded compliment or a sarcastic reference to a rhetorician named Isocrates.
Isocrates was a leading rhetorician and competitor of Plato’s academy when it came to drawing in the young golden-child-status students from Athens’ wealthy families. Plato has Socrates say that Isocrates may rise above the limits of rhetoric.
Isocrates’ writing shows a promotion of freedom, self-control (what I may call self-accountability) and virtue. There is a political theory built on this which is called ‘isocracy’ that is distinct from ‘democracy’ which Plato advocated and the political systems of that name which are dominant today. Some view Isocrates to have been an advocate of ‘pragmatic’ principles as well as probability as a tool for navigating life and truth. Isocrates also focussed on ‘arete’, which is a word/concept that Robert Pirsig features in his metaphysics of quality via Lila and ZAMM.
In my own estimation, Isocrates appears worth more time and attention despite Plato’s bit of damning with faint praise.
In a study of ZAMM, this rather passing reference should not be ignored as it opens the door to more consideration…and will form the basis of a future essay/episode in Zensylvania.
In this review of Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, it seems less important to establish whether Robert Pirsig really did agree with Plato and the academics or whether he preferred Isocrates and the rhetoricians/sophists. It seems to me that preferring the methods and principles of one faction over another is akin to relating to contemporary left-right politics. It gets in the way of one’s ability to draw the best, most correct and most useful elements of all the factions. Rather than trying to justify, reject or overlook an ideology due to its failings and flaws, it seems sensible to figure out in a dynamic way in what ways, under what circumstances and to what extent an ideology may be “true”. See my explorations of fuzzy logic. It seems to me that this is what Pirsig was doing when he tried to synthesize different systems to understand his own life.
Dynamic quality, as the cutting edge of reality, is entirely circumstantial.
To understand and apply these things in our own lives…where does reading and writing fit in our lives. Is the alphabet a kind of descent from memory to reminiscence….from engaging our lives to engaging with abstractions and patterns? Is the internet a continuation and complication of that?
In my podcast, I have focussed on artifacts (essays) and speechifying rather than dialectics…at least so far. They are different.
General knowledge versus academics.
Expertise – the specialist versus the generalist.
2 responses to “Footnotes to Phaedrus…and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
[…] was reminded of convertibles and my own experience of owning one while I examined Plato’s Phaedrus Dialogue and the underpinning mythological story of Phaethon, the son of Helios – the Greek sun […]
[…] the course of reading and considering Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, I had occasion to reflect that the act of sitting under a shady […]