Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Phaedrus, named after an Ancient Greek Sophist who appears in Plato’s Socratic dialogue Phaedrus, is the name by which the narrator refers to the consciousness that once occupied his body. Phaedrus was a highly analytical academic prodigy who grew disenchanted with the western intellectual tradition’s limited notion of reason. While teaching English at Montana State University in Bozeman, he begins to develop a philosophy that revolves around a concept he calls Quality. Quality is a single concept that encapsulates the subject/object duality that dominates western thought. Phaedrus pursues further study at the University of Chicago, where he reads the Ancient Greek philosophers that engendered the problematic subject/object distinction in contemporary academia. During his time in Chicago, Phaedrus suffers a mental breakdown, and he is hospitalized and subjected to electroshock therapy. Following this therapy, Phaedrus’s consciousness changes to that of the narrator.

Phaedrus Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quotes below are all either spoken by Phaedrus or refer to Phaedrus. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Quality Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperTorch edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974.
Chapter 3 Quotes

A second flash...WHAM and everything brilliant—and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse—that windmill—oh, my God, he’s been here! -- throttle off—this is his road—a fence and trees—and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

As the group is traveling through the prairie, a storm hits. The quote here describes the sensation of thunder and lightning beginning, coupled with the strange memories that the suddenly illuminated surroundings bring. The second flash is lightning and "WHAM" is its thunder, and in the third flash a familiar farmhouse and windmill are momentarily illuminated. These images spark the narrator to say "oh, my God, he's been here!" and "this is his road." This "he" is the first mention of Phaedrus, though he is not named until later in the chapter.

Once they stop to get out of the rain, the narrator has uncanny knowledge of the town, as if he has been there before. This is the first indication that there is more to his identity than we yet know. We will come to learn about Phaedrus, the narrator's alternate past personality who haunts him like a ghost, after a psychotic break and convulsive therapy caused a mental split. The narrator-as-Phaedrus has been to the town before, which is how he knows where to find the best motel. Later, when the narrator tells Chris a ghost story and introduces Phaedrus, Chris asks his father if he saw Phaedrus out in the storm, since Sylvia said the narrator looked like he had seen a ghost. Chris doesn't know how perceptive his question really is, of course.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter the narrator describes Phaedrus and his style of thought, which is quintessentially classical. It is organized and rooted entirely in logic and reason. To give an example, the narrator breaks down the components of a motorcycle in an extremely detailed, organized list. It is pure analysis; there is no room for the romantic or for value judgements or anything in line with John's worldview. Phaedrus mastered this type of rational thinking and used it as a tool. The narrator refers to the tool, used to cut things and organize them into pieces like the motorcycle, as Phaedrus' knife.

The narrator also reveals that Phaedrus' obsession with an idea or philosophical project seemingly drove him to insanity. But rather than calling him an assassin, the narrator calls Phaedrus a poor surgeon. He does this to make the point that Phaedrus was trying to do something—"he was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had." The "sick and ailing thing" that Phaedrus operates is the dichotomy that the narrator has so far been outlining. The tragedy of this inquiry is that eventually he cuts so far that he ends up permanently damaging himself.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before this quote the narrator introduces the metaphor of a handful of sand to describe both the Classical and Romantic modes of thought and being. Some sort of sorting, says the narrator, is essential and is done by everyone, since we are exposed to so many experiences at once that if we were aware of it all at once we could not even think. The landscape of awareness available to us is endless and unfathomable. From that landscape, we take a handful of sand, which represents details and experiences and the world we are conscious of. Taking the handful alone is an act of sorting.

But the romantic seeks to look at the whole handful of sand at once, and the classicist seeks to sort the handful into specific piles by the means of Phaedrus' "knife"—logic used to divide the world we are conscious of into distinct parts.

In the quote, the narrator describes the major project of Phaedrus and of the book itself, to find a way of looking at the world that "does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and then unites them into one." By violence, he means that when you attempt to look at the handful all at once, you lose some of the nuance found in the sorting, and when you sort, you lose some of the beauty of the whole. Something is always lost. Phaedrus attempted to embrace both means of viewing the world and unite them. He wanted to look at the endless landscape itself, and the idea that we grab sand at all.

Chapter 10 Quotes

The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the narrator is elaborating on Phaedrus' quest for "the ghost of rationality" and the goal of uniting the classical and romantic realities. He gives a quote from Albert Einstein which talks about the different reasons that draw people to become scientists. Phaedrus, by age 15, was studying biochemistry at a university. His break occurred when he became interested in the nature of hypothesis.

During the course of his studies, he realized that the easiest part of science was coming up with a rational hypothesis to explain the data. No matter how many times he was stifled, he could always come up with another hypothesis, and the more and more he learned he realized the more hypotheses he could generate. The quote excerpted here is Phaedrus' coined law, which was intended to be humorous. But the more he studied and questioned, the less humorous it became.

Eventually, Phaedrus realized that if the law was true, it was nihilistic and a complete disproof of the scientific method. If science is meant to test and eliminate hypotheses, and hypotheses are generated faster than they can be tested and eliminated, then any scientific conclusion lacks certainty and "falls short on its goal of establishing proven knowledge." This discovery drove him to abandon science, and was a key step in his unraveling and eventual path to insanity. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

Phaedrus’ refusal to define Quality, in terms of this analogy, was an attempt to break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding and find a point of common understanding between the classic and romantic worlds. Quality, the cleavage term between hip and square, seemed to be it. Both worlds used the term. Both knew what it was. It was just that the romantic left it alone and appreciated it for what it was and the classic tried to turn it into a set of intellectual building blocks for other purposes. Now, with the definition blocked, the classic mind was forced to view Quality as the romantic did, undistorted by thought structures.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator and Chris are still hiking, and the narrator says he wants to make one last point about Quality. He begins by summarizing some of the points he has made about the split between classical and romantic, or "hip" and "square." He briefly goes over the analogy he has previously made, which says that life and awareness are an infinite landscape, and from that landscape we take a handful of sand. The romantic approach is to appreciate the whole handful; the classical approach is to sort the handful into piles.

Using this analogy again, the narrator explains that Phaedrus' refusal to define Quality in the classroom and in his thought can be understood as him trying to "break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding." Phaedrus wanted to challenge classical reason. Instead of using his "knife" or sifting the sand (using reason) to define Quality, Phaedrus wanted to find a concept that could bridge the classic and romantic worlds and unite them.

Phaedrus determined that Quality was the concept that united hip and square (classical and romantic), and that both worlds used Quality and knew what it was. Because of these ideas, Phaedrus thought that Quality was the thing that could bring rationality and irrationality, hip and square together. The romantics like John knew what quality was, and "they left it alone and appreciated it." Classicists would try to define Quality and use it as a tool for reason. But by blocking the classic mind from defining Quality, Phaedrus would force a classicist to see Quality how a romantic might, free from the confines of rationality and logic. In this way he might bridge the gap that has occupied so much of the Chautauqua.

Chapter 20 Quotes

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

Related Characters: Phaedrus (speaker)
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator decides that it is unsafe to climb to the top of the mountain. During the descent, he continues describing Phaedrus' breakthrough. He conceptualizes Quality as "preintellectual reality." Quality is reality, and classical quality and romantic quality become different modes of perceiving and processing it. He also reasons that people think different objects have Quality not because of any difference or variability within Quality itself, but because people are all so different and bring a different set of memories each time they interpret quality.

Here, Phaedrus writes to his colleagues at Bozeman that "any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation." Analytic thinking, we know, is breaking things down into its components (the narrator has previously used sandsifting and knife metaphors to help us understand this point). But Quality, he says, cannot be broken down into any more parts. It cannot be broken down or cut apart not because it is complicated or mysterious, because it is so simple. Quality is the event of reality itself. He goes on to say, "Quality is the response of an organism to its environment."

Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

Still descending the mountain, the narrator says that he wishes to move way from the abstract intellectual pursuits of Phaedrus and connect those ideas back to everyday life and the general dissatisfaction with technology and the spirit of the 20th century. He says that he cannot say for sure if Phaedrus' comparison between Quality and Tao was correct, or good, and he even says that it's possible to "hurt" Quality just by trying to define it.

Rather, the narrator says that Phaedrus' work was done in the service of reason. By climbing the intellectual mountain (investigating Quality), Phaedrus showed how to include irrational and emotional issues under the umbrella of reason. He found a way to connect what had "previously been unassimilable" in reason and academia. The narrator goes on to say that it is the presence of irrational ideas and the need to assimilate them (understand them, and bridge the gap between classic and romantic) that is driving all of the "bad quality' and the "chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century" which drove him to begin the Chautauqua in the first place.

Chapter 31 Quotes

I can imitate the father he’s supposed to have, but subconsciously, at the Quality level, he sees through it and knows his real father isn’t here. In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus, Chris Pirsig
Page Number: 517
Explanation and Analysis:

The book is winding down; Phaedrus' psychotic break has been reached in the narrator's retelling, and the Chautauqua is mostly complete. Phaedrus is returning, has been slowly resurfacing, and the narrator finally realizes that Chris misses Phaedrus. Chris hates the narrator and is so frustrated because he isn't Phaedrus anymore. At night during nightmares, and in some other moments Phaedrus returns briefly, but these small episodes seem only to further torture Chris.

The narrator says here that he can imitate Phaedrus, the father that Chris wants to have and is used to, but on the level of Quality and the subconscious, Chris can tell that the narrator just isn't Phaedrus. The narrator says that in the Chautauqua he has been hypocritical, since he has worked so hard to eliminate duality—subject/object and classical/romantic—but the "biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced." His mind is still divided. He is still both Phaedrus and himself.

Finally, the narrator appears ready to confront this rift within himself, and makes preparations for Phaedrus' return. He believes that his current split makes him unreliable as a father, and even plans to send Chris home and check back into a mental hospital. But in the course of the climactic, emotional conversation with Chris, in which the narrator tries to explain his insanity and his plan to send Chris home, Phaedrus emerges to comfort his son. 

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Phaedrus Character Timeline in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The timeline below shows where the character Phaedrus appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
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...Chris asks to hear another ghost story. The narrator tells him about a man named Phaedrus, who spent his life hunting for a ghost, only to become a ghost himself. Chris... (full context)
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Lying awake, the narrator confesses to the reader that Phaedrus has seen the land the group now travels through, and has led them to this... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...in his sleeping bag, exhausted but unable to sleep. He has a haunting vision of Phaedrus, whom he describes as an “Evil spirit. Insane. From a world without life or death.”... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...at breakfast of another stomachache. The narrator decides to devote that day’s Chautauqua to describing Phaedrus’s world, because he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to omit Phaedrus from the story at this... (full context)
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Phaedrus, the narrator explains, divided human understanding into two approaches, “classic” and “romantic.” Phaedrus’s approach was... (full context)
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Phaedrus, the narrator says, operated within this alienating context of opposing ideologies. His ideas made others... (full context)
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...group or not at all. Back on the road, the narrator continues to think of Phaedrus’s “rational, analytical, classical” brand of thought. The narrator demonstrates this sort of thought by dividing... (full context)
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According to the narrator, Phaedrus used this knife of logic to cut the world into very fine parts that he... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...travel and the narrator recognizes that he should not mentally fight against his discussion of Phaedrus. (full context)
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Phaedrus’s “knife,” the narrator explains, is the tool that every human uses to discern his or... (full context)
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The discussion of classic and romantic understanding is necessary to introduce Phaedrus, because the man must be described obliquely. Phaedrus was in pursuit of the “ghost” of... (full context)
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The narrator describes some of Phaedrus’s biographical background. He was an expert at manipulating the world analytically and logically, so much... (full context)
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Phaedrus studied the ghost of reason because he saw it as a way to study his... (full context)
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The narrator says that the time has come to explain his own relation to Phaedrus. At a party several years ago, the narrator felt overwhelmed by carousing and went to... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...much of a radical to speak there. Leaving town, the narrator recognizes a bench that Phaedrus has slept on as he made his way to that college in Bozeman. (full context)
Chapter 10
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The narrator begins to elaborate on Phaedrus’s quest for the “ghost of rationality.” He reproduces a quote from Albert Einstein that details... (full context)
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By age 15, Phaedrus had already completed a year of university biochemistry. He becomes fascinated by the formation of... (full context)
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Phaedrus reasons that this use of the scientific method showcases a harmful deficiency in the state... (full context)
Chapter 11
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...feel very familiar to him. The group decides to reach Bozeman by a road that Phaedrus traveled often. Phaedrus would traverse the area during his frequent multi-day excursions into the wilderness.... (full context)
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After dropping out of college, Phaedrus’s “lateral drift” led him to enlist in the military. He is sent to Korea. His... (full context)
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Once Phaedrus returns from Korea, he spends two weeks in deep thought. After this time, his lateral... (full context)
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...country” of Montana parallels another sort of “high country”—one that exists solely in the mind. Phaedrus traverses this mental terrain, and he reads many philosophical texts for guidance. However, he reads... (full context)
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By reading the texts of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Phaedrus begins to better understand the predicament of classicism versus romanticism. Hume is an empiricist: he... (full context)
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...reason, reminiscent of Nicholas Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric solar system. According to the narrator, Phaedrus performs a similar shift in reason in order to reconcile romantic and classic viewpoints. (full context)
Chapter 12
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...painter named Robert DeWeese who teaches at the college. He is an old friend of Phaedrus’s, and the narrator worries that DeWeese will expect him to be the same person as... (full context)
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Though the narrator’s account obscured this chronology, Phaedrus did not move to Bozeman immediately after his epiphany about Kant’s philosophy. Before Montana, he... (full context)
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One day at the Indian university, Phaedrus’s teacher explains that the world is illusory, and Phaedrus asks whether the atomic bombing of... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...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 of his solitary nature. Right-wing state... (full context)
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Phaedrus’s efforts against accreditation scandalized some students, and during one of his classes, he delivered a... (full context)
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The narrator praises the logical prowess of Phaedrus’s Church of Reason speech. He goes on to explain that true adherents of the Church... (full context)
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The narrator also observes that Phaedrus’s devotion to the Church of Reason likely came as a result of his understanding of... (full context)
Chapter 14
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The narrator continues, telling the story of the Ancient Greek figure named Phaedrus. The Phaedrus of ancient times was a rhetorician who is immortalized as an interlocutor in... (full context)
Chapter 15
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...and Sylvia head home. The next day, the narrator and Chris revisit the college where Phaedrus taught. When the father and son enter the building, Chris gets deeply uncomfortable and runs... (full context)
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A woman comes upon the narrator in the classroom, and recognizes him as Phaedrus. She may have been one of his students. She treats the narrator extremely reverently and... (full context)
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On his way out of the classroom, the narrator comes across Phaedrus’s old office, and is overcome with memories of his philosophical breakthroughs. He also recalls a... (full context)
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The essay assignment vexes the students, and Phaedrus believes they must be having the same definitional troubles as he. He wonders how people... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...Chris begin their hike into the mountains. He compares their trek through the mountains to Phaedrus’s mental odyssey towards discovering Quality. The narrator divides Phaedrus’s thought on Quality into two phases:... (full context)
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Phaedrus’s nonmetaphysical explanation of Quality hinges on his teaching of rhetoric. He gives students assignments aimed... (full context)
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...refuses to do a task he’s asked to do. The narrator continues to muse about Phaedrus’s new grade-less teaching scheme. The goal is to discourage students who aren’t interested in education... (full context)
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At the end of the term, Phaedrus surveyed his students to see how they liked the grade-less system. An overall majority preferred... (full context)
Chapter 17
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The narrator recalls the aftermath of Phaedrus’s assignment that asked his class to define Quality. The students are baffled and indignant when... (full context)
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...an approach that leads only to failure or unsatisfying success. He recalls a failed attempt Phaedrus made to climb Mount Kailas as part of a pilgrimage in India, and concludes that... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Phaedrus begins to examine “esthetics,” the formalized study of Quality, but is repulsed by the intellectualism... (full context)
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...not condemn his son’s bratty behavior, and the pair resumes hiking. Meanwhile, the narrator recreates Phaedrus’s image of a world without quality, and concludes that a world without quality is a... (full context)
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The narrator emphasizes that Quality bridges the gap between romantic and classic modes of thought. Phaedrus’s refusal to define Quality means that the concept cannot be viewed from an analytical, classic... (full context)
Chapter 19
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Phaedrus is asked by the Bozeman English faculty whether Quality is a subjective or objective phenomenon.... (full context)
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Phaedrus is very excited by his tripartite model of reality, but he decides to revise it.... (full context)
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Just as Phaedrus’s breakthrough is recounted by the narrator, he and Chris break out of the tree line.... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Phaedrus conceptualizes Quality as a “preintellectual reality.” He explains that some people view it differently because... (full context)
Chapter 21
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...the narrator muses that he cannot evaluate how truthful it is that the Tao and Phaedrus’s Quality are one and the same. What Phaedrus’s philosophizing really accomplished, however, is an expansion... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...new Chautauqua about the thought of the French polymath Jules Henri Poincaré. Poincaré was, like Phaedrus, very interested in testing the limits of scientific reasoning. During Poincaré’s lifetime, different mathematical systems... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...explains to his son that his threats weren’t aimed at Chris. The narrator realizes that Phaedrus is actually the one dreaming, and that this signifies Phaedrus’s reawakening. The narrator himself is... (full context)
Chapter 28
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The chapter opens with a flashback: Phaedrus and a six-year-old Chris drive in a car through a desolate cityscape. Neither of them... (full context)
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The narrator decides to recount the conclusion of Phaedrus’s story. Phaedrus asks his colleague Sarah where he could find more lessons on the nature... (full context)
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Phaedrus is admitted to the program by its interim acting chairman based on his résumé. When... (full context)
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The narrator recollects a fragmented memory of Phaedrus commenting to the Assistant Chairman that he hadn’t noticed Aristotle in the committee’s curriculum. The... (full context)
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Phaedrus’s letter to the Chairman comes across as deluded and megalomaniacal. The interdisciplinary committee suggests that... (full context)
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Phaedrus’s family relocates to Chicago, and since Phaedrus has no scholarship to study at the program,... (full context)
Chapter 29
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Phaedrus reads Aristotle fastidiously, so that his truculent Professor of Philosophy cannot dismiss him as a... (full context)
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Plato is the next thinker to be studied in Phaedrus’s class, and Phaedrus disagrees with the philosopher’s equation of rhetoric with “the Bad.” Phaedrus has... (full context)
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...the Sophists, the narrator says, because they posed a threat to his idea of Truth. Phaedrus also remembers that the Sophists were teachers of virtue and excellence, and to clarify these... (full context)
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Phaedrus then realizes that Plato has simply made arête into a fixed concept: the Good. This... (full context)
Chapter 30
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At the University of Chicago, Phaedrus’s Professor of Philosophy is out sick for many consecutive weeks. In the interim, Phaedrus studies... (full context)
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After several weeks, Phaedrus’s class meets again, this time taught by the Chairman of the Committee. Phaedrus understands that... (full context)
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In the next class, Phaedrus tries to defer to the Chairman, but the Chairman snaps at him nastily. After this... (full context)
Chapter 31
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...to complain, and the narrator realizes that Chris wants to hate him because he isn’t Phaedrus anymore. The narrator realizes that his inability to reconcile his own identity with Phaedrus leaves... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...see him. The narrator begins to recall more of his time in the hospital as Phaedrus. Chris then asks whether the narrator was actually insane, to which the narrator responds no.... (full context)