Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

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 a similar location years before.
Chris’s insecurities hinder his attempts to hike; like Phaedrus’s students, he is not motivated by the right impulses.
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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 they hear that Phaedrus did not have a single correct answer in mind. Phaedrus furthers the discussion of Quality by refusing to define the concept. This unorthodox inversion of teaching principles compels his students to engage more deeply with his class, and they later confess to him that they’ve become more interested in English than ever before.
By subverting the definition-oriented logic of traditional education, Phaedrus ends up with a class of students that are far more engaged than they would ordinarily be. This indicates that some aspect of conventional academic logic stands in the way of a high-Quality pursuit of knowledge.
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Chris struggles with the climb. The narrator guesses that his son is treating the ascent like an ego-fulfillment task, 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 Phaedrus failed because he did not venerate the mountain’s holiness as the other pilgrims did, and was unable to succeed by physical and intellectual strength alone. Chris’s ego-climbing is out-of-touch with the here-and-now, and this is his shortcoming.
Because ego-climbing—climbing with the purpose of "beating" the mountain and in so doing making one feel better about oneself—places the self above the environment, it relies on a harmful, dualistic division of subject and object. This prevents an individual from connecting with his surroundings and achieving goals—just as Phaedrus’s egotism prevented him from scaling Mount Kailas.
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