The group awakes on a scorching hot day, demoralized by a mosquito-ridden night. Chris complains 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 point. Phaedrus was the only one who fully understood his own ideas, but he can no longer speak for himself. The narrator has pieced together some of Phaedrus’s story by using the writings he left behind, and he hopes that discussing Phaedrus’s ideas will help bury the man forever.
This description of Phaedrus further exposes the monumental significance that the man has exerted on the life and thought of the narrator—while still keeping Phaedrus’s precise identity a mystery.
Phaedrus, the narrator explains, divided human understanding into two approaches, “classic” and “romantic.” Phaedrus’s approach was a classic one: he saw the world in terms of its underpinning structures, and was predisposed to logic and the scientific method. Romantics see the world in terms of its surface appearance, and are predisposed towards emotions and intuitions. The narrator explains that motorcycle riding is a romantic experience, while motorcycle maintenance is more of a classic task.
Phaedrus’s analyses of human consciousness typify an analytical, dualistic approach to knowledge and understanding.
The classic approach aims to order the universe in a rational, economical way, and romantics can see this as dull and joyless. For this reason, classic and romantic ways of thinking are often at odds with one another, and people can rarely straddle the two approaches. The narrator explains that in the present day there is an ever-widening gap between classic culture and romantic counterculture.
The narrator’s explanation of classic and romantic approaches to life is a vital introduction to a duality that remains at the center of the novel.
Phaedrus, the narrator says, operated within this alienating context of opposing ideologies. His ideas made others believe he was insane, and this social antagonism in turn made Phaedrus still more insane. This detachment from reality culminated in Phaedrus’s arrest and removal from society.
Phaedrus’s observations were unintelligible to his peers, and his unique way of understanding his world made him unable to function normally.
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, the narrator continues to think of Phaedrus’s “rational, analytical, classical” brand of thought. The narrator demonstrates this sort of thought by dividing a motorcycle into an extremely specific list of systems and their components: the power-delivery system, the ignition system, etc.
The narrator’s explanation of motorcycle structure offers a practical illustration of Phaedrus’s classical approach to knowledge and understanding.
Following his classical outline of the motorcycle, the narrator explains that this way of thinking has four important deficiencies: it eliminates the romantic surface impression necessary to understand what a motorcycle is; it eliminates the observer of the motorcycle; it leaves no room for value judgments; and its knife-like divisions give the deceptive impression that things are organized a certain way out of necessity, when the classical process is actually much more surgical and arbitrary.
Though both Phaedrus and the narrator seem predisposed to a classic perspective, the narrator readily acknowledges that the classical outlook cannot encompass many important aspects of perception and understanding.
According to the narrator, Phaedrus used this knife of logic to cut the world into very fine parts that he could analyze. He tried to cut so far into a reality that he saw as deficient that he ended up hurting himself.
This cryptic description of Phaedrus further emphasizes the tragedy of his philosophical mission.