Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

Early on in our study group, we took on metaphysics. We where not disappointed with Lila by Robert Pirsig, better known for his earlier Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While ZMM is still a great read, we all though 'Lila' the deeper work. Folowing is a brief description from Amazon, and a longer review by Carl Davidson is in the comments.

Sex, Drugs, and Metaphysics

February 2, 2002

Reviewed by "austlander" (Germany)

Phaedrus is back. Not satisfied with naming the unameable, he now must subdivide that which cannot be subdivided. The thrust of this book is a devlopment of a 'metaphysics of Quality." Quality is that nameless indirectly percievable reality Pirsig went to great lengths to show us in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM)..."

I am not the intellectual giant that Pirsig is. Before reading Lila, I didn't even know what a metaphysics was; so don't let that stop you. Like ZAMM, "Lila" is a full blown book on philosophy intertwined with a novella, the plot of which serves to drive the orations of the author, and provide case study-like material for the reader.

Phaedrus, having abandoned his motorcycle for a sailboat, is sailing for Mexico and pondering his next book which will be a "metaphysics of Quality" or maybe about Indians. At any rate, at a port bar he picks up a woman that you and I would not consider exactly a "high class" individual. Between Lila and her acquantances, Pirsig offers us an illustration of the different types of Quality. Dynamic versus Static patterns, social versus biological versus intellectual. He weaves a metaphysics that if not true, at least throws everything from quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence to social reform and madness into a strange new light. A light which on the surface seems to illuminate things very clearly. The downside is that the path to this illumination is a bit harder to follow than in his previous book. Consequently, I had to "just accept" some points as opposed to "really digging" them. And that has left a feeling that maybe something is missing in this philosophy. But my gut says it's me that is broke, not the book. Probably just means I need to read it again, which I intend to do.

Pirsig's writting is still beautiful. Can't describe why. It just feels good in your brain when you read his words. They flow together, and he has a talent with developing characters you can really feel. After finishing the book I carried it around for a couple of days, thinking it was kind of like an old friend.

So, in conclusion I must say that Lila is very good. It carries a grand concept that ties love, quarks, and madness with the same strings. So important is this book, that I have added it to my list of required reading for total cosmic understanding. Other members of that list are, "A Brief History of Time"-Hawking, "Chaos-A Foundation of a New Science"-Glieck, and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitenance"-Pirsig's first contribution. This pool of literature is guaranteed to put you in your place in the universe. What you might find however, is that "getting drunk, picking up bar girls, and writing books about metaphysics" are all just a part of life.

1 comment:

Carl Davidson said...

Radical Politics
& Pirsig's Zen

By Carl Davidson
Networking for Democracy

Robert Pirsig has probably had more impact on this country's recent intellectual life than any other living American philosopher. This is not mainly because of the originality or power of his ideas, although he is both an original and powerful thinker. Rather, his influence is due to the exceptional clarity of his writing, which in turn has enabled his two books to reach a truly mass market. Where the works of other American philosophers are limited mainly to academic circles, Pirsig's first work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold in the millions of copies and is still going strong after 17 years.

Pirsig's second and latest work, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, promises to do likewise. "If people are still reading these two books a hundred years from now," says Pirsig, "I predict Lila will be the one they consider more important."

Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the story line of Lila serves as as a setting for a series of Pirsig's "thinking-out-loud" monologues on a variety of philosophical themes concerning anthropology, American history, science, technology, psychology and morality. Also like ZMM, the book's subthemes are connected through the metaphor of the journey. This time, instead of a man and his son riding a motorcycle through the West, we have a man and a woman on a boat sailing down the Hudson river to the sea.

In Lila, Pirsig creates an opening situation where his narrator and alter ego, Phaedrus, a writer, meets up with a hitchhiking woman, Lila Blewitt, in a riverfront bar. He gets drunk and spends the night with her in his boat's cabin. The following morning the writer is challenged by an acquaintance of the woman, Richard Rigel. In a tense confrontation, Rigel, who has read Pirsig's earlier work, blames Phaedrus for the moral decay of our times, in which he includes the 1960s youth revolt:

"One of the things that angered me most about your book," says Rigel, "was its appearance at a time when so many young people all over the country put themselves above the law with criminal acts-- draft dodgers, arsonists, political traitors, revolutionists, even assassins, all of them justifying themselves with the belief that they alone can see the God-given truth that no one else can see."

But what sends Phaedrus into deep thought is Rigel's accusing him of hedonistic immoral behavior with a "woman of low quality." Readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will know that the concept of quality rests at the heart of Pirsig's ongoing philosophical quest. His accuser asks him if Lila has "quality." Our writer-philosopher answers intuitively that she does, but is not quite sure of his answer. He takes the rest of the book to figure it out.

While Pirsig's writing is clear, it is neither simple nor unambitous. Lila, for instance, has two main goals: one is to construct a new "metaphysics of morals"; the other is to show that Pirsig's ideas are not an off-beat intellectual side show, but are deeply rooted in the American philosophical tradition.

Pirsig starts his philosophical quest in Lila with a fascinating exploration of the impact of Native Americans in the remolding of the European cultures brought to the frontier by the first white settlers. While taking part in a peyote ceremony on a reservation in Montana, Pirsig is captivated by the speech patterns of the Indians in the sweat lodge with him:

"Plains spoken. They were speaking the language of the Plains...It was the kind of Midwestern and Western accent you hear in Woody Guthrie songs."

The plain-spoken and lean language reminds him of cowboy speech, whether from real life or as portrayed in movies about the West. Then the peyote inspires a revelation: the Indians speak the dialect better than the cowboys because they are the source; the cowboys have assimilated the speech patterns of the Indians, not the other way around. In fact, the entire culture of the Western frontier is permeated with Native American values, where they coexist in an uneasy tension with the Victorian, quasi-European culture of the urban East.

Victorians in America, Pirsig's label for the post-Civil War nouveau riche, "Always took themselves seriously, and the thing they took most seriously of all was their code of morality...Smug posing was the essence of their style...For them the pose was quality. Quality was the social corset, the ornamental cast iron. It was a quality of manners and egoism and suppression of human decency. When Victorians were being moral, kindness wasn't anywhere in sight."

American culture, Pirsig concludes, is essentially a schizoid hybrid of Native American and European cultures. He uses Mark Twain's heros, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, to reveal the inner tension:

"Tom was an Eastern person with the manners of a New Englander, much closer to Europe than to the American West, but Huck was a Western person, closer to the Indians, forever restless, unattached, unbelieving in the pompousness of society, wanting more than anything else just to be free...Of all the contributions America has made to the history of the world, the idea of freedom from a social hierarchy has been the greatest...The idea that "all men are created equal" is a gift to the world from the American Indian. Europeans who settled here only transmitted it as a doctrine that they sometimes followed and sometimes did not."

Pirsig brings this conflict between Native American and Victorian values to the surface as a way of highlighting his philosophical starting point: reality basically consists of patterns of value. Here he is attempting nothing less than elaborating a new metaphysical paradigm for understanding the universe.

"The world is primarily a moral order," asserts Pirsig, and Quality (or Value, or The Good, or The Tao) is the source of both subjects and objects. "Value is the front edge of experience" and "experience is the starting point of all reality," he adds, explaining that "Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value...substance is a `stable pattern of inorganic values.'"

This is a hard path for those of us schooled in materialism; we like to think of the universe, quite naively, as swirling chunks of matter, where adding anything else only amounts to sneaking religion in the back door. But Pirsig is familiar enough with current science to expose the limitations of these metaphors and to challenge us to get beyond the prejudices of common sense. In both Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he calls metaphysics "the high country of the mind." It's a difficult climb, but if you extend the effort and keep up with him, the view is terrific once you arrive.

Pirsig's method is dialectical. Once he posits Value as the starting point, his first job is to slice it in two. He approaches the task like a diamond cutter, mobilizing all his analytical skills to determine precisely where to strike the first blow. As an aside, he makes a self-criticism about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that work, the basic division was between the classic and romantic modes of thought. While that distinction is important, Pirsig doesn't think it's the best way to start.

He finds his answer in a probing study of moral conflict. He uses an obscure story of a Zuni shaman as a case study, but Twain's characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn serve just as well. Here, both Tom and Huck are "good" boys, but in different ways. For all his adventures, Tom never strays too far from social custom and the law, a static approach to morality. The more delinquent Huck, on the other hand, makes a decision to do what he has been taught is evil, to help free a slave, out of a more dynamic impulse of what's right and wrong. The first division, then, is between static and dynamic quality.

"Dynamic Quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new," Pirsig explains. "Its only perceived good is freedom and its only perceived evil is static quality itself--any pattern of one- sided fixed values that tries to contain and kill the ongoing free force of life...In the past Phaedrus' own radical bias caused him to think of Dynamic quality alone and neglect static patterns of quality...Life can't exist on Dynamic Quality alone. It has no staying power.

The further implication of this choice is its location of the source of change. In Pirsig's thought, the contradiction between static and dynamic patterns serves as the engine for evolutionary development, which he sees as unfolding progressively though history. Pirsig thus sees his theory as being in tune with both Darwin and the Second Law of Thermodynamics:
"Natural selection is dynamic quality at work," he explains. "There is no quarrel whatever between the Metaphysics of Quality and the Darwinian Theory of Evolution. Neither is there a quarrel between the Metaphysics of Quality and the `teleological' theories which insist that life has some purpose."

Here's how it all unfolds. In its evolutionary development, the universe has generated a hierarchy of progressive and successive sets of dynamic and static patterns of value. The first level is the molecular or inorganic, out of which arises the biological or organic as the second level. Out of the biological arises the third level, the social, which in turn produces the fourth and final level, the intellectual.

So far there is not much that new here. Others have posited similar hierarchical dynamic models, most recently those of chaos theory biologist Ilya Prigogene and other scientists described in Evolution: The Grand Synthesis by Ervin Laszlo. What makes Pirsig's approach special, however, is how he describes the relationship between the four levels:

"They are discrete," he explains. "They have very little to do with one another. "Although each higher level is built on a lower one it is not an extension of that lower level. Quite the contrary. The higher level can often be seen to be in opposition to the lower level, dominating it, controlling it where possible for its own purposes....

Thus against classic materialism, Pirsig asserts:

"In a value-centered Metaphysics of Quality the four sets of static patterns are not isolated into separate compartments of mind and matter. Matter is just a name for certain inorganic value patterns.

Then against both classic idealism and positivism, he adds:

"Biological patterns, social patterns, intellectual patterns are supported by this pattern of matter but are independent of it. They have rules and laws of their own that are not derivable from the rules or laws of substance. This is not the customary way of thinking, but, when you stop to think about it you wonder how you ever got conned into thinking otherwise."

What Pirsig wants to do with all this is set the stage for sorting out political and moral conflicts with the hope of resolving at least some of them. Many of these conflicts, he believes, are rooted in confusing the levels of the moral hierarchy. What might be true and effective rule for biological patterns of an organism's behavior, for instance, might not make any sense at all for social patterns.

Pirsig uses computer programming and word processing to explain his point. A computer programmer uses machine language or code to write a word processing program, and loads it into a computer. But the English professor who uses the machine to write the Great American Novel doesn't have to know anything about the patterns employed by the programmer, and vice versa. Although the writer's work is supported by the programmer's, the rules and patterns for writing novels are completely independent of the programming code. The two levels are connected but independent. The rules in one have nothing to do with the rules in the other.

The tricky part is the relationship between dynamic and static value on any given level. Both are required; the dynamic to renew and enrich life; the static patterns to defend life.

Robert Frost put it as well as anyone in the two poignant lines from his poem about the stone fences in the New England countryside: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down" and "Good fences make good neighbors."

The Good, to the degree it can be defined in Pirsig's metaphysics of morals, is the ongoing evolution of life and the universe in which it resides into more diverse and complex patterns of value. Whatever impedes that process is immoral; whatever enhances it is moral. Further, it is immoral for the codes or patterns of a lower level to be used to suppress the dynamic development of new patterns on a higher level; and it is moral for higher level patterns to contain or direct the patterns of the lower levels in order to maintain themselves and to enhance both life and freedom overall.

Pirsig offers a fascinating array of examples. Racism, for instance, is immoral because it tries to use a lower biological pattern of values, such as skin color, to enforce restrictions on a higher social pattern of values, such as economic opportunity. Fascism is likewise immoral because it glorifies a lower social pattern of authoritarianism in order to persecute a high pattern of intellectual freedom. More controversial, however, is Pirsig's treatment of violent crime, which is portrayed as a biological threat to social order:

"The idea that biological crimes can be ended by intellect alone, that you can talk crime to death, doesn't work. Intellectual patterns cannot directly control biological patterns. Only social patterns can control biological patterns, and the instrument of conversation between society and biology is not words. The instrument of conversation between society and biology has always been a policeman or a soldier and his gun. All the laws of history, all the arguments, all the Constitutions and the Bill of rights and Declarations of Independence are nothing more than instructions to the military and police..."

Pirsig clearly overstates his case here. If he is trying to make Lenin's point that every state is in essence a dictatorship of one class over others, then he is on solid ground. But to suggest that any state, whatever its form, is "nothing more" than instructions to the military, then he obliterates important distinctions between different forms of state, such as bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism.

Lila also raises some important issues in passages concerning the current global crisis of both socialism and capitalism. According to Pirsig, "from a static point of view, socialism is more moral than capitalism. It's a higher form of evolution. It is an intellectually guided society, not just a society guided by mindless traditions. That's what gives socialism its drive. But what the socialists left out and what has all but killed their whole undertaking is an absence of a concept of indefinite dynamic quality."
Pirsig finds Dynamic Quality in the market. "A free market is a dynamic institution...People, like anything else, work better in parallel than they do in series," he explains. "When things are organized socialistically in a bureaucratic series, any increase in complexity increases the probability of failure. But when they're organized in a free-enterprise parallel, an increase in complexity becomes an increase in diversity more capable of responding to Dynamic Quality, and thus an increase in the probability of success."

Pirsig is not happy with capitalism overall, even though in Lila his criticism is mainly cultural. He is at his best dissecting both the hypocrisy of American Victorianism, which is precisely those "traditional values" Vice President Dan Quayle is stressing in the election, and the bankruptcy of "value-free, culturally relative" liberalism. In fact, Quayle could easily be a stand-in for the character of the neo-Victorian lawyer, Richard Rigel, who starts the argument over Lila at the book's beginning.

Despite Pirsig's unorthodox approach to the presentation of his philosophical ideas, he is not alien to the American tradition. He reveals this at the close of his book with a discussion of the American pragmatists--Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, George Herbert Mead and John Dewey. They likewise all attempted to find a "third way" around the subject-object metaphysics of both classic materialism and idealism.

Pirsig believes his Metaphysics of Quality has made breakthroughs in advancing this school of thought. How this popular writer is treated in academic circles remains to be seen-- although a few philosophy departments are already teaching courses on his work. In any case, if Lila has anything like the impact of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig is bound to become a powerful intellectual voice far beyond the universities.

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