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Final thoughts on Zen and the Art

May 11, 2008

I’ve finished the book and need to get it back to its rightful owner, but before I pass it along I wanted to record a few final passages that I found particularly insightful.  One of them, below, is a passage taken from H. D. F. Kitto’s The Greeks:

“Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arete

Arete implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization.  It implies a contempt for efficiency – or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”

And now in Pirsig’s own words: 

“[Man] had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude:  an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it” (387).

Prior to these reflections, Pirsig ponders a question that has been central to my own thoughts for many years:  How do you teach virtue if you simultaneously believe in the relativity of ethical and moral standards?  Can a single concept of “virtue” exist if beliefs about appropriate behavior vary by culture? 

I think a single concept of virtue does exist, and this stems from my intuitive feeling that all life is connected by a dynamic force that, when tapped into, is the source of our sensations of love, happiness, and elation.  I feel this force when I watch trees standing resolutely in the ground, their leaves rustling in the wind; I feel it when I sit by a stream and listen to the trickling of running water; I feel it when I hug someone; when I stroke an animal’s fur.  It’s an unexplainable sensation, but it’s the same across all of these diverse interactions between myself and the environment and myself and other people and creatures. 

So what does this have to do with the arete referred to above?  Arete, and virtue, I believe, are about achieving excellence in one’s relationships with oneself, one’s work, and one’s surroundings – about being in harmony.  A person who establishes harmony in each of these relationships will have no motive to kill or steal or lie, regardless of his or her underlying worldview.  Such a person may believe there is a God or is not; that sex before marriage is okay or is not; that men should be able to date other men or should not; but regardless of those particular beliefs, a person with Pirsig’s form of virtue would not harm another living creature save by accepting his place along the natural food chain. 

As for the type of efficiency that Pirsig alludes to, I believe efficiency is achieved when one can spend a maximum number of his or her hours happy.  When one is in harmony with life, he or she takes joy in the simple and diverse acts required to sustain it, and thus spends a majority of his or her moments in happiness.  This is much more efficient than speeding through task after task in order to reach a final hour before bedtime during which one can relax and “enjoy life.”  Truly enjoying life involves developing an appreciation for performing all of its component acts and responsibilities, not for the completion or absence of them.  As Pirsig implies with the final exchange between he and his son in Zen and the Art, enjoying life doesn’t involve making things easier, it involves having the right attitudes.  And “It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

More to come…

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