ZAMM Reflections – Phaedrus’ Quality

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is known for being one of the best selling popular philosophy books of all time, and for encouraging a slew of disaffected youth to study philosophy. However, one of its major lasting contributions was an exploration of the notion of Quality. Later, in his follow-up Lila (which I have not yet read) he expounds on this philosophy as the “Metaphysics of Quality” (MoQ).

Phaedrus, the “crazy” genius, who is the narrator’s electroshock annihilated self, but re-emerging ghost throughout the novel, became early in his professorial career, obsessed with the quest of Quality. Ultimately the sheer magnitude of the meaning implicit in this “metaphysical mountain climbing” led to his psychic demise. The narrator picks up where Phaedrus left off, and with snippets of memory and having read the “a trunkful of notes”, attempts to create a useful version of the theory.

As Phaedrus goes through the ringer trying to figure Quality out, his thought process is something like this:

As soon as you try to define quality, you lose it. Yet, you know what it is. You could name certain attributes: unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on. But how do we understand it? Any irrational attempts to define it fall apart. Since you can’t define it, it has to be defined irrationally – it has to be sensed.

We know it exists, he says, because if you were to imagine a world without quality, it would be a rational world – a world where all needs were met, but nothing more. It would be grey, bland, banal. There would be nothing else but life support delivery. Imagine 1984, or Communist Russia. These are quality-free dystopias. To us, this is unsettling at best and hellish at worst. A lack of quality is apparent, and is negative. Therefore, Quality exists and is critical.

The Classicist wants to define it, but it is the Romantic who understands it. Yet, we see it in Classicism too. So what is it? Is it what unites the two? Is it somewhere in between? Perhaps the Quality of the Romantic is aesthetics and the Quality of the Classicist is function. Romantic problem is the experience of aesthetics in the present. Classic quality is long term, looking to things working in the past, now, and in the future. Again, these reflections point to an immaterial emergence. So it is not subject nor object, but where the two meet. In the Trinity, God is the Object, Christ is the subject. So maybe Quality is the Holy Ghost?

All of us seek quality, what’s better. If we did not seek what is better, we would cease to exist. So, Quality is an innate goal-direction that keeps us looking for food, looking for mates, looking for warmth. As we build up a repertoire of analogs of quality, our specific notions of Quality become individualized dependent on these experiences. Quality is the continuing stimulus that our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. Collectively, in this way we end up creating all the categories of man, creating our world: Heaven, Earth, Good, Evil, Philosophy, Art, Science “ All of it, every last bit of it”, he says.

With this statement, something shifts in Phaedrus – He then realizes he can no longer attempt to break it up as “types” of Quality, Romantic, Classic, elements of the Trinity, any component at all. “He put his pencil down and then—felt something let go. As though something internal had been strained too hard and had given way. Then it was too late.” He has begun his climb up the metaphysical mountain, into the mystic.

His realization: Quality is the source of everything. He sees it now, not as a completion of the Trinity, not Classic vs. Romantic, but as absolute monism. Quality is the pattern behind everything. He picks up the Tao de Ching, and, by replacing the word “Tao” with “Quality”…

Quality is all-pervading.

And its use is inexhaustible!


Like the fountainhead of all things—

Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.

I do not know whose Son it is.

An image of what existed before God.

…realizes that Tao is Quality. “He had broken the code”. With this realization, he tumbles down the mountain into madness.

The narrator picks up where Phaedrus leaves off. Not only is he not certain about Phaedrus’ conclusion, he does not believe any comparison will do. All Phaedrus has done is come full circle back to Reason, that which he was bent on destroying. He has come to compare Tao with Quality, acknowledging two absolute entities and attempt to grasp them, neither of which they are, or can be.

Quality is, yes, indefinable. Like the Tao, you can point to it, but you will never catch ahold of it. All you can do is, like the Taoists and like the mystics, live you life in accordance with it.

The narrator finds something in Phaedrus’ research that parallels his own view of Quality – the revelations of 19th century mathematician Henri Poincaré. Poincaré, mulling over the crisis in mathematics, being the early 19th century discovery of the impossibility of proving Euclid’s fifth postulate (parallel lines), realizes neither geometry is “true”, they are tools for handling facts. Since facts are infinite, we must choose from the best ones, but how do we do so?

There is not an absolute, a priori “truth” that we discover in science and mathematics, rather, something else that facilitates the emergence of something that seems right and true. This something he called the “subliminal self”, that which guides through the morass of facts and determines an underlying harmony that we, as a species, innately agree upon. These patterns become apparent through the work due to something like elegance – an aesthetic that the scientists and mathematicians know. His reflections left an “unfinished edge”, though. What about the aesthetics that artist knows?

“What brought tears of recognition to my eyes was the discovery that these unfinished edges match perfectly in a kind of harmony that both Phædrus and Poincaré talked about, to produce a complete structure of thought capable of uniting the separate languages of Science and Art into one”; The unification of Classic and Romantic. While categorically entirely different, the way an artist and a scientist determine quality is the same – it is universal.

So how does Quality manifest in day-to-day existence? Through Care and Meaning. What is meaningful, what you care about – this is where you will find Quality. The narrator cares about the maintenance of his motorcycle and demonstrates this care in the ongoing narratives of its maintenance. His careful, in-the-moment attendance to his machine is propelled Quality; the “psychic gasoline” that keeps him suspended in timeless pursuit of “better”.

Once as established as best he can, much of the novel, and many more of the narrator’s “Chautauquas” (edifying reflections) are dedicated to pointing at the moon of Quality. He also gives some advice on how to get back Quality engagement when it is lost to a “Gumption trap”, which I addressed earlier in this blog and in this one. So now that a sense of Quality is outlined, really the best way to further understand it is to see it in action and learn some life lessons. I advise you read, or re-read the great ZAMM.


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