Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values is the first of Robert M. Pirsig's texts in which he explores his Metaphysics of quality. The 1974 book describes, in first person, a 17-day motorcycle journey across the United States by the author and his son Chris, joined for the first nine days by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science.
The book sold over 4 million copies in twenty-seven languages and was described by the press as "the most widely read philosophy book, ever." It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
The title is an incongruous play on the title of the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In its introduction, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, "it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."
In a 1974 interview with NPR, Pirsig stated that the book took him four years to write. During two of these years, Pirsig continued working at his job of writing computer manuals. This caused him to fall into an unorthodox schedule, waking up very early and writing from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., then eating and going to his day job. He would sleep during his lunch break and then go to bed around 6 in the evening. Pirsig joked that his coworkers noticed that he was "a lot less perky" than everyone else.
In the book, Pirsig explores the meaning and concepts of "quality". In the sequel (Lila: An Inquiry into Morals), Pirsig expands his exploration of Quality into a complete metaphysics which he calls The Metaphysics of Quality. As the title suggests, much of the Metaphysics of Quality has to do with a non-intellectualizing, non-conceptualizing, Zen-like direct viewing of the universe. Yet Pirsig departs from Eastern thinking by arguing that Western rationality is just as important in seeking understanding. Pirsig's thesis is that to truly experience quality one must embrace both and apply them as befits the requirements of the situation. According to Pirsig, this would avoid a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction common to modern life.
In the book, the Narrator explains his friend John Sutherland's "romantic" approach to life, whereby he refuses to study and learn how to maintain his own expensive new BMW motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he becomes extremely frustrated and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is mostly able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills. The Narrator exemplifies the "classical" approach to life.
In another example, Pirsig shows us how we should pay attention and learn: when the Narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana, he had noticed that the engine "idle was loping a little", a sign that the fuel/air mixture was too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on his cycle's engine, because it "has picked up a noise". In the process, he notes that both spark plugs are black, another sign of rich mixture. He solves the puzzle as he is thinking about the feel-good-higher-altitude-mountain-air; the altitude is causing the engine to run rich. New jets are purchased, and installed, and with the valves adjusted, the engine runs well. His cycle begins coughing and almost quits when they get into the mountains of Montana. This is a more severe altitude problem, but he knows it will go away when they get back to lower altitude. He does adjust the carburetor to prevent over heating on the way down.
With this, we see the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being "in the moment", and not on rational analysis), and those who need to know details, the inner workings, mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance) and so on.
The Sutherlands represent an exclusively romantic attitude toward the world. The Narrator initially appears to prefer the classic approach. It later becomes apparent that he understands both viewpoints and is aiming, not for the middle ground, but for the necessary ground that includes both. He understands that technology, and the "dehumanized world" it carries with it, appears ugly and repulsive to a romantic person. He knows that such persons are determined to shoehorn all of life's experience into the romantic view. Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is "to achieve an inner peace of mind". Zen and the Art demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on the inner attitude, or lack thereof.
Pirsig shows that rationality's pursuit of "Pure Truths" derives from the first Greek philosophers who were establishing the concept of truth, against the opposing force of "The Good". He argues that although rational thought may find truth (or The Truth) it may not be valid for all experiences. Therefore, what is needed is an approach to viewing life that is more varied and inclusive and has a wider range of application. He makes a thorough case that originally the Greeks did not distinguish between "Quality" and "Truth" – they were one and the same – and that the divorce was, in fact, artificial (though needed at the time) and is now a source of much frustration and unhappiness in the world, particularly overall dissatisfaction with modern life.
Pirsig aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing "irrational" sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not (in his view) rationally explicable. Pirsig seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like "being in the moment" can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life.