Lila

by Robert M. Pirsig

Cover image

Series: Quality #2
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 1991
Printing: December 1992
ISBN: 0-553-29961-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 468

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Lila is a sequel of sorts to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's probably possible to read it on its own, but Pirsig introduces his notion of Quality at some length in Zen and Lila is more approachable with that background.

One of the beauties of Zen as a book is that it works on multiple levels and creates a coherent whole that's superior to just its philosophy or just its narrative. It's the story of a man re-establishing contact with his son, a story of mental illness and the life of a iconoclastic scholar, and a philosophical meditation. Where the philosophy is weak, the book is still strong in its portrayal of the author as a character and in its story of the intellectual life of one person.

Pirsig is clearly going for a similar effect in Lila, but it's not as successful. The philosophical discussion here is mixed with the story of a boat trip down the Hudson River and about a mentally ill former prostitute named Lila who the author picks up along the way. This to some degree provides grounding for the discussion in the book (most effectively around the question of whether Lila has Quality and what that might mean), but it doesn't click the way that Zen did, and the style seems more affected. Pirsig writes about himself, but in the third person and calls himself Phaedrus. Some sections of the book are told supposedly from the perspective of other characters (Lila or one of her friends), which would work in a novel but which feels very strange in an account that seems like it's supposed to be non-fiction. The narrative thread of this book is part novel and part true story in a way that made me rather uncomfortable; either it's fictional, in which case the embedding of clearly realistic details feels a bit deceptive and Phaedrus is inadequately differentiated from the author, or it's intended to be non-fictional, in which case writing bits from the perspectives of other characters seems arrogant and a bit dishonest (particularly since those parts always reinforce and never contradict Pirsig's, or Phaedrus's, interpretation of events). The effect feels more constructed and less real than Zen.

This, though, is a smaller part of the book. Most of the book is devoted to the construction of a metaphysics of Quality, an analysis of the world, its purpose, its classifications, and the values and morals that it gives rise to. More so than in the previous book Pirsig directly tackles the question of what his philosophy means for human morality and human behavior. In his usual style, he presents this as a discursive ramble, and in the process shows a great deal of his thinking process and his intellectual approach to the world. His presentation of Quality as the best method of understanding the universe starts as proof by assertion and constant repetition, but if one sticks with the book, he does slowly build a justification and defense for his position and provides interesting bits of analysis that I found valuable even if I didn't buy his overall framework.

Pirsig's basic theory goes something like this: Traditional philosophy is focused on subjects and objects, which is too limited of a view. Quality or value is a property of the interaction between subject and object and is more fundamental than either; subjects and objects only attain existence through interaction, and that interaction therefore comes first. Quality, the valuing of one thing over another or a sense that one state is better than another, is therefore the fundamental principle of the universe on which everything else is built. He divides these values into four sets of static patterns (inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual) that form the basic structure of the world and of human society, and into something that he calls Dynamic Quality, which is the force of change or breaking down of static patterns and is identified with religious mysticism, society-changing technological development, cutting edge science, or life-changing personal growth.

Pirsig never convinced me that this structuring of the universe is ideal or better than any other perspective, but he did convince me that it's useful in some contexts. I think some of his clearest insights are in the interaction between static and dynamic quality, in the observation that static patterns of quality can be stifling and destructive and dynamic change is necessary and important, but that dynamic change by itself is fleeting and unsustainable and there must always be a balance between dynamic change and static patterns. Social and personal advancement is therefore a ratcheting process of dynamic change and then consolidation of gains by the creation of new static patterns. I already felt, from other readings, that mysticism is poorly understood and therefore frequently misunderstood or ignored in Western Christian philosophy; Pirsig's unusual approach to mysticism is, I think, clearer and more easily digestible than the religious explanations I've more often heard and therefore valuable as another way of describing a technique and mindset that's quite difficult to describe adequately.

I do, however, have some serious problems with Pirsig's basic arguments, going all the way back to his contention that Quality is fundamental to the universe. One example he uses repeatedly is that of a man sitting on a hot stove. His argument is that the low quality of that situation is an immediate and fundamental perception, and that rational analysis and even separation of identity between oneself and the stove comes behind the immediate recognition of a low-quality situation. There's something to this, but where he sees a truth about the construction of the universe, I see a bypassing of intellectual thought processes by biological instinct. I'm much more willing to believe the man has a pre-conscious negative reaction to sitting on a hot stove becuase of pain receptors triggering an instinctual response that happens faster than higher brain processing. In other words, this example doesn't, to me, show that quality is a more fundamental aspect of the universe than the stove or the man; it shows me that we have biological overrides that trigger before intellectual models. That doesn't make the biological model more true than the intellectual model.

The end result of Pirsig's privileging of values over objects is a metaphysics that deals directly with the ranking of values and the contention that the universe is fundamentally moral. Pirsig recasts physical laws as inorganic static patterns of value and the behavior of biological organisms as organic static patterns of value, while making an interesting argument that higher-level patterns (like biological patterns or human social patterns) are not simply emergent behavior from inorganic static patterns (phyiscal laws). Rather, he argues that each lower-level static pattern is set up in such a way as to support many possible higher-level patterns and the higher-level patterns attain a life and existence of their own that cannot be derived directly from lower-level patterns. His comparison is to a computer: the word processor program is in some sense a manifestation of the physical laws governing the operation of the computer hardware, but this isn't true in any useful sense. One cannot reasonably discover the program from an inspection of the physical laws governing the operation of the computer; it is an entity of its own that relies on the hardware to exist and run, but which is not obviously derived from it. I found this perspective intriguing and not obviously refutable.

His next leap, though, gets him into the most trouble that he has in this book. Based on this model, he proposes a very absolute model of morality where moral actions are dominance of higher-evolved patterns over less-evolved patterns and immoral actions are the reverse. In other words, it's moral for biological patterns to dominate inorganic patterns, moral for human social patterns to dominate biological patterns, and moral for intellectual patterns to dominate human social patterns. Above all of this, he places dynamic quality as the most important, since dynamic quality is creativity, change, and growth, and therefore no static pattern should have the right to suppress dynamic quality. In places this works; in places, I think it fails badly. For one, it reduces too easily to an order of being in which humans dominate the planet because we're more evolved and we therefore have an absolute moral right to use any inorganic or lower biological pattern to our own purposes, leaving no justification for environmentalism other than purely pragmatic human concerns. I think this is an odd miss; even if he completely disagrees with environmental ethics, I wanted to see him address them, and explain why, then, so many of us have a strong notion of stewardship and obligation to protecting lower biological patterns that goes beyond simple practical maintenance of our social and intellectual lives.

He draws a few other conclusions from this absolute morality that I found disturbing. For example, he considers social control of biology to be moral and even makes the very incorrect claim that social control over biology is always through force and makes an ancillary argument that attempts to deal with crime through anything other than force are doomed. Despite a lot of discussion of the good and bad of Victorian morality in other parts of the book, he seems to completely miss issues of desperation, poverty, and class here and simply writes off violent crime as a biological pattern of survival of the strongest. This same simplification happens elsewhere: he calls democracy an intellectual pattern and therefore says that it's moral to have democracy control and be able to change social structures because those are less-evolved social patterns, which ignores a great deal of complexity behind the curtain of democracy and could easily be perverted into a justification for a foreign policy of "spreading democracy." In general, I found the distinction between social patterns (less evolved) and intellectual patterns (more evolved) less than clear and had the impression that Pirsig occasionally called things he liked intellectual patterns and things he didn't like social patterns so that the morality worked out according to his personal preferences.

These appear to be serious systemic flaws, but I don't want to give the impression that this destroys Pirsig's entire work. I'm very suspicious of systems of metaphysics that purport to explain everything; I expect to find flaws and uncovered territory in all of them. Pirsig's system tackles problems from an angle that I'd not considered in detail before, and while I think he's on firmer ground when contrasting dynamic and static quality, some of his rankings of static patterns are useful as an intellectual tool. His discussion of how celebrity functions within social patterns of value, for instance, I found intriguing, and his application of this intellectual framework to the problem of Lila's mental illness brought the high-flying concepts down to earth in a very compelling model of mental illness and mental turmoil.

I would describe Pirsig, both here and in Zen, as thought-provoking rather than enlightening. He doesn't provide me with a way of looking at the universe that clicks for me, but he does make me think about how I model the universe and why and provides new angles from which to consider the problem. And, most successfully, he provides in Lila a detailed examination of his personal thought processes and the ways in which he resolved these questions for himself. As a philosophical treatise, Lila is readable and approachable but not convincing; as insight into another person's thought processes and a different view of the world, I found it compelling. I kept turning the pages, not because the nature of the universe was becoming clear, but because Pirsig is a fascinating person about whom I enjoyed learning more. This isn't as good of a book as Zen, but if you enjoyed Zen and want to read more of Pirsig's thought processes, I recommend it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21