By Lou Mancinelli

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

Before it was published in 1974, and went on to sell more than five million copies and be translated into more than 23 languages, Robert Pirsig’s, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” was rejected by 121 publishers, according to Wikipedia.

“We tend to act in a way that is reasonable, but is it good?” said Mt. Airy resident, published poet and author Caryl Johnston during an interview days before her talk about Pirsig’s ideas “In Search of Quality,” sponsored by The Philadelphia Forum For Anthroposophy, Saturday, March 12, at the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave.

This spring, Johnston, who was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement, will publish “Stewards of History: A Study of the Nature of a Moral Deed” (, her memoir of Southern history, race and civil rights. It focuses on her ancestor, John Hartwell Cocke, a friend and contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, who was honored during Black History Month a few years ago for his efforts in trying to achieve the emancipation of slaves.

Pirsig’s book has sold more copies than any book of philosophy in the history of publishing. One of the major questions posed by the book is: why do we keep doing things that are supposedly reasonable, even when they are no longer effective?

“I do not think our country is in good condition,” said Johnston, who requested that her age not be stated. “The question is, are we thinking in ways that lead to effective action. The world is going to depend on people like you [referring to the 20-through-40-somethings] taking the right steps.”

Johnston, herself mother to two 20-something sons, a recent 25-year-old Temple University graduate as well as 21-year-old jazz pianist, planned to pay special attention to the metaphysics of quality (MOQ) developed by Pirsig in his inquiry into values. The book is based on a 17-day motorcycle journey Pirsig took with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to California.

While a journey across the American Midwest towards the American West on a motorcycle might invoke visions of sprawling plains, rolling mountains and total freedom (remember “Easy Rider?”), the book does not have much to do with motorcycles, unless motorcycle maintenance is a metaphor for philosophy.

The purpose of the journey was to review scenes of Pirsig’s earlier life as a teacher of rhetoric at Montana State University, according to Johnston. As the story goes, Pirsig was told to teach his students about quality, but none of his fellow professors or contemporaries could tell Pirsig the meaning of quality. This led him to assign his students the task of defining quality. Pirsig himself participated in a Native American Church peyote ceremony with an anthropologist friend.

The metaphysics of quality sounds scientific, yet its meaning is simple. Pirsig contended quality cannot be defined. It’s something one already knows, sometimes without immediately being aware of why, Johnston explained. It’s the thing that separates great pieces of art from other pieces of art, the seeming ambiguous attachment you (and multitudes of others) experience upon viewing something like the Sistine Chapel. “It’s that feeling you’re on the knife-edge of existence,” she said.

In order to help people understand his realization, Pirisg broke his definition of quality into two categories: dynamic and static. Dynamic quality is “inspiration, something you can’t predict, that happens in the spur of the moment,” said Johnston.
She said static quality is the force that maintains life and its institutions. Pirsig broke static quality down into four components: inorganic, biological, social and intellectual. Schools and hospitals are examples of social static quality. An intellectual example is “writing a poem.”

Without dynamic quality an organism, or school, cannot grow. Without static quality, it cannot be maintained, Pirsig contended. “We’re not dealing with the reality in the U.S.,” said Johnston. Things like outsourcing of jobs, the potential peaking of oil reserves, libraries subjected to funding cuts and the

Robert Pirsig, now 83, author of the hugely influential book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values,” in seen here in the late 1960s. Mt. Airy author Caryl Johnston spoke about the book at the Chestnut Hill Library last Saturday afternoon.

skyrocketing costs of the health care system “are symptomatic of a whole group of problems we haven’t dealt with legitimately.”

The U.S. has a history of Pirsig’s concept of dynamic quality — think of the inspiration behind the Bill of Rights, steam engine, automobiles, airplanes, NASA and the iPhone — but Johnston is concerned about whether our modern society is overlooking the importance of maintaining its institutions, its elements of static quality.

She believes Americans’ everyone-for-his-or-her-own-self mentality has bred a society where we have come to accept certain things to be true because they are reasonable. But Johnston revisits Pirsig’s significant question: is it good?

In America we have available to us gasoline any time we need the fuel, as long as we can afford the cost. But is this rampant use of potentially limited resources good? Is it a quality use of resources? These are the types of questions one might ask when thinking in terms of Pirsig’s paradigm.

Pirsig further develops his MOQ and asked the question “is it good?” in his 1991 book “Lila, An Inquiry in Morals.” In Lila, Pirsig challenges the traditional Western philosophic view of the world that the world consisted of two parts, objects and subjects. Objects are what is; they are matter, a globe, for example. A subject is the self, the “I am.” It is Robert Pirsig or Caryl Johnston or you or me.

Pirsig called subjects and objects the metaphysics of substance (MOS). He said that objects outside of us do not have values, unlike subjects. Pirsig wanted to shift thinking away from the MOS and towards the MOQ as a way to help form better moral judgments. Instead of saying it’s true, ask if it is good.

“People are always glad to fill out a consumer survey that asks of a product or service, is it good,” said Johnston. “But we’re also confronted with the same question everyday about our decisions with everything we choose. The music we listen to, our actions, the art we like. The question is pretty basic.”

In addition to her philosophical rhetoric, Johnston, who attended Birmingham Southern College in the 1970s,  plays folk guitar and sings Appalachian songs to seniors at Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley in Germantown. She likes to sing Duke Ellington or traditional songs like “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.”

In 2000, she published “Consecrated Venom: The Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge” (Floris Books, Edinburgh, Scotland). She has also self-published a novel, “After the Crash” (about oil); a  collection of stories, “Earthly Nurturance,”  and a poetry collection, “Indulge Me Once,”  and other titles all through

Right now she’s planning to  move from Mt. Airy into a new apartment in Germantown and “waiting for the next quality event” in her life. “I’m waiting for the inspiration. I think it will happen.”
For more information, visit Johnston’s blog at To purchase her books visit and search for “Caryl Johnston.”