Anxiety, peace, zen: RIP Robert Pirsig.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancedied yesterday. He was 88.

The most formative class I took in college was Civilization and Literature, where I spent half the semester writing a paper on Zen. In it, I described Pirsig via Hamlet:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason
Or by some habit that too much o’erleavens
the form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

I don’t believe Pirsig was “defected,” but his book—a narrator’s cross-country journey to find peace in a world wherein he felt misplaced, forever to wander—is almost certainly autobiographical. Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1960s and, like his narrator, was crippled by existential anxiety despite his deep desire to be, foremost, a loving father.

What I’m trying to do here is pull it all together. It’s so big. That’s why I seem to wander sometimes.

This book spoke to me, even saved me, years ago. And it speaks louder now than it did—of anxiety, of peace, of “zen.”

But Pirsig scolds me now, I’m sure. His book wasn’t about anxiety. It was about “quality”—the unutterable center of all things.

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

Quality, he argues, was once inseparable from Truth—arete (Greek). Dichotomizing these concepts, he says, is a source of unhappiness and our general and grave misunderstanding of our role as romantics vs. mechanics. Can we find objective truths in our creativity and intuitional outbursts? Can we find zen in the mechanical inner-workings of technology?

We must, he says. At the least, we are better off for trying, as Pirsig tried against circumstances more brutal and anxious, probably, than ours.

You’ve got to live right, too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidance, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together … The real cycle you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things.

RIP Pirsig.

On wisdom

The state of wisdom is when man has no longer any concern about understanding truths and goods, but about willing and living them; for this is to be wise. — Emanuel Swedenborg

He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul: he that keepeth understanding shall find good. — Solomon

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. — Aristotle

 

Persistence

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

-Calvin Coolidge

Daniels on bogus illnesses

Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) on “bogus illnesses” and their relationship to tort law.

Miracles are usually taken to mean that saints or relics cause miraculous improvements, but the tort law system causes miraculous deterioration in people. According to this law, if a person does you wrong by act, omission or negligence, and you suffer from it, you are entitled to compensation. And this sounds like a natural justice, but as we know – anything that can be corrupted by perverse incentives will be corrupted by perverse incentives.

It is in the power of any man to exaggerate what he has suffered, and continues to suffer. And in this case, the alleged injury – namely, whiplash – exists only in those countries in which the sufferer of it can be legally compensated for it. It does not exist in those jurisdictions where it is not recognized as an injury that can be compensated.

Apart from a slight soreness of the neck for a day or two, in other jurisdictions people get better straight away. But not in England or America.

Are you as busy as you think?

Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.

– Laura Vanderkam, Are you as busy as you think?

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

– Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

The convenient “whitelash” thesis

From Mark Lilla in the New York Times:

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

George Mason: Get a grip

In today’s Washington Post, regarding my school and implicit prejudice:

To project onto a person a preconceived opinion that is not based on actual experience or personal knowledge is manifestly wrong — so wrong, in fact, that it has a special name: prejudice. Yes, that’s right: To know only that a person is conservative, white, straight, Christian, cisgender and male but nonetheless draw a broad conclusion regarding that person’s overall position in life is to harbor a prejudice. There are millions of ways a person may be disadvantaged, many of which are immeasurable and difficult to detect but still tragic. The proverbial (or contemptuous, depending on whom you ask) white male may also be blind, illiterate, intellectually disabled, autistic, chronically depressed, mentally ill, physically disabled, suicidal, non-English speaking, prone to addiction, socioeconomically disadvantaged and so on.

To say that one demographic based on one personal trait has a greater moral claim over another demographic to favorable treatment by a state actor is nothing more than advocating the execution of a prejudice through government compulsion. That, too, has a name: fascism. And by selectively providing “resources” for one group over another, George Mason is flirting with it.

Trump is the change voters wanted

Virginia Postrel hits the nail on the head at BloombergView:

Trump’s coalition certainly includes an element who are tired of being told that they’re worthless and awful — Won’t it be great when stupid white men are put in their place! — and are punching back, sometimes in deplorable ways. For them, voting for Trump is a way of combating political correctness. But it’s also a positive vote for someone they believe is proud of them and proud of their country.

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

It is possible to support Donald Trump and not be a bigot

It is possible to support Donald Trump and not be a bigot.

The widest political divide in America right now is between those who believe this is true and those who do not.

What’s worse – what makes this divide wider – is that those who believe it is true and support Trump and are not bigots are hesitant to publicly support him. I was, until now. Why? Because I was once called a bigot for merely hinting that the fact of his appeal.

I’m not a bigot. The above statement is true. People who support Trump aren’t merely seeking a bigot to put in the White House to enact bigoted policies that reflect their bigoted views. Instead, let a man far wiser than me, who adamantly opposes Trump and almost everything he stands for, explain their reasoning:

These folks are not monsters. They are not all racists, sexists, and xenophobes. They are your neighbors and friends. They go to your house of worship. They are the cashiers you exchange pleasantries with at the grocery store.

What many of them are, I suspect, is tired of being told that they are racists etc because they do not completely buy into the (liberal) elite agenda. They are tired of being called backward because of their religiosity or their gun ownership. They are tired of being told others know better how to raise their kids than they do. They are tired of working hard, raising their kids, participating in their communities, and then being told they are the problem. And they tired of empty promises that they could keep their plan and see their costs go down.”