Quality (The TOA)
Philosophy, ‘The 'love of wisdom’, is the first science and the first art (neither chronologically). Its goal is to unveil the hidden first causes beyond the mundane and profane. Its horizon is universal yet its relevance is personal. On the human plane (at least) its exigency is ethical, and it’s personal moral (or amoral) force is inexorably diffused by social interaction into a plethora of political ideologies and cultural conventions, with an immense variety of permissions and taboos found by anthropologists within the spectrum of pre-homogenized cultures, i.e. before the ages of imperial colonialism and industrial/information. That magnificent cultural diversity, like the rainbow and its colors, is gradually being absorbed in our technological melting pot until all will be a drab, uniform, smog grey. But I digress.
I want to speak today about the polemical division of philosophy. I have been recently corresponding (via internet) with several members of an online discussion group dedicated to the furtherance of the work begun by Robert Pirsig in his book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, published 25 years ago this year. In this work Pirsig recounts his discovery of what he calls “The Metaphysic Of Quality” (MoQ), to which he exposits a theoretical framework in his latter book on the subject, “Lila”. In the exchanges of the group there is some disparity of views that has resulted in a more or less defacto polarization into two camps, although the members of either would probably deny it, claiming they are working to further MoQ.
One group envisions the MoQ as an analytical tool used in classrooms to teach ethics, inductive method logic, rhetoric, or whatever (or just to further their careers). The other group sees the MoQ as an attempt to describe a great spiritual insight that when understood can (when merged with the spiritual insights of Carl Jung’s work on the psyche and the mythos[my personal opinion about Jung's work-not necessarily the group's]) lead those who feel lost, alienated, adrift, despondent, or nihilistic back to solid ground and personal fulfillment.
A coherent system of ideas that purports to accurately describe physical phenomena is called a ‘physics’. Until around 1900 ‘scientists’ believed they had such a system: Newtonian Physics. Then along comes Einstein and a new physic, Quantum Mechanics, is created as a result of man’s acquisition of experimental techniques and instruments that allowed for the unlocking of the secret of sub-atomic phenomena. In a way the same thing has happened in the ‘field’ of ‘metaphysics’ (philosophy). As a result of the ‘instruments’ of Carl Jung, Robert Pirsig, and others, we have delved further and deeper into the mysteries of psyche and mythos than ever before and a new understanding is emerging, not to replace the old, but to fulfill it. The most striking example of a new metaphysic springing forth to fulfill a lesser one is the New Covenant of Christ, superceding the old covenant of Abraham and thereby instilling a higher aspiration for men to obtain in their moral and spiritual life.
If you have read and understand Pirsig’s arguments in ZMM, particularly chapters 28-30 (you haven’t read it? Quit your job, leave your children and steal this book!) (joke) then you’re one of the few possessing one of the most profoundly needed insights in our wisdom-starved world and you too should be writing and telling others. Yet before you give all you have to the poor and start passing out Pirsig leaflets at airports be aware that Pirsig himself, though the author of the book ZMM, doesn’t seem to fully agree with “Phaedrus’s” work. In truth I believe he would prefer to leave the TOA out of the picture, i.e. a ‘metaphysics’ with no religious connotations, as pure Buddhism is suppose to be without any ‘Gods’. (Read ZMM to find out why and how Pirsig came to ‘orphan’ his own work). This is revealed fully in his 2nd book, ‘Lila’, which, though full of profound insights, is lost in a misguided attempt at creating a static structure upon the dynamic foundation epiphany of ZMM chapters 28-30, (which is that quality is the TOA), and this construct is a house of cards which falls upon the slightest breath of spirit, for like all en vogue (scientific) propaganda there appears to be no room in Pirsig’s world for the spiritual.
The MoQ true believers presuppose that Pirsig’s system has successfully united all dichotomies under the umbrella of quality = the best = the good = the truth. The problem with the MoQers' dissecting of Quality into quality = the best = good = truth is the same ancient dilemma faced by Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus: how can one use language to express the inexpressible, the “logically” impossible, the union of opposites.
The everyday world we live in is chock full of unequivocal extremes. Heat and cold, light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. This symmetry of reciprocal polarities extends from the lowest sub-atomic particle/quantum, to the highest echelons of philosophical and political thought and cannot be dismissed or erased by a magic concept. Yet underneath, behind, or before all this duality there must be a monad, a one, an Alpha and Omega, an unequivocal singularity. Ultimately the metaphysicians, the physicists, and the religious must all be seeking the same ‘unified field theory’. Yet even this would still be a metaphor of reality. To understand why this is so, requires one to delve deep into the meanings and efficacy of the words we use to describe the concepts, relationships and experiences of our existence. Language suffers from rather severe limitations when compelled to convey the essence of experiences which originate or extend outside the ‘coherent’ or ‘logical’ structure upon which that particular language has been built. There is a common presupposition regarding language, which should be considered as part of the mythos of a given culture, that it necessarily contains sufficient words and phrases to accurately describe reality. Yet this can be shown to be grossly in error.
Most people never even begin to doubt the paradigms of their cultural subsets, whether local, regional, ethnic, or nationalistic. Generally, one must be observing from the outside to see clearly the prejudices and mythology of a particular group or culture, being careful that one does not fall prey to the subconscious tendency of ascribing one’s own unconscious faults to the other.
There is no shortcut or easy way to understand my conjectures. These thoughts were ‘borne’ over twenty years ago and are now just reaching fruition. Only if you choose to remove your own 'blinders’ (cultural bias) and attempt to see these ideas through the ‘spectacles’ (metaphysics) which I provide will it all make sense. When dealing with the union of opposites, things can get complicated.
Where did (and does) this confusion begin? Or, where did we go wrong? Pirsig places the original error with Aristotle, and surly he should be given some major blame, being the founder of the Church of Reason, yet the same errors had been propagating for thousands of years before him and would have continued without him. Pirsig shows in ZMM how Plato (and perhaps Socrates about whom he wrote) had sought to incorporate the good within the concept of truth - the first known attempt at uniting the philosophical relativism of the sophists with the absolutism of the monists, as in Hinduism which has one ultimate God, Brahma, from whom all lesser gods originated.
Plato/Socrates' "Ideal Forms" are presented as the true reality behind the (buddhistic?) illusions of perceptions as illustrated by the 'shadows on the cave wall' story. The illusions are not unreal; they are a lower form of reality, in the context of the allegory. The shadows possess qualities of shape, size, even movement, and in the context of those in the cave viewing the shadows’ ‘actions’ and esthetics, they would also possess qualities such as good, or bad, or beautiful, or graceful. The fact that there is an (unknown to the viewer) ‘ideal’, absolute source/reference quality of being beyond/behind/above the viewers relative perspectives does not invalidate the viewers perspectives, they are just as real as that which produces the shadows.
The story is intended to place the sophistic relativism (of perspective) within Plato/Socrates belief in the Absolute, the True Reality behind appearances, and to encourage the recognition of this ‘Absolute Relativity’ (my term), that the exigent moral force of the truth might prevail against the forces of darkness, and bring about a true ‘Golden Age’. That Socrates was sentenced to death for his efforts, illustrates my point quite well.
There is a quality of being above all others, an ‘ideal form’ which I will call Absolute Truth, of which all other relative forms are mere becoming. Yet the quality of our individual being in space/time exists in a state of perpetual (metaphysical) Absolute Relativity.
So, we have thus far explored how Pirsig’s quality is equivalent to Socrates’/Plato’s concept of the ‘truth’ as the ‘ideal form’ of the ‘good’ which I postulate as ‘Absolute Relativity’. We briefly examined the problem of true science and the limitations of language, which result in a sometimes counter-productive ‘logic’ (Aristotelian). Now let’s take it to the next level. To do so we must see with our inner eye beyond/above/behind the discordant dichotomies to the oneness of all things, as in the "singularity" of physicists, the "collective consciousness" of Jung, the Quality/Toa/Way that may or may not be called the ‘sacred’, absolute truth, and absolute good, of an absolute “God”, “Spirit”, or even “Nothingness”. By whatever name you prefer from your particular perspective, ultimately whether acknowledged or denied, we are all speaking of the same one thing. And regardless of the divergent attributes our ‘angular momentum’ leads us to believe we are looking at, of the true ‘shadowmakers’ (of Plato’s cave story), there must be but one true vision of this sacred truth.
Why is any of this important some are asking? On the base carnal level the extreme range of acceptable behaviors in the various cultures of the world may not seem to corroborate a universal truth or idea of what is right to do and what is the best way to be. This is because most of our exigent social conventions and moral codes are mostly based on temporal needs and were constructed by humans only somewhat in tune with the universal Sphere.
We can recognize the limitations imposed by ‘intellectual immaturity’ (lack of adequate education and socialization, trauma victims, and genetic deficiency, for a few examples) on a person’s ability to conceive of and adhere to a model of personal and social behavior beyond ‘default’ base instincts. The same recognition should be applied to ‘spiritual immaturity’ and the limitations of humans without sufficient ‘religious’ awareness, or an inadequate mythos to live by. Inversely, it is the individual possessing the intellectual capacity and training and the spiritual motivation whom would have the best hope of recognizing the absolute which contains all relativity and yet is more than all such combined. (There are always exceptions to the rule though - those ‘savants’, or “extraordinarily gifted” individuals whose genius defies explanation). Extrapolating these ideas concerning individual achievement and applying the same to cultures is no great leap of logic, or faith. Water and humanity as a whole follows the path of least resistance, and for man, the least exertion as well.
To reach any pinnacle, physical mountain top or spiritual, requires (generally again) exceptional individuals motivated to endure the hardships and rigors of the “climb”, and even then not all survive the journey. Long and arduous, narrow and high is the way beyond the mundane, that leads above the clouds, into the infinite blue, and really the reason I write this is to call those special few to the Quest. The Quality that is before us at all times, surrounds us, and is behind all ‘right-action’, that is revealed to our eyes in beauty, and to our hearts in truth, is calling you.
©2003 Thomas Theodore Welborn