Robert Pirsig and the Ancient Greeks Who Also Knew Aristotle Was Messing With Our Minds

Douglas C. Bates
8 min readAug 3, 2022

I had the opportunity to attend the book launch for Wendy Pirsig’s book On Quality: An Inquiry into Excellence: Unpublished and Selected Writings. My book, Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, devotes a chapter to parallels between part of Robert Pirsig’s thought and ancient Greek Pyrrhonist philosophy.

I asked Wendy if Bob knew anything about Pyrrhonism. She said as far as she knew, he was completely unaware of it. This is a great pity, as the ancient Pyrrhonists pointed out some of the same faults in Aristotelian thinking that Pirsig critiqued in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. These mistakes that Aristotle made are the ones Pirsig pointed to as the source of today’s problems in the Western worldview and why our lives are not as good as they should be — the crux of his book.

I reprint here an adaptation of a section from the chapter from Pyrrho’s Way titled, “Pyrrhonism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” describing one of the parallels between Pyrrhonism and Pirsig’s philosophy. This one is about a major idea from Aristotle both Pirsig and Pyrrho targeted as erroneous.

If you’ve not read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it’s an absolute must. It’s one of the most important books of the second half of the 20th century. It’s also a captivating read. Pirsig is the master of putting complex philosophical ideas into the form of a novel. The ideas in it are just as relevant now as when the book was written. As it says on the back cover, the book is indeed “a penetrating examination of how we live and how to live better.”

Although Pierre Hadot’s book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, is often cited as the key catalyst for today’s popular revival of interest in the ancient Greek philosophies of life, I think credit should rightly go to Pirsig’s book. It not only predates Hadot’s, but Pirsig has had at least ten thousand readers for every one that has touched Hadot’s work. Pirsig has, more than any other writer, reached more people alive today with the message that philosophy is important to our lives and crucial to the question of how to live better.

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Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”