MD Pirsig's conception of ritual

From: David Buchanan (
Date: Sun Feb 09 2003 - 20:45:11 GMT

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    Sam and all:

    Sam said:
    Jon pointed out that ritual underlay Pirsig's eventual admiration for the
    Sophists (in ZMM). Whilst I think there is definitely something in this, I
    think it would be best to hold off on that point for the time being, not
    least because it is the source of much disagreement. Let's stick to what is
    outlined in Lila, but make that point the first one to address once we (if
    we) gain some measure of agreement about the Lila account. It's certainly an
    aspect that I'm *very* interested in.

    DMB says:
    Lets back up and take a broad view. Since we're talking about the
    relationship between ritual and intellect and between ritual and DQ, I think
    it would be worthwhile to re-visit the transition period in ancient Greece.
    This is something we started to approach before the holidays in the
    "systematic about the Sophists" thread. I've extracted some of the quotes
    from those posts because they seem to shed light on ritual, which is what
    the Sophists were all about. I see that you'd rather hold off on that, but
    it seems to me that it should come first. It'll make the specific assertions
    made in Lila more clear. For example....

    Sam said:
    How to rephrase element 3 in the light of this reaction? It is unclear to me
    how to include the point about language (which I agree with) without turning
    this into 'Pirsig's conception of the social level'. Are you saying that
    language is essential to ritual? If so I wouldn't agree - I didn't see
    anywhere that Pirsig says this, but if he does, the point will have to be
    rephrased to include it. You say, "He's not exactly saying that intellectual
    principles come from the contemplation of rituals, but that the mythos,
    includes rituals in a big way, is what allows us to think at all", and
    certainly 'reflection on' was my wording. But the source for this was
    Pirsig's "From these the first intellectual truths could have been
    derived.... principles emerge from ritual." I am unclear how an intellectual
    truth or principle can be derived from ritual without some preceding element
    of reflection or contemplation. But I could be wrong about that. How about
    3. Ritual is the parent of the intellectual level. Intellectual principles
    are derived from [reflection on] ritual practices.

    DMB says:
    In plain and simple terms, the way that intellect emerges from ritual can be
    seen in the twilight period when philosophy was born in ancient Greece. We
    could say that the first philosophers were the first to question the
    existence of the gods. They were the first to question social convention.
    But they could only do so in terms of religion and society. That's all they
    had to work with. This is why I objected to the notion that intellect is
    about "reflection on" the rituals. I think the first philosophers were too
    hostile and critical of ritual to call it that. They were asking the social
    level people to explain and justify their beliefs, about which they were
    very skeptical. If I understand the Socratic method, all he was doing was
    asking a series of questions that would show the believers that they didn't
    really have any good reason to believe. This was the begining of the
    seperation between the social and intellectual levels. This was a very big
    deal insofar as intellect was trying to assert itself over a very ancient
    and powerful thing; the mythos. Our man Bob makes this point in both ZMM and
    "One must first get over the idea that the time span between the last
    caveman and the first Greek philosophers was short. The absence of any
    history for this period sometimes gives this illusion. But before the Greek
    philosophers arrived on the scene, for a period of at least five times all
    our recorded history since the Greek philosophers, there existed
    civiizations in an advanced state of development. They had villages and
    cities,..and led a life quite as rich and varied as that in most rural areas
    of the world today. And like people in those areas today they saw no reason
    to write it down, or if they did, they wrote it on materials that have never
    been found. Thus we know nothing about them." (ZMM 335-6)

    "Long ago when he first explored the idea of Quality he'd reasoned that if
    Quality were the primordial source of all our understanding then it followed
    that the place to get the best view of it would be at the begining history
    when it would have been less cluttered by the present deluge of static
    intellectual patterns of knowledge. ... Philosophers usually present their
    ideas as sprung from 'nature' or sometime from 'God', but Phadedrus thought
    neither of these was completely accurate. The logical order of things which
    the philosophers study is derived from the 'mythos'. The mythos is the
    social culture and the rhetoric which the culture must invent before
    philosophy becomes possible. Most of this old religious talk is nonsense, of
    course, but nonsense or not, it is the PARENT of our modern scientific talk.
    This 'mythos over logos' thesis agree with the MOQ's assertion that
    intellectual static patterns of quality are built up out of social static
    patterns of quality." (Lila P 378)

    DMB says:
    To help us see what the mythos and the rituals that supported it were all
    about, we go back and look at a less cluttered time. It seems the the mythos
    was in full bloom just before the philosophers came along. It was at some
    kind of full maturity or even peaked out in some way. We could even say that
    intellect was born because the mythos was begining to look inadequate
    somehow. I suspect much of this skepticism grew out of the fact that the
    ancients were highly mobile and so were exposed to the gods and rituals of
    other cultures. If memory serves Herodotus traveled widely and comments on
    the similarities and differences of the gods of others. This must represent
    the first inklings of transcending the mythos, when it began to lose its
    grip. This new cosmopolitan world opened their eyes to a broader vision and
    shook their faith, so to speak. Next is a quote where the author offers a
    sequence of different kinds of knowledge to show how intellect grew out of
    the ancient mythos...

    "Dialectic, which is the parent of logic, came itself from rhetoric.
    Rhetoric in turn is the child of the myths and poetry of ancient Greece.
    That is true historically, and by the application of common sense. The
    poetry and myths are the response of a prehistoric people to the universe
    around them made on the basis of Quality. It is Quality, not dialectic,
    which is the generator of everything we know." (ZAMM P354)

    DMB says:
    The myths and poetry of pre-historic comes first. (I think it is useful here
    to think of ritual as Campbell defines it, which is really quite simple. It
    is the "enactment of a myth". It expresses belief, or rather creates the
    belief in the myth by engaging the body in word and deed, it is a
    quasi-theatrical system of gestures and words that act out the myth. I
    imagine it is pretty easy for you to see how Christian beliefs are expressed
    in the Mass. In any case, I just want to point out that myth, ritual, words,
    poetry and belief sort of all go together in a single package and are more
    like different facets of one thing rather than seperate things. So when we
    say "mythos" we are including all that and more. Rhetoric is the child of
    this prehistoric mythos and is about the best we can do in terms of seeing
    it uncluttered. Next comes dialectic and logic, which is something like the
    dividing line between the social and intellectual levels. This line was
    drawn in Plato's time and so I think its important to have some idea of what
    he was dealing with. It wasn't ritual in the abstract, but rather the
    flowering of a specific historical movement. In short, Plato was up to his
    eyeballs in Orphism. And he was not trying to overthrow the whole shebang,
    but was trying to get people to think clearly about what the rituals and
    beliefs actually meant. He thought that SOME of the wandering Sophists were
    cheaters, that didn't really know what they were doing, had lost touch with
    the meaning and purpose of rituals and words and were just out to make a
    buck and a name for themselves. They were sell-outs. Pirsig isn't the only
    one to see this battle between the "decadent" sophists and the ones who knew
    what they were doing.

    "In highly vivid and critical terms the author of the papyrus (the Derveni
    papyrus re-discovered in 1962)attacks wandering Orphic priests - the details
    of the description show that these priests are indistinguishable from the
    ones mocked at by Plato in the REPUBLIC - for going about their business and
    earning money performing their ritual without being able to explain either
    to themselves, or to anyone else, what they are really doing." ANCIENT

    Cambell sees it too and interestingly he even views the difference between
    the two kinds of sophists in the same terms of a lower ritualistic sort and
    a higher philosophical kind.

    "Later on, in the period of Greek urban life, detached from the earlier
    ground of the tribal-bound secret men's rites, the so-called 'initiating
    priests of Orpheus' revised their spiritual arts to the new spiritual needs.
    And their modes of presentation now were divided into a lower, largely
    ritualistic category, and a higher, purely spiritual, philosophical one,
    where the initiators were, indeed, philosophers; first the Pythagoreans, but
    then others also; Empedocles and onward to our dear and well-known Platonic
    Banqueteers." (Campbell MOG P185)

    As I understand it, Plato was not rejecting the mythos, he was just very
    skeptical about the ritualistic sophists who had lost sight of the Quality
    they were supposed to be expressing. He wanted them to be able to think
    clearly about the meaning and purpose. He wanted to save philosophical
    mysticism from the cluthes of scam artists and status seekers because they
    were missing the whole point.
    "Plato HADN'T tried to destroy ARETE. He had ENCAPSULATED it: made a
    permanent fixed idea of of it; he had CONVERTED it to a rigid, immobile
    Immortal Truth. ... That was why the Quality Phaedrus had arrived at in the
    classroom had seemed so close to Plato's Good. Plato's Good was TAKEN from
    the rhetoricians. (ZMM P342)

    I think that the MOQ does very much the same thing. It tries to put the
    emphasis back on the primordial creator of both the mythos and the logos. He
    tries to save mysticism from the ravages of scientific objectivity and from
    the ritualistic religions that block it out. I think what he and Plato we
    trying to do was transcend the mythos without throwing the baby out with the
    bathwater. They both want to mystical Quality back at the center of both
    levels so that the best of the mythos is preserved and more rationally
    articulated. And we can also see that Pirsig tries very hard not to turn it
    into a rigid fixed idea and so leaves DQ undefined. He talks about it and
    around it, but doesn't try to nail it down, thus the term "Dynamic".

    Hopefully, dear reader, you can now begin to see the relationship between
    static and Dynamic, between the mythos and the logos as they struggle with
    that, between the social and intellectual levels of static quality and how
    they both render or represent the same underlying primordial quality.

    Thanks for your time,

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