Re: MF Discussion Topic for May 2005 - individual worth

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Mon May 23 2005 - 15:13:09 BST

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    Hi people, especially MSH, DMB

    OK, time to get more stuck in to a more detailed response. This is a _very_
    long post, but I've tried to cover as many points as I could, whilst
    sticking to the rule of only two posts per week!

    Rick suggested that we "read LILA as a portrait of a philosophically
    conflicted free-thinker trying to get his beliefs to hang together", and not
    try to make Pirsig consistent. Matt said similar things. That's a very
    tempting thought, but I'm not prepared to give up quite yet. That is, I'm
    prepared to accept that Pirsig is inconsistent, but I still want to try and
    dig out a fuller answer, even if it just to my own satisfaction. So to that
    end, some responses to specific things that have been said.

    MSH post of 16 May:

    > On 10 May 2005 at 23:23, Sam Norton wrote:
    > In ZMM the Narrator writes:
    > "I think it's about time to return to the rebuilding of *this* American
    > resource - individual worth. There are political reactionaries who've been
    > saying something close to this for years. I'm not one of them, but to the
    > extent they're talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse
    > for giving more money to the rich, they're right. We *do* need a return to
    > individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really
    > do."
    > msh:
    > But nowhere does he say that the happiness of an individual takes
    > precedence
    > over the well-being of a society. In fact, I suggest that an individual's
    > concern for his own happiness (self-satisfaction) is biological, not
    > social, and certainly not intellectual, as the Randians will try to argue.
    > The
    > only thing that takes precedence over the fixed ideas of a society is a
    > better,
    > more Dynamic, idea.

    Where did the idea of individual happiness come from?

    > msh:
    > IMO, the question of individual worth is one that is decided in the
    > battle between the biological and social, and is left behind once the
    > intellectual level becomes dominant. For the fully-realized human
    > being, a sense of his own individuality all but disappears.

    I'm pursuing this bit of the FRH in MD, so no more from me here.

    > msh says:
    > I think what Pirsig the man thinks is irrelevant to the philosophy
    > expressed in his novels. Does anyone care what the historical
    > Shakespeare really thought about MacBeth? When we place undue
    > emphasis on the author of a novel, rather than the novel itself, we
    > really do run the risk of becoming what an MD regular has described
    > as a "cult movement." So I'll skip most of the stuff about Pirsig
    > being upset because some readers equated him with Phaedrus.

    Well, if Shakespeare discussed the ideas in Macbeth for the rest of his
    life, and said that there was a web discussion group where there were some
    people who were amongst the few who understood what he was trying to express
    in Macbeth, then your analogy might be more exact. Whilst I'm happy to
    accept some measure of authorial independence from a text, I think it is a
    bit of a stretch to say that what Pirsig the human being thinks is
    irrelevant to the MoQ. What about his letters to Ant McWatt helping him with
    this thesis?

    > msh:
    > Right. We are all composed of the different levels in GREATER OR
    > LESSER patterns of harmony. That is, some of us are dominantly
    > biological (Lila), social (Rigel), or intellectual (Phaedrus). This
    > doesn't man that Lila and Rigel don't have ideas, or that Phaedrus
    > doesn't enjoy getting laid. It just means, in terms of the
    > Metaphysics of Quality, that Phaedrus is further along the
    > evolutionary path. He understands what Lila and Rigel are about,
    > while they are totally baffled by him.

    I think you've missed part of the point. Individual integrity and
    self-reliance etc are static patterns. Where do they fit into the hierarchy?
    I get the impression that you think that they are social patterns, in which
    case the determinant of individual integrity is (ultimately) social assent.
    Which seems to evacuate the concept of meaning, but I could be wrong.

    > msh says:
    > Here I think Sam has nailed the dividing line between his and my own
    > interpretation of the Metaphysics of Quality. I think Sam is
    > suggesting that everyone is made up of more or less equal doses of
    > biological, social, and intellectual influence, and that these three
    > doses contribute equally to the concept of individual worth. I'm
    > suggesting that individuals are dominated by one of the three levels,
    > and that when an individual is dominated by the intellectual the idea
    > of personal worth, that is that one individual is more valuable than
    > another, fades to near nothingness.

    Hmm. I think you've characterised my view fairly well. But what your
    argument seems to boil down to is that the idea of no-individual is of
    higher quality than the idea of an individual. Is that right?

    > msh says:
    > On the contrary, I think the Narrator's decision to tell the doctors
    > what they wanted to hear, in order to get out, was an example of
    > intellect dominating social convention. Exactly the opposite of what
    > you suggest! So, IMO, nothing Phaedrus says in ZMM is compromised in
    > any way.

    I think this is a good point. The one quibble I would have is that the
    end-product (ie the personality that the doctors were happy with) was
    socially conditioned all the same.

    > ... I think this divide in
    > our interpretations of ZMM, between a compromised and uncompromised
    > Narrator, is at the root of most of our differences regarding the
    > importance of the individual in the cosmic scheme of things.

    Or, the difference in perception of the worth of an individual lies behind
    our different readings of ZMM.

    MSH part 2
    > Sam now sets up a distinction between the ZMM Narrator and the character
    > of
    > Phaedrus in LILA, ....I think Sam sees these somewhat contradictory themes
    > as evidence of a contradiction in the Metaphysics of Quality, a
    > contradiction that is not
    > apparent to me.

    It is to do with the status of metaphysics, or Platonism, and therefore of
    the notion of 'philosophical ascent'. It therefore includes the answer to
    the questions 'how should I live', and 'what sort of person should I be'. It
    seems to me that the answer to those questions that can be gleaned from ZMM
    is significantly different to the answer that would be gleaned from Lila,
    and that, in one sense, the sort of person that ZMM would produce would be
    like the narrator; the sort of person that Lila would produce would be like
    Phaedrus. It's because I find the Phaedrus of Lila quite unsympathetic,
    having massively identified with the Narrator/Phaedrus of ZMM, that I have
    been driven to explore these questions.

    > msh says:
    > Again, for me, areté fits in at the social level, and is left behind once
    > the intellectual becomes dominant. For me, the desire for areté, rooted
    > in
    > competition and war, plays a vital role in the battle between the
    > biological and social levels, and in the various skirmishes within the
    > social level
    > itself. As Kitto says, areté is "what moves the Greek warrior to deeds of
    > heroism." Once the cultural illusion of self-reliant individuals is
    > shattered by intellect, there remains little need for areté, unless one
    > finds oneself suddenly needing to "beat a young braggart at throwing the
    > discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running;
    > flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox."
    > msh says:
    > This assumes that a dominantly intellectual person is one dimensional. In
    > fact, an intellectual might recite poetry or play chess, or prepare haute
    > cuisine, make love and money, and even skin an ox if necessary. That is,
    > the dominantly intellectual individual exists atop the other levels, not
    > apart from them.

    But Phaedrus is basically one dimensional, and intentionally created as such
    by Pirsig in order to heighten the contrasts between the levels. What you
    have described is exactly the wider understanding and enjoyment of life that
    is called eudaimonia. But this comes on to the question of where DQ fits in.

    I would be interested to know if anyone else thinks I still have a case to
    make on the question of Socrates being treated differently in ZMM to how he
    is treated in Lila.

    DMB's post of 14 May
    > dmb says:
    > ...As Mark pointed out, ZAMM and LILA are very different
    > books. But I think we don't have to look very hard to see that the spirit
    > of the sentiment remains through both of them. In the quote above, he is
    > talking about personal integrity in contrast to big, top-down programs for
    > improvement. And in LILA we see a "history is biography" theme at work
    > throughout. In both cases, the individual is very much at the center. Both
    > works even press the idea that social health and cultural evolution
    > depends on the individual. Because the real motorcycle you're working on
    > is your
    > self and culture-bearers are usually just working out their own personal
    > problems, you know?

    That suggests to me that you are sympathetic to the idea that the
    'individual' has a place in the MoQ system even if it doesnt' have any
    ontological finality (ie it is a static pattern that dissolves into
    Quality). Fair?

    > dmb says:
    > ...In an evolutionary morality, sure, an individual can be
    > more or less developed. I don't think that means we get to skip the social
    > level, however. While there are certainly such a thing as awkward
    > intellectuals and shy nerds and such, I think the ideal is to be excellent
    > at each level.

    Sam says: yes!!!!!!!!!!

    > As i understand it, each level of development depends upon
    > some kind of success, a minimum of mastery at the lower levels. And when
    > we try to cheat these pre-requisites, it usually shows. I realize that
    > some
    > members are offended by something so "elitist" as an evolutionary
    > hierarchy, but that's just because they're knuckle-dragging cave-dwellers.
    > ;-)

    Surprising how much we occasionally agree :o)

    > dmb says about the Socrates point:
    > This line of reasoning seems to take us even further away from the topic,
    > but its your question this month, so what the heck. Here I don't think
    > you've really identified a problem in Pirsig. I think a proper
    > understanding allows us to see Socrates (Plato) as BOTH the hero who
    > asserted intellect
    > over society AND as the evil one who tried to turn the Good into a fixed
    > idea. See, in the first case we are talking about a battle of static
    > patterns and there is where the hierarchy makes him a hero. But when the
    > Good, which is to say DQ, is turned into a fixed idea, then that same
    > hierarchy makes him a villian.
    > You've somehow equated rhetoric with the Good, but its just that the
    > rhetoriticians didn't try to fix it intellectually or otherwise. ZAMM
    > 332...
    > "His (Phaedrus') Quality and Plato's Good were so similar that if it
    > hadn't been for some notes Phaedrus left I might have thought they were
    > identical."
    > "The difference was that Plato's Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving
    > idea, whereas for the rhetorician it was not an idea at all. The Good was
    > not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, and
    > ultimately unkowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way." ZAMM 342

    I think this is a fair point, but I'm not convinced that the rhetoricians
    weren't operating at the intellectual level. Think of Kingsley and
    Empedocles. The point that I thought ZMM was making - and which I very much
    agree with - is that the transition from one form of society to another (ie
    the flowering of Greek civilisation) comes before Socrates was on the scene,
    and that Socrates takes the wrong turn once that system has got up and
    running. What I think Pirsig argues for in Lila is that Socrates _doesn't_
    make the wrong turn. And this is justified by the development of the
    intellectual level, which is _precisely_ dialectical in nature, or so it
    seems to me (the manipulation of symbols etc).

    > dmb says:
    > The ZAMM idea of Arete is deepened and expanded to rht, the cosmic order,
    > in LILA. And I think that its not just about mastering static patterns so
    > much as seeing through them making them an invisible part of the task.


    > I mean, with help from Kingsley, Campbell and certainly Pirsig, there is
    > the idea
    > of dynamic skill. The pre-Socratics called it "metis", as Kinglesy tells
    > it.
    > Cambell puts it in terms of "following your bliss". I think Pirisg rides a
    > motorcycle and sails a boat to depict this sense of unpredictable motion,
    > of skilled flight, if you will. Add to this the four levels and Pirsigian
    > idea that we are free to the extent that we follow DQ. If you have
    > mastered the
    > static and ride the dynamic, then I'd say you're in harmony with the
    > cosmic order. This gives us a picture, I think, of individual excellence
    > in the
    > MOQ.

    I like that. I think it ties in with Mark Maxwell's 'sweet spot' imagery as
    well. But this commits you to a particular understanding of where DQ fits,
    which I'll come back to below.

    > dmb says:
    > Keeping in mind what I said above, I see no reason why we should return to
    > rhetoric or any other particular method from the past. If we can find it
    > in the gears of a motorcycle and the petals of a lotus flower equally, why
    > are you putting your chips on rhetoric or other social level forms? Are we
    > not
    > philosophers? And why do I detect a reactionary attitude in these
    > questions?
    > I just don't see any conflict between intellect and arete or the
    > "wholeness of life". Quite the contrary. I think life without a rich
    > intellectual
    > life is neither excellent nor whole. I think that rich life has to be in
    > accord
    > with the rest of your life too. Its that cosmic harmony thing, it all has
    > to fit.

    Happy with all of that. I think the reactionary attitude just comes from the
    specifics of this discussion about Socrates.

    > dmb says:
    > I've never seen anyone "dismiss the social level as contemptible" here.
    > But I have complained about putting social values over intellectual
    > values,
    > about anti-intellectual postitions and statements, but that's hardly the
    > same thing. See, put you have interpreted things so that intellect is the
    > enemy of the Good. That is just not at all what Pirsig is saying.
    > Intellect is a species of the Good. That's what you've got to learn to
    > see. You've
    > confused Pirsig with Spock the pointy-eared Vulcan.

    If I have, then most of my concerns are eased. But I DO think that the
    Phaedrus of LILA has pointy ears, it's true.

    I'm knackered. I'll have to stop here, and come back to the place of DQ.


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