Pirsig’s Patterns

Another idea I grew to appreciate in Lila was the concept of patterns and the importance of understanding them. It’s obviously not a new idea. The concept of “patterns of behavior” is an old one, but Pirsig’s emphasis on the importance of patterns makes the reader see them in a new light.

Particularly important is Pirsig’s division into dynamic patterns and static patterns:

In the past Phaedrus's own radical bias caused him to think of Dynamic Quality alone and neglect static patterns of quality. Until now he had always felt that these static patterns were dead. They have no love. They offer no promise of anything. To succumb to them is to succumb to death, since that which does not change cannot live. But now he was beginning to see that this radical bias weakened his own case. Life can't exist on Dynamic Quality alone. It has no staying power. To cling to Dynamic Quality alone apart from any static patterns is to cling to chaos. He saw that much can be learned about Dynamic Quality by studying what it is not rather than futilely trying to define what it is.

Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn't evolving toward anything. Life's just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn't patterns of atoms. What's evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn't change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be given to evolution.

This actually seems like an amazing revelation in the book, because Phaedrus had been so strongly opposed to the Victorian viewpoint expressed by Rigel. Phaedrus realizes that constant change is not only impossible but is dangerous to any society, which is not to say that stasis cannot be equally dangerous. Pirsig seems right on when he argues that “ although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world.” The genius of America’s Constitution, in fact, seems to be its ability to balance these two forces, preserving the freedoms our ancestors fought for while allowing us the freedom to adjust to a constantly changing world.

Seeing the world in terms of dynamic and static patterns allows us a very different view of morality:

As Phaedrus had gotten into them he had seen that the isolation of these static moral codes was important. They were really little moral empires all their own, as separate from one another as the static levels whose conflicts they resolved:

First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life-conventional morals -proscriptions against drugs, murder, adultery, theft and the like. Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the intellectual order over the social. What was emerging was that the static patterns that hold one level of organization together are often the same patterns that another level of organization must fight to maintain its own existence. Morality is not a simple set of rules. It's a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of values. This conflict is the residue of evolution. As new patterns evolve they come into conflict with old ones. Each stage of evolution creates in its wake a wash of problems.

It's out of this struggle between conflicting static patterns that the concepts of good and evil arise. Thus, the evil of disease which the doctor is absolutely morally committed to stop is not an evil at all within the germ's lower static pattern of morality. The germ is making a moral effort to stave off its own destruction by lower-level inorganic forces of evil.

Although every pattern is originally designed to maximize something positive, when one pattern conflicts with another it is often seen as “evil,” even though it is certainly not evil when seen from the earlier perspective. Although we cannot always accept the consequences of a pattern, seeing it and understanding the reason for its existence helps us to better deal with it, perhaps even to coexist with it, if not downright adapt to it.

Pirsig certainly sees patterns on a larger scale than I’ve ever imagined them:

Where has he been during this whole century? That's what this whole century's been about, this struggle between intellectual and social patterns. That's the theme song of the twentieth century. Is society going to dominate intellect or is intellect going to dominate society? And if society wins, what's going to be left of intellect? And if intellect wins what's going to be left of society? That was the thing that this evolutionary morality brought out clearer than anything else. Intellect is not an extension of society any more than society is an extension of biology. Intellect is going its own way, and in doing so at war with society, seeking to subjugate society, to put Society under lock and key. An evolutionary morality says it is moral for intellect to do so, but it also contains a warning: Just as a society that weakens its people's physical health endangers its own stability, so does an intellectual pattern that weakens and destroys the health of its social base also endanger its own stability.

Better to say "has endangered." It's already happened. This has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction. The only question is how long this process can keep on.

Those of us who’ve devoted much of our live to contemporary poetry and fiction have long been aware of this conflict, and it’s increasingly clear that even the general public has begun to react to it in unpredictable ways.

Most artists, at least most of those who’ve become famous, have challenged traditional values. Thomas Hardy, often seen as the first modern author, vigorously assailed a society that suppressed those on the lower rungs of society, those who dreamed of rising above their position, only to be destroyed by the bureaucracy developed to maintain the status quo.

Few famous artists, on the hand, have spoken about maintaining our social patterns, perhaps more time should be devoted to doing so, particularly if Pirsig is right when he argues that:

"What holds a person together is his patterns of likes and dislikes," he said. "And what holds a society together is a pattern of likes and dislikes. And what holds the whole world together is patterns of likes and dislikes.

Of course, perhaps it’s just that I’m older and no longer have the energy to challenge the system, but I think I’ve always felt that most of the old-fashioned morality served a real function if not imposed arbitrarily or too harshly. But, then, I’ve always lived in a pretty liberal, West-Coast-kind-of society where people pretty much accept you for who you are as long as you don’t go out of the way to irritate your neighbors, whoever they might be.

5 thoughts on “Pirsig’s Patterns

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying reading your extended thoughts on Lila.

    At the end of today’s post, when you talk about social patterns, I began to think about the book, A PATTERN LANGUAGE, published in 1977, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murrary Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel. Have you read that book? I wonder if Robert Pirsig has read that book. It is full of extraordinary black and white photographs and drawings and what I would call meditations on archetypal architectural patterns.

    Where I’m going with this is that architectural patterns are social patterns and that A PATTERN LANGUAGE fits well into the discussion of Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. There are elements in A PATTERN LANGUAGE that I would argue with, just as I don’t agree with everything Pirsig says. What I love is that they both open up a lively dialogue.

    From A PATTERN LANGUAGE, the pattern named “Sheltering Roof” (p. 570):

    “The roof plays a primal role in our lives. The most primitive buildings are nothing but a roof. If the roof is hidden, if its presence cannot be felt around the building, or if it cannot be used, then people will lack a fundamental sense of shelter.”

  2. I haven’t read that book, am, but it sounds quite interesting and would fit in nicely with some of earlier books on space and poetry that reviewed.

    I’ve already purchased the William James book you mentioned earlier and suspect that will keep me busy for a while, but I’ll put this book on my really long Amazon wish list, my way of remembering boos I want to read.

  3. Here’s a pattern for you. I went to a dinner party in Seattle in April and introduced my oldest sister and her husband to the hosts and their guests. Her husband’s first name is Craig, the same as mine. A number of the guests tilted their heads and gave me a strange look when they heard that my brother-in-law and I shared the same first name. I simply smiled and said that it’s an old family tradition, the oldest sister usually marries a man with the same first name as her oldest brother. It didn’t require any further elaboration at the time, although I’m sure some of them thought I was pulling their legs. But in fact, it’s true. My mother’s oldest brother was named John and so is the man she married, my father. Two generations doesn’t exactly constitute a tradition, but in researching my family history I’ve found that that tradition belongs to my dad’s side of the family. His grandfather’s only sister, Louise, married a man named Carl and her oldest brother was also named Carl. Her mother, Marie, married my great great grandfather, William, and both her father and her oldest brother were also named William. In five generations it’s happened four times.

  4. I must say I haven’t read Lila but have been interested in your comments on it, ZAMM and Pirsig’s philosophy in general. However, from just this glancing acquaintance with Pirsig’s ideas, he seems to be caught up to some extent in the old traps of Dualism (his thoughts on the body/mind, science/art, empirical experience/creative imagination divisions) and neo-Darwinism (his theory of morality’s evolution from simple biological life through social then up to a higher intellectual stratum). Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that his attempt at fusing East with West was not wholly successful considering the melting-pot time of flux he, and many of us all, were living through in the 60s and 70s. I think nowadays many spiritual philosphers would consider time as more circular than linear, “progress” (whether moral or otherwise) as not an incremental journey upwards, and Dualism as an artificial division encouraged by Western thinkers from Plato to Descartes and beyond. This strand of thinking is very much present in a sympathetic line running from early Eastern Buddhist and Western Celtic culture through John Ruskin to D H Lawrence, Gary Snyder and many other artists, writers and metaphysicians.

What do you think?