Pirsig’s View of Science and Victorian Morality

The central conflict that Pirsig explores in Lila is the conflict between Victorian morality and modern morality, which he sees as being driven by “patterns of intellect,” more specifically subject-object science:

Intellect has its own patterns and goals that are as independent of society as society is independent of biology. A value metaphysics makes it possible to see that there’s a conflict between intellect and society that’s just as fierce as the conflict between society and biology or the conflict between biology and death. Biology beat death billions of years ago. Society beat biology thousands of years ago. But intellect and society are still fighting it out, and that is the key to an understanding of both the Victorians and the twentieth century. What distinguishes the Victorian culture from the culture of today is that the Victorians were the last people to believe that patterns of intellect are subordinate to patterns of society. What held the Victorian pattern together was a social code, not an intellectual one. They called it morals, but really it was just a social code. As a code it was just like their ornamental cast-iron furniture: expensive looking, cheaply made, brittle, cold, and uncomfortable.

The new culture that has emerged is the first in history to believe that patterns of society must be subordinate to patterns of intellect. The one dominating question of this century has been, “Are the social patterns of our world going to run our intellectual life, or is our intellectual life going to run the social patterns?” And in that battle, the intellectual patterns have won.

Though I suspect that the invention of birth-control pills and the constant use of sex to sell products has more of an effect in undermining traditional morality, Pirsig makes a number of interesting points in his argument that seem worth considering.

First, he offers some interesting insights into the mentality of Victorian society, a perspective I doubt I’ve ever really considered:

If one realizes that the essence of the Victorian value pattern was an elevation of society above everything else, then all sorts of things fall into place. What we today call Victorian hypocrisy was not regarded as hypocrisy. It was a virtuous effort to keep one’s thoughts within the limits of social propriety. In the Victorian’s mind quality and intellectuality were not related to one another in such a way that quality had to stand the test of intellectual meaning. The test of anything in the Victorian mind was, “Does society approve?”

To put social forms to the test of intellectual value was “ungracious,” and those Victorians really did believe in the social graces. They valued them as the highest attributes of civilization. “Grace” is an interesting word with an important history, and the fact that they used it the way they did makes it even more interesting. A “state of grace” as defined by the Calvinists was a state of religious “enlightenment.” But by the time the Victorians were through with it, “grace” had changed from “godliness” to mean something close to “social polish.”

To the early Calvinists and to ourselves too this debasement of the word seems outrageous, but it becomes understandable when one sees that within the Victorian pattern of values society was God. As Edith Wharton said, Victorians feared scandal worse than they feared disease. They had lost their faith in the religious values of their ancestors and put their faith in society instead. It was only by wearing the corset of society that one kept oneself from lapsing back into a condition of evil. Formalism and prudery were attempts to suppress evil by denying it a place in one’s “higher” thoughts, and for the Victorian, higher spiritually meant higher socially. There was no distinction between the two. “God is a gentleman through and through, and in all probability, Episcopal too.” To be a gentleman was as close as you would ever get, while on earth, to God.

My first real encounter with Victorian society came through reading Thomas Hardy novels, and he clearly portrayed Victorian culture as a predatory one, one that oppressed individuals, keeping them “in their place.” And from my West Coast 20th century perspective, their “grace” and “social polish” couldn’t counter the moral hypocrisy depicted in novels of that era.

Pirsig argues that World War I brought an end to the Victorian social system:

The Victorian social system and the Victorian morality that led into World War I had portrayed war as an adventurous conflict between noble individuals engaged in the idealistic service of their country: a kind of extended knighthood. Victorians loved exquisitely painted heroic battle scenes in their drawing rooms, with dashing cavalrymen riding toward the enemy with sabers drawn, or a horse returning riderless with the title, “Bad News.” Death was acknowledged by an occasional soldier in the arms of his comrades looking palely toward heaven.

World War I wasn’t like that. The Gatling gun removed the nobility, the heroism. The Victorian painters had never shown a battlefield of mud and shell holes and barbed wire and half million rotting corpses-some star- ing toward heaven, some staring into the mud, some with- out faces to stare in any direction. That many had been murdered in one battle alone.

Those who survived suffered a stunnedness, and a lostness and felt bitter toward the society that could do that to them. They joined the faith that intellect must find some way out of old Victorian “nobility” and “virtue” into a more sane and intelligent world. In an instant it seemed, the snobbish fashionable Victorian social world was gone.

For Americans, at least, Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s novels capture this “lostness” in excruciating detail, as protagonists struggled to free themselves from the last throes of their society.

Pirsig argues that this social upheaval was driven by “intellectual experimentation:”

The events that excited people in the twenties were events that dramatized the new dominance of intellect over society. In the chaos of social patterns a wild new intellectual experimentation could now take place. Abstract art, discordant music, Freudian psychoanalysis, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, contempt for alcoholic prohibition. Literature emphasized the struggle of the noble, free-thinking individual against the crushing oppression of evil social conformity. The Victorians were damned for their narrow mindedness, their social pretentiousness. The test ‘If’ what was good, of what had Quality, was no longer “Does it meet society’s approval?” but “Does it meet the approval of our intellect?”

Personally, I would question whether abstract art and discordant music were really intellectually driven or merely a continuation of artistic trends as a new generation of artists attempted to distinguish themselves from their predecessors and still capture the mood of their times. This doesn’t seem too different from the Classical-Romantic shift that had been going on in the arts for centuries. Such changes seem historical norms.

Nor do I agree with Pirsig when he argues that

And so, from the idea that society is man’s highest achievement, the twentieth century moved to the idea that intellect is man’s highest achievement. Within the academic world everything was blooming. University enrollments zoomed. The Ph.D. was on its way to becoming the ultimate social status symbol. Money poured in for education in a flood the academic world had never seen. New academic fields were expanding into new undreamed-of territories at a breathless pace, and among the most rapidly expanding and breathless fields of all was one that interested Phaedrus more than any other: anthropology.

Education has undoubtedly taken on more importance in modern society, but does anyone really believe that it ever became the “ultimate social status symbol?” This sounds more like a Beat attack on academia than a realistic appraisal of what the 20th century society values, which continues to be, purely and simply, Wealth.

Considering that Pirsig is probably more of an intellectual than an artist, this argument against intellect puts him in a rather awkward position, one that he is careful to extricate himself from:

Now, it should be stated at this point that the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intellect over society. It says intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than society. It is better for an idea to destroy a society than it is for a society to destroy an idea. But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. You can look through a microscope or telescope or oscilloscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren’t any there. They are all in your head. They exist only in your imagination.

From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There is no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There i nothing morally wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

Now that intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?

So, it’s not intellect, per se, that he is opposed to; it’s subject-object science’s lack of “provision of morals.” And, as noted previously, I tend to agree with that view. Science seems by it’s very nature amoral, “unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something.” While that attitude may well benefit scientific research, even be necessary in some cases to arrive at accurate conclusions, it’s unclear whether society can continue without more of a moral foundation than science provides.

I was a little surprised when Pirsig argued:

Thus, throughout this century we have seen over and over again that intellectuals weren’t blaming crime on man’s biological nature, but on the social patterns that had repressed this biological nature. At every opportunity, it seems, they derided, denounced, weakened and undercut these Victorian social patterns of repression in the belief that this would be the cure of man’s criminal tendencies. It was as a part of this new dominance over society that intellectuals became excited about anthropology in the hope that the field would provide facts upon which to base new scientific rules for the proper governing of our own society. That was the significance of Coming of Age in Samoa.

First, historically it seems just plain wrong to ascribe this view to modern intellectuals when it clearly began during in the Enlightenment with philosophers like Rousseau. In fact, it’s precisely that philosophy that Jefferson relied on in writing the American Constitution.

Of course, when I taught American literature, I emphasized that our society has long struggled to balance the freedom of the individual against the demands of society. Our greatest artists, beginning with Emerson and Hawthorne, have held opposing viewpoints as they struggled to arrive at a balancing point that allows individual freedom while still meeting the needs of society.

That said, I found it a little strange that, in the end, I still agreed with Pirsig when he states:

What the Metaphysics of Quality concludes is that the old Puritan and Victorian social codes should not be followed blindly, but should not be attacked blindly either. They should be dusted off and re-examined, fairly and impartially, to see what they were trying to accomplish id what they actually did accomplish toward building a stronger society. We must understand that when a society undermines intellectual freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally bad, but when it represses biological freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally good. These moral bads and goods are not just “customs.” They are as real as rocks and trees. The destructive sympathy by intellectuals toward lawlessness in the sixties and since is derived, no doubt, from what is perceived to a common enemy, the social system. But the Metaphysics of Quality concludes that this sympathy was really stupid. The decades since the sixties have borne this out.

Personally, as an INTP, I’ve never been too concerned with society’s rules unless they personally made sense to me. From the outside, though, most people would probably conclude I was a social conformist because I’ve followed most of society’s moral rules. In fact, I laughed heartedly at Heller’s portrayal of Major Major who was rejected by his elders because he followed all their rules because that fit me to a “T.” But I followed those rules not out of some fear of God’s punishment or fear of social condemnation but because they made good sense to me. Long before I had ever heard of Buddhism, I was convinced that karma, or perhaps just that damned conscience of mine, would punish me for taking advantage or hurting others.

For better or worse, society’s Christian values had become a permanent part of me, and I guess I would never have wanted it any other way.

8 thoughts on “Pirsig’s View of Science and Victorian Morality

  1. For me, one of the most fascinating things about the repressive, society-conscious Victorian era is what’s going on beneath the surface. For every act of self-imposed or society-imposed repression, there’s often a corresponding act of psychological rebellion (which may manifest itself as perversion)going on deep within the individual’s psyche. John Fowles is very good on this in his book “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.

  2. “Money follows intellect, and intellect is ike a fan opening in the wind.” Ezra Pound (I think.) If my memory is right, Pound would have offered that thought in the shadows of the Victorian era, but I’m not sure I agree with Pirsig that we’re finished with all that. An old journalis prof at Western Washington used to take his students through each issue (of Seattle paper, for instance)pointing out the ‘coincidences’ between ads about casinos on one page, and stories about people winning jackpots on others pages. etc. I’m not sure he was implying outright corruption; maybe just an unconscious tendency to treat all information as equally valid, rather than interdependent? Not sure what role repression plays in this case. Maybe Pirsig overstates that. Maybe we simply live naturally in a state of dissonance, accepting some things on faith, others on superstition and more often than not, letting it go when we know someone is telling an outright lie because the lie is so often more charming than the truth?

  3. The RadioLab show raised more questions than answers about morality. That’s good.

    There is something else in time and space besides the conflict, mentioned on that show, between an Inner Chimp and an Inner Logistician. Whatever it is, it prompted me to say instinctively within seconds of being given the choice, “NO, NO NO, I would not pull the lever that kills one person to save five people, anymore than I would push someone off a bridge to save five people.” I don’t know WHY I had that reaction but apparently NO ONE in the study mentioned had that reaction.

    I have no children, have never been pregnant and, for the most part, did not want to be, but my instinctive reaction to killing a child to save a group of people was, “NO, NO, NO!”

    Key to Robert Pirsig’s LILA is the moment at the beginning of the story, the moment where Phaedrus surprises himself by blurting out that Lila is a moral person. In that moment, he was responding to an inner compass that he hadn’t realized was there. As I recall, he spends the rest of the book asking himself WHY he said that.

    Having read BELOVED, by Toni Morrison, I know without a doubt that I am not in a position to judge a woman who kills her own child OR someone who kills someone else to save five people. Toni Morrison’s genius is that she looks at the personal and societal repercussions of a desperate woman feeling that her only choice is to kill her child.

    I don’t call myself a Christian but I see what Jesus meant when he asked for someone to step forward and throw the first stone in judgment of another person. Those who heard his question understood, too. No one was able to throw that stone.

    In the study mentioned on the RadioLab show, half of the people were willing to kill a child to save a community and half were not. Nothing is gained by either side standing in judgment of the other. That’s where compassion comes in. There is suffering, no matter what choice we make.

    I don’t call myself a Buddhist either but I know that the Buddha spoke from personal experience when he said that there is an end to that suffering.

    Thanks, Loren, for opening this up for discussion. Thanks, Jon, for the link. Now I need to go out and take a walk.

  4. I am doing an english project on victorian social systems and was wondering if you could give more inight into the perspective of their rankings and reasoning for them, rather than remaining in the battle between intellect and social patterns
    many thanks

  5. If you’re doing an English project on Victorina social systems, you probably already know more than I do about those systems, english project man.

    All I know about them is what I’ve learned from reading “classic” novels of that period.


  6. I once owned a book The Girl With a Swansdown Seat that dealt with the hypocrisy of victorian morality – I loaned it to a supporter of Harold Wilson, a labour party prime minister, and never saw it again!
    My interest was re-awakened by the aforegoing discussion. If someone has a copy I would be willing to buy it of them: I would not recommend the offer of a loan as I do not believe I would be any better mannered than that wretched socialist. My advanced years give an urgency to my need that I do not happily spend time contemplating 🙂

What do you think?