An essay to tie the pieces

Thank you to all for your letters back. I will right to you more individually later. Right now I have to release the bucking monster of an essay from my mind. He longs to run in the fields of words.

Last night I started re-reading part III of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, skipping over the descriptive parts and just reading what he said about Quality. I don’t know what to say. It was one of those rare moments when your soul feels near to bursting from longing for just one human being whom you could look and he would say, “Yes, I see it too.” I’m not sure my words will make sense, or that my essays have given enough of a background to make them coherent.

I was reading Pirsig’s writing about Quality, and discovered that I have gone deeply enough into Rand to prove that they are saying exactly the same thing. Two different authors, very different language, but there is not one difference between them. I can pick out sentences from Zen that you would almost think Rand had written, and vice versa.

As I thought about it, I found that all of the philosophers have been saying this same thing. Or rather, they divide into three camps all around the same issue. I will only talk about the first camp today.

Since they are all talking about the same thing, I started boiling away the differences to see the abstract philosophy which was the underlying theme. Each of these authors had looked at the state of the world, at themselves, and felt something wrong. They tried to identify what was wrong and provide an answer and a way out of the problem. If I were to reduce what they learned into a single sentence, my form of that sentence would be: “The cause of the world’s problems is that it rejected Bahá’u’lláh.”

That, of course, is re-interpreting it into a Bahá’í context, my context. We always have to re-interpret to talk about something, and once you do no one else is going to agree. So here is how they all said it, the people I’ve been reading:

Me: The cause of the world’s problems is that it rejected Bahá’u’lláh.

Rand: The world is heading toward death because man has turned away from his responsibility to achieve the highest value.

Pirsig: Our society is decaying because it no longer pays attention to Quality.

`Abdu’l-Bahá: The light of civilization is kindled by religion, and when men turn their backs on it they consign themselves to darkness and error.

Shoghi Effendi: The primary cause of the world’s difficulties is spiritual in nature and stems from the widespread lack of religion.

This, of course, started me wanting to understand actually what “religion” was, since I now see Rand’s books as profoundly religious, even while she lambasts religion and sees the idea of “God” as a chain around men’s necks. And I agree with her. So what is the underlying meaning that has everyone taking up arms for the same side, but differently enough that they fight each other?

In the abstract, there is a fundamental, universal, eternal religion that exists to foster the relationship between man and something that cannot be named. This thing that cannot be named is not dead, or an attribute of nature; it is living. The moment you try to reduce it to an understanding, you are no longer relating to the reality. This is Lao Tzu saying, “If you can name it, it is not the eternal name.”

Man exists to be happy, and his happiness consists in relating to this unnameable. The mechanics of the relationship are simple, yet complex. The purpose of religion – of all philosophy – is to guide man toward this relationship, and teach him how to appreciate it and deepen it. Full stop. End of story.

What makes the whole thing hideously complicated is that there are institutions that go by the name “religion” which are not religious at all – they are even counter-religious. For example:

When Christ took up his mission, he intended to guide people back to the unnameable so they could be happy. He found people worshiping idols – which means they had tried to define the undefinable and were now worshiping the definition. Wrong. So he swept the idols out of the temple, and showed men that the unnameable must be related to directly by man, not told to him by a rabbi. This offended everyone whose livelihood was based on promoting those definitions, so they killed him.

This early church was a church of helping men find the unnameable that they longed for in their hearts. It worked. Once men found it, they related to it directly, personally, without any distraction. They were easily willing to die rather than give it up and worship idols again.

At some point in history, however, people starting wanting to understand the nature of this relationship – much, I guess, as I’m trying to understand it right now. Curiosity is natural, I doubt anything is wrong with that.

But then came a day when someone loved his definition so much, thought it was so clever, he canonized it. That is when the spirit of religion died and an institution took its place with an opposite goal. Tolstoy’s book “The Kingdom of God is Within You” gives a nice historical review of the difference between these two forms of the church.

In place of the unnameable which had kept men warm like a fire, they were given “salvation” which was like telling them they would find that fire after death, but in the meantime it left them deathly cold. They knew they were cold but didn’t want to lose that salvation – their last hope – so their protestations of being right grew louder and louder. They killed anyone who dared to assert that they had gone astray and no longer knew the unnameable in their lives. A blood bath resulted, that ended in a church who worships idols under the alternate name of “icons”.

But anyway, the history of religions is horribly messy and does not have much to do with the fundamental religion, except that the greatest conflict happens when the two try to talk to one another. When someone following the fundamental religion – his own happiness and the fulfillment of his soul by knowing the unnameable – tries to correct the views of another who is convinced that he is right but feels that he might not be, a war results fueled by the false religionist’s terror at realizing he has accepted a substitute in place of his highest love.

Even when I myself use “Bahá’u’lláh” to talk about the unnameable, it is not accurate. The meaning of His name “The Glory of God” would be more so, but it would also be a definition and hence wrong. I even think that huge swatches of the Bahá’í Faith within the United States do not understand this fundamental religion, though fortunately no institutionalized rejection of it has yet come about – although such a rejection does exist in the hearts of some.

To me, Bahá’u’lláh is in one sense a very clear philosopher, and Pirsig and Rand are recounting the echoes of that philosophy. This would be who He is to me on the side of definitions. Beyond definitions, I cannot tell you who He is at all. I can’t begin to describe it. Only in my happiness can you see any evidence of that presence in my life He represents, and also in the actions that proceed from such happiness.

I think that an atheist can be the most fully religious person on earth, in terms of the fundamental religion; and that a leader of a congregation can be the most profound irreligionist. If I use the word “Bahá’í” to refer to a member of the fundamental religion, it is only a term related to my context. I could use Plato’s terminology of the sun, the seeing man, the blind man, and the men in the cave, and tell the exact same story. I may also believe that Bahá’u’lláh’s writings are the clearest expression of the fundamental religion available, but that doesn’t mean everyone who reads them will understand that, or that people who don’t read them won’t figure it out for themselves.

Rand figured it out; but it is very hard to work out all the terms correctly, and so her morality suffers in a few areas she didn’t see clearly. This is why a clear description is so valuable, since it is so unnameably vague what men are seeking. And that unnameable must be visible in what the author says and does, as well, which is exceedingly rare. And then on top of that, it must be expressed in a way to guides the reader past the expression at all times. The more this guidance comes directly from the unnameable and manifests its presence, the clearer it will be and the easier to apply such guidance. But since it is also something natural to human souls, sometime through sheer persistence one may blaze a trail of his own.

I want to excerpt a part of Zen, since it so beautifully describes Pirsig’s groping for the unnameable:

“I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.”

Murmurs of agreement.

He continued, “Why this is, I don’t know. I thought maybe I’d get some ideas from your papers. I just don’t know.”

This time the class was silent.

In subsequent classes that day there was some of the same commotion, but a number of students in each class volunteered friendly answers that told him the first class had been discussed during lunch.

A few days later he worked up a definition of his own and put it on the blackboard to be copied for posterity. The definition was: “Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non-thinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined.”

The fact that this “definition” was actually a refusal to define did not draw comment. The students had no formal training that would have told them his statement was, in a formal sense, completely irrational. If you can’t define something you have no formal rational way of knowing that it exists. Neither can you really tell anyone else what it is. There is, in fact, no formal difference between inability to define and stupidity. When I say, “Quality cannot be defined,” I’m really saying formally, “I’m stupid about Quality.”

Fortunately the students didn’t know this. If they’d come up with these objections he wouldn’t have been able to answer them at the time.

But then, below the definition on the blackboard, he wrote, “But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!” and the storm started all over again.

“Oh, no, we don’t!”

“Oh, yes, you do.”

“Oh, no, we don’t!

“Oh, yes, you do!” he said and he had some material ready to demonstrate it to them.

He had selected two examples of student composition. The first was a rambling, disconnected thing with interesting ideas that never built into anything. The second was a magnificent piece by a student who was mystified himself about why it had come out so well. Phaedrus read both, then asked for a show of hands on who thought the first was best. Two hands went up. He asked how many liked the second better. Twenty-eight hands went up.

“Whatever it is,” he said, “that caused the overwhelming majority to raise their hands for the second one is what I mean by Quality. So you know what it is.”

There was a long reflective silence after this, and he just let it last.

This was just intellectually outrageous, and he knew it. He wasn’t teaching anymore, he was indoctrinating. He had erected an imaginary entity, defined it as incapable of definition, told the students over their own protests that they knew what it was, and demonstrated this by a technique that was as confusing logically as the term itself. He was able to get away with this because logical refutation required more talent than any of the students had. In subsequent days he continually invited their refutations, but none came. He improvised further.

To reinforce the idea that they already knew what Quality was he developed a routine in which he read four student papers in class and had everyone rank them in estimated order of Quality on a slip of paper. He did the same himself. He collected the slips, tallied them on the blackboard, and averaged the rankings for an overall class opinion. Then he would reveal his own rankings, and this would almost always be close to, if not identical with the class average. Where there were differences it was usually because two papers were close in quality.

At first the classes were excited by this exercise, but as time went on they became bored. What he meant by Quality was obvious. They obviously knew what it was too, and so they lost interest in listening. Their question now was, “All right, we know what Quality is. How do we get it?”

Now, at last, the standard rhetoric texts came into their own. The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimatums in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques – Quality. What had started out as a heresy from traditional rhetoric turned into a beautiful introduction to it.

He singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated them by the same class reading techniques. He showed how the aspect of Quality called unity, the hanging-togetherness of a story, could be improved with a technique called an outline. The authority of an argument could be jacked up with a technique called footnotes, which gives authoritative reference. Outlines and footnotes are standard things taught in all freshman composition classes, but now as devices for improving Quality they had a purpose. And if a student turned in a bunch of dumb references or a sloppy outline that showed he was just fulfilling an assignment by rote, he could be told that while his paper may have fulfilled the letter of the assignment it obviously didn’t fulfill the goal of Quality and was therefore worthless.

Now, in answer to that eternal student question, How do I do this? that had frustrated him to the point of resignation, he could reply, “It doesn’t make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good!” The reluctant student might ask in class, “But how do we know what’s good?” but almost before the question was out of his mouth he would realize the answer had already been supplied. Some other student would usually tell him, “You just see it.” If he said, “No, I don’t,” he’d be told, “Yes, you do. He proved it.” The student was finally and completely trapped into making quality judgments for himself. And it was just exactly this and nothing else that taught him to write.

Up to now Phaedrus had been compelled by the academic system to say what he wanted, even though he knew that this forced students to conform to artificial forms that destroyed their own creativity. Students who went along with his rules were then condemned for their inability to be creative or produce a piece of work that reflected their own personal standards of what is good.

Now that was over with. By reversing a basic rule that all things which are to be taught must first be defined, he had found a way out of all this. He was pointing to no principle, no rule of good writing, no theory – but he was pointing to something, nevertheless, that was very real, whose reality they couldn’t deny. The vacuum that had been created by the withholding of grades was suddenly filled with the positive goal of Quality, and the whole thing fit together. Students, astonished, came by his office and said, “I used to just hate English. Now I spend more time on it than anything else.” Not just one or two. Many. The whole Quality concept was beautiful. It worked. It was that mysterious, individual, internal goal of each creative person…

I think that is all from now, my mind is dizzy from hunger. I could write on this subject endlessly, I think, tying in one after another of the various terminologies of the world which were all originally intended to say just one thing. In The Way of the Five Rings the Japanese swordsman – whose name I forget – talks about it as the secret of the Way. Taoism talks about it, but warns against talking too much. Zen focuses on nothing but, while trying very hard to avoid letting it slip away by becoming dogmatic. Gaughin and his “I have to paint” recounted by Somerset Maugham; Howard Roark relating to it through architecture. It’s the same story, over and over again, since the beginning of the human soul and its need for this happiness that comes from knowing and worshiping the unnameable.