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On Excellence.

Pirsig said "We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world".

So it is with "Western society" - and the fate of Pirsig sums that society up, although I'll let you do the work to discover what that was for yourself.

In "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance", Robert Pirsig points out, (his book is describing a motorcycle journey) << All the time we are aware of millions of things around us... these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road... aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world. >>


It is what Pirsig said about art, beauty, and an aspect of it he calls "quality" which I find most useful in what I read of his work.

The key ideas begin here: << it wasn't long before thought about them was interrupted by a recall of her strange remark. What the hell was she talking about? Quality? Of course he was teaching Quality. Who wasn't? He continued with the notes. >>

It relates to a conversation, presumably with some faculty member, perhaps his superior.

He continues: << Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which supposedly had been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers- if-your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies. Gentlemen and ladies had good table manners and spoke and wrote grammatically. It was what identified one with the upper classes. In Montana, however, it didn't have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass. There was a minimum prescriptive-rhetoric requirement in the department, but like the other teachers he scrupulously avoided any defense of prescriptive rhetoric other than as a "requirement of the college."

Soon the thought interrupted again. Quality? There was something irritating, even angering about that question. He thought about it, and then thought some more, and then looked out the window, and then thought about it some more. Quality?

Four hours later he still sat there with his feet on the window ledge and stared out into what had become a dark sky. The phone rang, and it was his wife calling to find out what had happened. He told her he would be home soon, but then forgot about this and everything else. It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue as to what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home.

Most people would have forgotten about Quality at this point, or just left it hanging suspended because they were getting nowhere and had other things to do. But he was so despondent about his own inability to teach what he believed, he really didn't give a damn about whatever else it was he was supposed to do, and when he woke up the next morning there was Quality staring him in the face. Three hours of sleep and he was so tired he knew he wouldn't be up to giving a lecture that day, and besides, his notes had never been completed, so he wrote on the blackboard: "Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement?" Then he sat by the radiator while they wrote and thought about quality himself.

At the end of the hour no one seemed to have finished, so he allowed the students to take their papers home. This class didn't meet again for two days, and that gave him some time to think about the question some more too. During that interim he saw some of the students walking between classes, nodded to them and got looks of anger and fear in return. He guessed they were having the same trouble he was.

Quality-you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others - but what's the "betterness"? -- So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?" >>

He then meanders towards higher and dizzier ground: << exploration into the meaning of the term Quality, an exploration which he saw as a route through the mountains of the spirit. As best I can puzzle it out, there were two distinct phases.

In the first phase he made no attempt at a rigid, systematic definition of what he was talking about. This was a happy, fulfilling and creative phase. It lasted most of the time he taught at the school back in the valley behind us.

The second phase emerged as a result of normal intellectual criticism of his lack of definition of what he was talking about. In this phase he made systematic, rigid statements about what Quality is, and worked out an enormous hierarchic structure of thought to support them. He literally had to move heaven and earth to arrive at this systematic understanding and when he was done felt he'd achieved an explanation of existence and our consciousness of it better than any that had existed before.

If it was truly a new route over the mountain it's certainly a needed one. For more than three centuries now the old routes common in this hemisphere have been undercut and almost washed out by the natural erosion and change of the shape of the mountain wrought by scientific truth. The early climbers established paths that were on firm ground with an accessibility that appealed to all, but today the Western routes are all but closed because of dogmatic inflexibility in the face of change. To doubt the literal meaning of the words of Jesus or Moses incurs hostility from most people, but it's just a fact that if Jesus or Moses were to appear today, unidentified, with the same message he spoke many years ago, his mental stability would be challenged. This isn't because what Jesus or Moses said was untrue or because modern society is in error but simply because the route they chose to reveal to others has lost relevance and comprehensibility. "Heaven above" fades from meaning when space-age consciousness asks, Where is "above"? But the fact that the old routes have tended, because of language rigidity, to lose their everyday meaning and become almost closed doesn't mean that the mountain is no longer there. It's there and will be there as long as consciousness exists. >>

He continues: << "There's an entire branch of philosophy concerned with the definition of Quality, known as esthetics. Its question, What is meant by beautiful?, goes back to antiquity. But when he was a student of philosophy Phaedrus had recoiled violently from this entire branch of knowledge. He had almost deliberately failed the one course in it he had attended and had written a number of papers subjecting the instructor and materials to outrageous attack. He hated and reviled everything.

It wasn't any particular esthetician who produced this reaction in him. It was all of them. It wasn't any particular point of view that outraged him so much as the idea that Quality should be subordinated to any point of view. The intellectual process was forcing Quality into its servitude, prostituting it. I think that was the source of his anger."

Most importantly (on this matter), he wrote "This irrefutable truth seemed to suggest that the reason scientists cannot detect Quality in objects is because Quality is all they detect. The "object" is an intellectual construct deduced from the qualities. This answer, if valid, certainly smashed the first horn of the dilemma, and for a while excited him greatly.

But it turned out to be false. The Quality that he and the students had been seeing in the classroom was completely different from the qualities of color or heat or hardness observed in the laboratory. Those physical properties were all measurable with instruments. His Quality..."excellence," "worth," "goodness"...was not a physical property and was not measurable. He had been thrown off by an ambiguity in the term quality. He wondered why that ambiguity should exist, made a mental note to do some digging into the historic roots of the word quality, then put it aside. The horn of the dilemma was still there.

He turned his attention to the other horn of the dilemma, which showed more promise of refutation. He thought, So Quality is whatever you like? It angered him. The great artists of history...Raphael, Beethoven, Michelangelo...they were all just putting out what people liked. They had no goal other than to titillate the senses in a big way. Was that it? It was angering, and what was most angering about it was that he couldn't see any immediate way to cut it up logically. So he studied the statement carefully, in the same reflective way he always studied things before attacking them.

Then he saw it. He brought out the knife and excised the one word that created the entire angering effect of that sentence. The word was "just." Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should "what you like" be "just"? What did "just" mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it became apparent that "just" in this case really didn't mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentence was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became "Quality is what you like," and its meaning was entirely changed. It had become an innocuous truism.

He wondered why that statement had angered him so much in the first place. It had seemed so natural. Why had it taken so long to see that what it really said was "What you like is bad, or at least inconsequential." What was behind this smug presumption that what pleased you was bad, or at least unimportant in comparison to other things? It seemed the quintessence of the squareness he was fighting. Little children were trained not to do "just what they liked" but - but what? -- Of course! What others liked. And which others? Parents, teachers, supervisors, policemen, judges, officials, kings, dictators. All authorities. When you are trained to despise "just what you like" then, of course, you become a much more obedient servant of others...a good slave. When you learn not to do "just what you like" then the System loves you.

But suppose you do just what you like? Does that mean you're going to go out and shoot heroin, rob banks and rape old ladies? The person who is counseling you not to do "just as you like" is making some remarkable presumptions as to what is likable. He seems unaware that people may not rob banks because they have considered the consequences and decided they don't like to. He doesn't see that banks exist in the first place because they're "just what people like," namely, providers of loans. Phaedrus began to wonder how all this condemnation of "what you like" ever seemed such a natural objection in the first place.

Soon he saw there was much more to this than he had been aware of. When people said, Don't do just what you like, they didn't just mean, Obey authority. They also meant something else.

This "something else" opened up into a huge area of classic scientific belief which stated that "what you like" is unimportant because it's all composed of irrational emotions within yourself. He studied this argument for a long time, then knifed it into two smaller groups which he called scientific materialism and classic formalism. He said the two are often found associated in the same person but logically are separate.

Scientific materialism, which is commoner among lay followers of science than among scientists themselves, holds that what is composed of matter or energy and is measurable by the instruments of science is real. Anything else is unreal, or at least of no importance. "What you like" is unmeasurable, and therefore unreal. "What you like" can be a fact or it can be a hallucination. Liking does not distinguish between the two. The whole purpose of scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate the subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one's work so as to obtain an objective, true, picture of reality. When he said Quality was subjective, to them he was just saying Quality is imaginary and could therefore be disregarded in any serious consideration of reality.

On the other hand is classic formalism, which insists that what isn't understood intellectually isn't understood at all. Quality in this case is unimportant because it's an emotional understanding unaccompanied by the intellectual elements of reason.

Of these two main sources of that epithet "just," Phaedrus felt that the first, scientific materialism, was by far the easiest to cut to ribbons. >>

Leaving Pirsig's web of problematic investigations behind, for now, let us leap forward to one of his present day peers, a 'contributor' to Alex Cockburn's notorious "Counterpunch", who is advocating for just the same vision as Pirsig, only with one or two less barriers in her way.

Piety writes: << For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn't win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that "[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally -- this 37-year search for a great racehorse." >>

More to the point are these rare lines you won't find in Mr Corbyn's tweets, Mr Brand's videos, or anywhere else generally on the left, among humanitarians or anarchists (let alone received wisdom or establishment voices or 'the right wing') not even anywhere else on Counterpunch:


Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we're afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That's part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God's creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called "the Good." We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly levelling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This levelling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call "the forces of darkness" would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.


M.G. Piety's full article on the subject of greatness is here: