On this date in 1928, Robert M. Pirsig was born in Minneapolis, Minn. He was tested with an IQ of 170 when he was only nine years old. He enrolled in the University of Minnesota when he was 15, but left to join the army in 1946. Pirsig returned to the university and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1950, as well as studying philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in India and earning his M.A. in journalism from the University of Minnesota in 1958. He later became a professor of English rhetoric and composition at the University of Montana, but stopped teaching after he was briefly diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. He appeared to recover after some institutional care.
In 1974, Pirsig wrote the wildly popular philosophical book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, in which Pirsig details a motorcycle trip he took with his son, Chris, while illustrating philosophical ideas. In the book, Pirsig writes about his theory, “the metaphysics of quality,” which is still widely discussed today. He married his first wife, Nancy Ann James, in 1954, and they had two sons: Chris, who died in 1979, and Ted. Pirsig married Wendy Kimball in 1978 and the two have a daughter, Nell, born in 1980.
In Pirsig’s novel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991), Pirsig writes, “A person isn’t considered insane if there are a number of people who believe the same way. Insanity isn’t supposed to be a communicable disease. If one other person starts to believe him, maybe two or three, then it’s a religion.” He is quoted in Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book, The God Delusion, as saying more succinctly, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”