Lennon’s “Imagine”: the My Little Pony of philosophical statements


Last year I said some unkind things about an artist I otherwise admire, including the following:

Having said that, his legendary peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—I mean lyrically speaking. The song’s melody rules, and since music is more important than words, I’m hardly immune to the song’s virtues. I understand, emotionally, why the song is so well-loved.

But the words… Ugh!

The song contends that without countries and religions—with the misguided nationalism and fanaticism that sometimes attend to them—we would have nothing to “kill or die for,” which is obviously nonsense. This can be seen with just a tiny bit of reflection. After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?

And now, along comes Christian apologist (and Brit) Francis Spufford to out-do me. Even if I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with the author’s sentiments, I know great writing when I see it. This excerpt comes from this book, which I will now have to purchase.

For a piece of famous fluffiness that doesn’t just pretend about what real lives can be like, but moves on into one of the world’s least convincing pretenses about what people themselves are like, consider the teased and coiffed nylon monument that is “Imagine”; surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements. John and Yoko all in white, John at the white piano, John drifting through the white rooms of a white mansion, and all the while the sweet drivel flowing. Imagine there’s no heaven. Imagine there’s no hell. Imagine all the people living in–hello? Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture, and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace? I don’t know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the size of Joey and Chandler’s is. Peace is not the state of being we return to like water running downhill, whenever there’s nothing external to perturb us.

Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests, and primate dominance dynamics, and our evolved tendency to cease our sympathies at the boundaries of our tribe. Peace within people is made difficult to say the least by the way that we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering round and round. Peace is not the norm; peace is rare, and when we do manage to institutionalize it in a human society, it’s usually because we’ve been intelligently pessimistic about human proclivities, and found a way to work with the grain of them in a system of intense mutual suspicion like the U.S. Constitution, a document that assumes that absolutely everybody will be corrupt and power-hungry given half a chance.

As for the inner version, I’m not at peace all that often, and I doubt you are either. I’m absolutely bloody certain that John Lennon wasn’t. The mouthy Scouse git he was as well as a songwriter of genius, the leatherboy who allegedly kicked his best friend in the head in Hamburg, didn’t go away just because he put on the white suit. What seems to be at work in “Imagine” is the idea—always believed by those who are frightened of themselves—that we’re good underneath, good by nature, and only do bad things because we’ve been forced out of shape by some external force, some malevolent aspect of this world’s power structures. In this case, I suppose, by the education the Christian Brothers were dishing out in 1950s Liverpool, which was strong on kicks and curses and loving descriptions of the tortures of the damned.

It’s a theory that isn’t falsifiable, because there always are power structures there to be blamed when people behave badly. Like the theory that markets left to themselves would produce perfectly just outcomes (when markets never are left to themselves) it’s immune to disproof. But, and let me put this as gently as I can, it doesn’t seem terribly likely. We long to believe it because it’s what we lack. We dream of the peace we haven’t got, and to make ourselves look as if we do have it, we dress ourselves up in the iconography of heaven we just announced we were ditching. White robes, the celestial glare of over-exposed film: “Imagine” looks like one part A Matter of Life and Death to one part Hymns Ancient and Modern. Only sillier.

Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, pp. 10-13

[Thank you for the heads up, Derek Rishmawy.]

4 thoughts on “Lennon’s “Imagine”: the My Little Pony of philosophical statements”

  1. Well, it’s not as much of a “If all religions and countries disappeared, there would be peace” but more of a “The less things people have to argue about, the lower chance is they’ll try to kill each other”.
    Sometimes you have to look past the text for a true meaning to come out if there is a symbolism presented.

    “After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?”.
    Depends. Killing and dying was there long time ago but mostly because of carnivores trying to survive and I think (hope) this is not what you meant and also not what Imagine is about.
    But if you substitute countries for tribe and possession, religion for point of view and killing for violent taking of other’s possessions or disagreeing with their ideals, I think it would be the first two. You see, people never kill without reason, even if this reason is justifiable only in their minds.

    Also, you say you would be willing to die for your kids, God or neighbor. Wouldn’t it be better if there was no reason to sacrifice yourself in the first place?
    I always hear “You can not know peace without knowing war.” which is partly true. Because you wouldn’t need the word ‘peace’. You would call it “just another regular day”.

    1. Peace as merely the absence of war seems like a very shallow definition, but that kind of peace is probably the only kind that Lennon, poor guy, knew anything about.

      If you take away the reasons to kill (I mean, the best reasons—in defense of things you hold most dear), haven’t you also taken away the best reasons to live?

      But here’s the main point: “What seems to be at work in ‘Imagine’ is the idea—always believed by those who are frightened of themselves—that we’re good underneath, good by nature, and only do bad things because we’ve been forced out of shape by some external force, some malevolent aspect of this world’s power structures.”

      The main problem—which Lennon surely did know, even if he didn’t let on in this one particular song—is inside of each one of us.

      1. I hope I just misunderstood your statement, but… are you saying that the best reason to live is to kill other people?
        And about the ‘defense’ thing, again, wouldn’t it be better if there was no need for it in the first place?
        Instead of people killing each other out of fear they might go down first.

        It’s not believing people are good by nature. It’s hope people will be at some point intelligent enough to understand all this.
        (But that won’t happen any time soon because such people would be easily exploitable by others, thus reducing their influence.)

      2. Yeah… That’s what I’m saying: the best reason to live is to kill people. Get serious!

        I am saying that the best reasons to live are also worth dying for—and, yes, on occasion fighting and killing for. This is hardly a controversial statement for a non-pacifist to make.

        Yes, it would be better if we human beings weren’t sinners. We are defective. It’s in our nature.

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