The Stoicism of John Lennon

Comparing the Lyrics of Imagine to Zeno’s Republic

Comparing the Lyrics of Imagine to Zeno’s Republic

People often tell me that they’ve heard a song the lyrics of which seem “kind of Stoic” to them. Usually they’re referring to songs about enduring hardship heroically, and so on. However, there’s a very different type of song that strikes me as uncannily reminiscent of ancient Stoicism. It happens to contain some of the most famous lyrics ever written by one of the most celebrated songwriters in recent history.

Imagine by John Lennon describes a shamelessly Utopian vision of society. I’m going to discuss the lyrics below, comparing them to the Utopian dream described in Zeno’s Republic, the most influential early Stoic text. The Republic was, in part, a scathing critique of Plato’s book of the same name, written while Zeno was aligned with the Cynic philosophy. Unfortunately, it has long been lost but we do have several fragments and commentaries, which allow us to make a comparison, as you’ll see.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Most of the Stoics did believe in Zeus. However, their conception of the gods was radically different from the anthropomorphic one found in traditional Greek mythology. Indeed, later generations of philosophers, and Christians, sometimes attacked the Stoics for being atheists. The Stoics were pantheists, however, who believed that the Greek myths were metaphors for different aspects of universal Nature. Theirs was a more materialist conception of the divine — Zeus is imminent in Nature not transcendent.

Marcus Aurelius goes so far as to say that although as emperor his “city and fatherland is Rome” as a human being, nevertheless, “it is the universe”.

Although they did believe in a god, of sorts, for the Stoics therefore, like Lennon, there’s no Heaven or Hell, just the physical world around us. For instance, here the Stoic Seneca says that it’s unnecessary to argue at length, like Epicureans did, against the traditional myths of the underworld or Hades, because only a child would take such old wives’ tales seriously.

I am not so foolish as to go through at this juncture the arguments which Epicurus harps upon, and say that the terrors of the world below are idle — that Ixion does not whirl round on his wheel, that Sisyphus does not shoulder his stone uphill, that a man’s entrails cannot be restored and devoured every day; no one is so childish as to fear Cerberus, or the shadows, or the spectral garb of those who are held together by naught but their unfleshed bones. — Seneca, Letters, 24

Imagine all the people living for today

Without the concept of an afterlife, Lennon is saying, people focus their attention more fully on living in the here and now. This is a major recurring theme in Stoic philosophy, especially in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Even if you were to live for three thousand years or ten times as long, you should still remember this, that no one loses any life other than the one that he is living, nor does he live any life other than the one that he loses… for it is solely of the present moment that each will be deprived, if it is really the case that this is all he has and a person cannot lose what he does not have. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.14

Stoics are therefore urged to live with wisdom and virtue now, before it is too late. “No more of all this talk about what a good man should be,” says Marcus, “but simply be one!” (Meditations, 10.16).

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do

One of the central concepts of Stoic ethics is “cosmopolitanism”, the notion that we should see ourselves first and foremost as citizens of the worldwide community of the human race, and only second to that as citizens of a particular country. Marcus Aurelius goes so far as to say that although as emperor his “city and fatherland is Rome” as a human being, nevertheless, “it is the universe” (Meditations, 6.44).

Indeed, Stoic ethics and theory of justice is based on a concept of universal “natural law”, which is more fundamental than the laws written by legislators for any particular nation. It’s the precursor of the tradition, via Cicero, that leads to the concept of “universal human rights” in modern politics and international law.

Nothing to kill or die for

The Stoics believed that, ultimately, all human conflict is the consequence of excessive attachment to external goods of one sort or another.

Well then, did you never see little dogs caressing and playing with one another, so that you might say, there is nothing more friendly? but that you may know what friendship is, throw a bit of flesh among them, and you will learn. Throw between yourself and your son a little estate, and you will know how soon he will wish to bury you and how soon you wish your son to die. — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.22

Lennon implies that without nations there would be no wars and the Stoics have the same idealistic vision: that if we treated every living human being as our kin and shared our resources in common there would, in theory at least, no longer be any reason to fight one another.

And no religion too

We’re told one controversial feature of Zeno’s ideal Republic was that temples would be completely abolished, which perhaps implies no priesthood. That appears to mean that there would be no room for organized religion as we normally understand it, although presumably ancient Stoic citizens could still worship Zeus in private, as that was typically part of their philosophy.

Why do we seek gods any further? Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.

For instance, Seneca’s nephew, Lucan, was also a Stoic. He wrote an epic poem about the Great Roman Civil War called The Pharsalia, in which the Stoic hero, Cato of Utica is portrayed leading the shattered remnants of the Republican army to make a final stand against Julius Caesar. While marching through the deserts of North Africa, an officer suggests that Cato should, as would be expected, consult a nearby shrine in order to obtain from the priests a prophecy about the outcome of the war. Cato, however, refuses to do so, giving his Stoic beliefs as a reason:

We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know. Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter. — Lucan, Pharsalia

Though written three centuries after Zeno’s Republic, that seems to echo the idea that Stoics, being sincere pantheists, would see no need for temples or such religious trappings. Zeus is present everywhere, not just in temples, and he resides in everyone — the clergy don’t have any privileged status in that regard. Indeed, to a large extent, traditional Greek and Roman religious practices may have appeared to the philosophers as little more than superstition.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

Zeno said that the goal of Stoicism was “living in agreement”, which implied living harmoniously with oneself, with universal Nature, and with the rest of mankind. He also describes this as the goal of having a “smoothly flowing” life. This comes from a kind of friendship or love:

Zeno of Citium thought that Love was the God of Friendship and Liberty and the author of concord among people, but nothing else. Hence, he says in his Republic, that “Love is a God, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.” — Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae

To quote another song Lennon helped write: “All you need is love.” The love of the philosophers, though, is non-possessive and universal. It’s a bond of brotherly love that unites all the citizens of the ideal society in friendship.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one

As we’ll see below, Plutarch tells us that Zeno’s book The Republic, was presented as though in a dream, i.e., like Imagine it’s intended as a Utopian vision of society.

I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

This notion of the unity or brotherhood of mankind arguably comes, via Christianity, from the Stoics. It’s certainly characteristically Stoic. We can see it as closely-related, once again, to their pantheism — the belief that Zeus or God is synonymous with Nature. If the universe considered as a whole is sacred then we should strive to think of life in terms of the big picture and ourselves as parts of that whole. Marcus compares individual humans to the limbs of an organism, whereas today we could speak of individual people as be comparable to cells in the body of the universe as a whole.

From that vision of individuals as parts of a greater whole, though, it follows that we should also try to view ourselves as part of mankind as a whole rather than as atomistic individuals, fragmented and alienated from one another.

It is impossible to cut a branch from the branch to which it is attached unless you cut it from the tree as a whole; and likewise, a human being cut off from a single one of his fellows has dropped out of the community as a whole. Now in the case of the branch, someone else cuts it off, but a human being cuts himself off from his neighbour of his own accord, when he comes to hate him and turns his back on him; and he fails to see that by doing this, he has cut himself off from society as a whole. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.8

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world…

The much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities…

In the final verse, Lennon makes it fairly explicit that he’s describing a sort of socialist Utopian state, in which property is held in common.

“‘Imagine’, which says: ‘Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I’m not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement. — John Lennon

He reputedly said that he didn’t mean Chinese or Russian communism but something more “British”. Diogenes Laertius and other sources imply that in Zeno’s Republic property would be held in common and money deemed unnecessary. For instance, in a seldom-quoted passage, the satirist Lucian describes the Stoic vision of an ideal society:

All sorts of things that go on here, such as robbery, assault, unfair gain, you will never find attempted there, I believe; their relations are all peace and unity; and this is quite natural, seeing that none of the things which elsewhere occasion strife and rivalry, and prompt men to plot against their neighbours, so much as come in their way at all. Gold, pleasures, distinctions, they never regard as objects of dispute; they have banished them long ago as undesirable elements. Their life is serene and blissful, in the enjoyment of legality, equality, liberty, and all other good things. — Lucian, Hermotimus, or the Rival Philosophies

However, the original expression of these basic Stoic themes is perhaps captured in the brief description given by Plutarch:

Moreover, the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. This Zeno wrote, giving shape to a dream or, as it were, shadowy picture of a well-ordered and philosophic commonwealth. — Plutarch, On the fortune or the virtue of Alexander

Although perhaps at first the comparison may have sounded far-fetched, I hope that by now it will be more apparent that the dream of a philosophical commonwealth in Zeno’s Republic really does sound remarkably like the Utopia of Lennon’s Imagine

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