“Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom
and the people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit
and there will be no thieves.”
– From Chapter 19 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
In a recent survey conducted on behalf of the book series, Little People, Big Dreams, it was found that 15% of children aged six to 16 had never heard of John Lennon and a third of them did not know why he was famous. Imagine, the most well-known of his solo offerings, is one of the reasons why Lennon was famous not just as a member of The Beatles.
Imagine by John Lennon is not, as the title would suggest, a song about imagination. It is concerned with reality without the imposition of human preconceptions. The means of achieving peace it advocates is not idealistic dreaming, but rather the unlearning of several ideas that have been invented by humankind, and which have become so entrenched in society that it is difficult to imagine a world without them.
“Imagine there’s no heaven…”
This is a strange line to open a song about a desired world peace. Surely heaven is a positive idea, or, at least, not detrimental to society? Lennon, however, is not singing about a utopia. He is proposing a world that no longer needs heaven because life is enough. As Douglas Adams said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
The first verse continues:
“It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky.”
Heaven and hell are the concepts in the song most demonstrably the imagined creation of humankind. The existence of these posthumous destinations for the soul can be neither confirmed or denied because nobody can experience death and return. Lennon is arguing that without the expectation of reward or punishment in the afterlife, people would instead focus on the importance of the journey and living in the moment because life, which it is much harder to argue against the existence of, is all that matters: “Imagine all the people living for today”.
He expands on this theme in the second verse with the line “and [imagine] no religion too”. Like heaven and hell, religion is also the invention of the human mind. (If you are religious, at least admit that the religions you do not follow are such). Religion can have both good and bad consequences. It follows the line ‘Nothing to kill or die for’, so the emphasis is on the negative effects, such as religious fighting, but since he is imagining ‘Above us, only sky’, it is not only these but also the positive repercussions, such as being a good person to get a ticket to paradise, that he imagines not existing.
The second verse begins with the line “Imagine there’s no countries.” Countries are also the invention of humankind. The world is just the world and it is only people that have divided it up into separate entities like a spherical blue-green cake. The world we live in has countries only because of a consensus that they exist, and even then, the boundaries are unstable. Look at Russia reclaiming Crimea in 2014, the fighting between Armenians and Azeris over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, and the revelation that President Trump enquired about purchasing Greenland from Denmark in 2019. Sometimes there is no consensus: Kosovo, Israel and Taiwan are all unrecognised by some states.
If this is hard to accept because the idea of countries is so ingrained in how people view the world, a passage in Book III, Chapter VII of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, when the world population is reduced to less than 100 people journeying from France to Switzerland, might help explain it:
“We first had bidden adieu to the state of things which having existed many thousand years, seemed eternal; such a state of government, obedience, traffic, and domestic intercourse, as had moulded our hearts and capacities, as far back as memory could reach. Then to patriotic zeal, to the arts, to reputation, to enduring fame, to the name of country, we had bidden farewell. […] To preserve these we had quitted England–England, no more; for without her children, what name could that barren island claim?”
Without people, there are no countries. Of course, Lennon is not imagining a world without people but with “all the people living life in peace”. What he dreams of is a world not without humans, but without the delineated borders of countries created by humankind.
The line “Nothing to kill or die for” follows this after “It isn’t hard to do”. Take, for example, the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: The two belligerents are fighting over control of the enclave to say “that region is in my country”. If there were no countries and borders imposed on the world by humans, such fighting would never take place and there would be nothing to kill or die for.
The final verse begins with the line “Imagine no possessions”. Possessions do not exist without the human belief in ownership. There are things, and who owns them is, like the borders of countries, a matter of popular consensus and legal definition created by governments, rather than unmitigated truth. The line reminds me of a verse in the Billy Bragg song, “The World Turned Upside Down”:
“The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain.”
Lennon is asking the listener to imagine a world without the concept of ownership. As the quotation from the Tao Te Ching at the beginning of this piece says: “Throw away industry and profit/and there will be no thieves.”
There is a concept in Taoism called ‘Pu’, most commonly translated as the ‘uncarved block’ but which is perhaps better translated as ‘unworked wood’ or ‘unhewn log’. It refers to natural simplicity without any unnecessary complication or human interference. (It has other connotations, but this is the most relevant to Imagine.) What Lennon is actually asking the listener to do is to return to this state of being, before humans imagined these notions; the afterlife, religion, borders, countries, the concept of ownership, and possessions; to perform a miracle and uncarve the block of life by undoing the layers and layers of concepts humankind has constructed and sewn into the fabric of our perception.
Imagine, therefore, is not about imagination. It is about a reality unencumbered by the intervention of human preconceptions. The children who do not know who John Lennon is, whose minds are yet to be ‘carved’ by the preconceptions of their ancestors, are perhaps the ideal form of this concept, the people who could grow up to make Lennon’s dream a reality. Can you imagine that?