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The Philosophy of John Lennon

What is it like to be a Beatle? Gary Tillery argues that Lennon’s pronouncements, both cynical and idealistic, reveal a sincere and original thinker.

In the closing months of 1965, John Lennon was sinking into a personal despair completely unsuspected by the millions of Beatles fans who believed their image as lovable ‘mop-tops.’ Like E.A. Robinson’s Richard Cory, he was growing more alienated at the same time millions went to sleep envious of him. To his close friend Pete Shotton he confided: “The more I have, the more I see, and the more experience I get, the more confused I become as to who I am, and what the hell life is all about.”

Unfulfilled by material success, he had stumbled into what psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl called ‘the existential vacuum,’ the state in which individuals “are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves.” Frankl summed up the predicament of modern man in Man’s Search for Meaning: “No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.” He concluded that each person can only fill the void of meaninglessness by discovering “for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible.”

At George Harrison’s suggestion, Lennon tried to find solace in two sacred books of the East: the Bhagavad Gita and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He also began a serious study of the Bible. One night in the winter of 1966, unable to shake off the pall of meaninglessness that ironically had settled over him with his success, Lennon decided to follow the advice of Jesus (“... when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...”). He locked himself in the bathroom at his home in Weybridge, got down on his knees and begged for an acknowledgment, a sign, a revelation – some hint that his appeal was being heard and some clue as to what he should be doing. But there was no response.

The Long, Dark Cynical Night

That unanswered appeal marked the beginning of a search that lasted for a decade, an anguished search for a new foundation on which to base his life.

The public first became aware of his iconoclasm a few months later, when Lennon sparked a firestorm with an off-hand comment during an interview, that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The Beatles’ songs were soon banned on over 30 U.S. radio stations, their records tossed into bonfires across the South, and Lennon ultimately stumbled through a widely-reported apology at the beginning of their l966 American tour.

What was not widely reported was the catalyst for his new objectivity about the Christian beliefs of his youth. He had just discovered a book by Hugh Schonfield, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, titled The Passover Plot. Its subject was a demythologized Jesus, a Jew who was so convinced he was the predicted messiah that he conspired to fulfill the old biblical prophecies through a deliberate plan of action. Lennon found intellectual satisfaction in having the hazy mysteries of Christianity explained so prosaically, and the book helped change his conception of God. He began to envision God not as a personal deity but a resonant energy that pervades the universe, a ‘powerhouse’ which is intrinsically neither good nor bad – just as electricity can be used either to execute a criminal or to light a room.

By the end of the decade he had distilled his definition of this impersonal deity into a memorable aphorism: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” The song in which it appears, God, served as Lennon’s personal declaration of independence. Systematically renouncing belief in Jesus, Buddha, the Bible, the Gita, and other glorified entities including Elvis, he asserted himself as a free-thinking individual.

In effect, he rephrased Descartes’ axiom: “I don’t believe, therefore I am.”

While rejecting traditional idols, Lennon came to see his own cardinal value as love. The catalyst for this transformation was his experimentation with drugs, most notably LSD, which helped him break down some of the defensive walls erected in his traumatic youth. His wife Cynthia noted, in her book A Twist of Lennon, that while she had concerns about his indulgence, “In many ways it was a wonderful thing to watch. Tensions, bigotry, and bad temper were replaced by understanding and love.”

In 1967, he found an opportunity to write a song embodying his insight. The Beatles had been invited to perform for the historic first live worldwide television broadcast, and in this opportunity Lennon also saw a responsibility: it was in his power to improve humanity. As Viktor Frankl had asserted, that responsibility gave meaning to his life. While to a critical listener All You Need Is Love might seem naive, it is no more so than Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for life” or Jesus’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Lennon’s message in the lyrics was that those who want to go out and improve the world would be wiser to first go inside themselves. If we first do what no one else can do, transform ourselves, then we can positively influence those around us, and ultimately, like ripples spreading out from a stone dropped in a pond, change the world.

For the next several years Lennon continued to find meaning, and define himself existentially, by his quest to improve the world. At first he hoped it could be through promotion of transcendental meditation, the technique taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though he ultimately became disenchanted with the not-so-holy man, Lennon was impressed by his drug-free method of self transformation and maintained a pragmatic respect for meditation for the rest of his life.

His disillusionment with the guru reinforced Lennon’s natural cynicism, which was an integral part of his life stance. It would have been difficult not to be cynical in view of the machinations of the parasites who clung to the Beatles, the self-interest displayed by his band mates and business associates during the group’s break-up, their harsh reaction to Yoko Ono – the woman he considered his soul mate, his experience with Arthur Janov, and the zeitgeist of the Vietnam War era, during which the establishment steadfastly resisted the people’s clamor for social and political change.

His one certainty was Yoko, whom he always maintained had rescued him from an empty life as a rock star. From 1968 onward, with her support, he emerged from his Beatles cocoon and redefined himself existentially. They resolved to make their life their art, capitalizing on Lennon’s almost unequalled access to the media to bring attention to the cause of world peace. Their objective, he said, was to keep peace on the front pages, displacing stories about politicians and diplomats making still more empty promises, and he and Yoko didn’t care if the journalists considered them fools as long as their antics were reported.

Ultimately, years of incessant media exposure and tireless campaigning for peace and other social issues took their toll on the relationship, and Lennon and Ono separated during his infamous ‘Lost Weekend.’ Fifteen months later, having learned that he was unable to cope without her, he moved back in and settled into a long hiatus from public view. In the comparative tranquillity of life as a father and ‘househusband,’ he unexpectedly found a measure of fulfillment, a balance to the restless life of artistic, political and social engagement he had experienced ever since becoming an adult.

The Cynical Idealist

John Lennon never, after his union with Yoko Ono, thought of himself as simply a writer of popular music. “If it was another age,” he once said, “I would be called a philosopher.” Can we really consider Lennon a philosopher? If being a philosopher means systematizing one’s thinking and conclusions into a grand scheme, he doesn’t qualify. But then, neither does Socrates. If Plato had not reconstructed his teacher’s peripatetic conversations with fellow Athenians into tightly-written dialogues, the ‘philosophy’ of Socrates would have remained just half-remembered bolts of lightning that had dazzled his supporters and infuriated his verbal sparring partners.

Lennon did not leave behind a philosophical project along the lines of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel or Sartre, but he did leave a significant body of creative work – songs, prose, poetry, drawings – as well as innumerable interviews. From them his philosophy can be gleaned.

Fundamentally, Lennon stood for a secular approach to daily life and world affairs. God was not a personalized being to be worshiped but a nebulous, neutral energy pervading the universe. Lennon could only call himself religious in a humanistic way that would satisfy very few believers. “If being religious means being ‘concerned,’” as Paul Tillich, the late Protestant theologian, once put it, “well, I am, then.... I’m concerned with people.” Lennon believed that humanity could reach a higher plane, one where violence and war were superseded and human relations were based on love and respect. He thought that average men and women had it in their power to help reshape their culture in that direction if only they would recognize that capability, and he devoted considerable effort to trying to make them aware of their power.

He proposed in All You Need Is Love that the key to this better world is self-transformation. The one thing each of us can do that no one else has the ability to do is change ourselves and live up to our own potential – to “learn how to be you in time.” The more people who succeed at self-transformation, the better our society will become.

One proven method of self-transformation is through meditation. Practitioners have known for thousands of years that something beneficial occurs as a result of regular meditation. Recent scientific studies have shown that in the meditating brain, activity is redirected from the right hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex to the left – a shift that appears to reorient the brain from a ‘fight-or-flight’ stress mode to one of acceptance and contentment. This shift has been demonstrated to enhance the immune system as well as significantly reduce blood pressure. Moreover, research suggests that meditation can actually ‘reset’ the brain – raising the threshold at which it becomes cognizant of and affected by stress.

Lennon meditated, but he was no Buddha. Though idealistic and well intentioned, he had a temper, and he found the disingenuous attitudes of authorities and ever-present displays of human pettiness and self-interest exasperating. (Just listen to Gimme Some Truth.)

In essence, John Lennon was a cynical idealist. He understood the innate self-interest that hobbles our progress toward a better world, but he never lacked optimism that we would get there if we kept our dream in focus. As a philosopher he kept encouraging us to gaze at the horizon; as an artist he felt free to vent his frustration about our constant myopia.

In the better world Lennon proposed, people would forgo violence and act out of love and mutual respect. They would recognize that such traditional classifiers as religion, nationality and skin color are meaningless from a cosmic perspective and that any person should be treated simply as a fellow human being. Further, they would be content to share material wealth and the earth’s resources in the interest of having a milieu of social harmony within which to explore the potential of their own lives. For Lennon placed emphasis on the here-and-now – on how we can best use the quantum of time chance has allotted to us; on what we can achieve as individuals and societies while we are still alive.

He conceived of life as a work of art, and the metaphor applies for any of us. Some have more resources and advantages, some fewer, but each of us has the liberty to use them however we decide. An interviewer once commented: “You say everybody is equal, but some people are more equal than others.” Lennon replied: “But they are all infinite. They all have infinite possibilities, my friend.”


One of the key concepts in Lennon’s thought is that every individual represents a singularity of potential, each of whom is capable of influencing others, and the ripple effect can change society. This view lies at the heart of his song Instant Karma with its chorus of “We all shine on.” Tailoring the Hindu concept of karma to the here-and-now, he asserts that the cosmic laws of balance and retribution also apply in our current lives. If we approach the world as violent, self-gratifying or inconsiderate people, what reaction will we generate? If enough of us decide to be the same way, what kind of society will we have? We therefore need to be mindful of our actions and attitudes and their consequences.

In another of his key concepts, we also need to be mindful of our imagination and its potential. Lennon took note as sports and business figures began to use creative visualization to improve their real-life performance. Could we not use collective visualization to improve the world? What if, instead of everyone focusing their attention on the bugaboo of the day – the Communist menace, the slide toward an Orwellian future, the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust – they instead visualized a peaceful society, characterized by nonviolence and harmonious relations?

To that end he wrote Mind Games, to encourage listeners to become ‘mind guerrillas’, working independently but in concert to visualize and bring about a better society. He referred to the focus of the project as an ‘absolute elsewhere’ – an ideal world imagined so vividly that people would start altering their behavior, perhaps even subconsciously, to make it manifest.

Lennon’s most famous song had a similar aim. Imagine takes on three of the most divisive issues of humankind – religion, nationalism and possessiveness and gently invites us to look at them from a neutral perspective.

What if we accept that neither Heaven nor Hell exist, and that God is simply the name for a naturally-occurring background force in the universe? Without the prospect of Heaven or Hell we would have no expectation of reward or punishment after death. Would we suddenly descend to barbarism, looting, mayhem in the streets? Possibly. More likely we would simply focus better on our existence here and now, being keenly aware of our transience and the wisdom of trying to live a full life.

What if we stopped defining ourselves by imaginary lines running across the terrain? (Or at least began to think of demarcations of nations the way we think of postal districts?) What if, instead of considering ourselves patriots of a nation, we thought of ourselves first – like the great Cynic, Diogenes – as citizens of the world? Would we find it more difficult to distrust, berate and even mercilessly slaughter fellow citizens than we would foreigners?

What if we accomplished the hardest transformation of all and overcame our possessiveness? Notice that Lennon says imagining no Heaven is “easy if you try” and imagining no countries “isn’t hard to do,” but as for imagining no possessions, “I wonder if you can.” Wouldn’t much of the world’s misery vanish if we could simply begin to do what we encourage our children to do? To share?

The ideal world Lennon envisioned in 1971 was not something he expected to see in place the next year. Its purpose was to serve as an alternative destination to the one toward which our culture seemed to be rushing headlong in the heyday of Nixon, Brezhnev, Mao, the hot war in Southeast Asia and the Cold War everywhere else – i.e., Apocalypse 2000. His aural sketch represented what Richard Rorty calls “a fuzzy but inspiring focus imaginarius”; that is, “a handy bit of rhetoric” that might not hold up under analysis but nevertheless benefits society for having “kept the way open for political and cultural change.”

Imagine crystalizes Lennon’s philosophy. In it he reached hardest for the universal and consciously tried to communicate a vision that would inspire everyone everywhere – from a sales clerk in Tokyo to a mechanic in Warsaw to a florist in Prague to a street musician in Barcelona to a teacher in Havana.

All five cities have memorials to John Lennon.

© Gary Tillery 2005

Gary Tillery is writing a book on The Philosophy of John Lennon. He is the author of Darkling Plain, a collection of short stories set in Vietnam, and is also a professional sculptor.


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