I’M PRETTY QUICK to admit that John Lennon is not my favorite member of The Beatles. He’s not even my second favorite (Ringo) or even the The Beatle I say when I’m feeling particularly assholish.
That’s Pete Best, by the way.
If you’re wondering, it’s George. George Harrison is my favorite Beatle.
Honestly, John Lennon isn’t even in my top 5.
And there were four The Beatles.
But, given that I, at one time, existed at the same time as John Lennon, and I am a The Beatles fan, I do think, from time to time, the perennial Beatles fan what if — what if John Lennon hadn’t been murdered on December 8, 1980?
That kind of question is called a hypothetical. You know who LOVES hypothetical questions — philosophers.
Philosophers call their hypothetical questions thought experiments.
Like a lot of people, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to think about hypothetical situations. Since I (and everybody else) wasn’t going anywhere, I had to imagine situations and places i would go — if I could go out. You kinda have to when you can’t leave your house.
If I’d say there’s a silver lining to any of this, life during lockdown has been a godsend for my imagination.
Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? Covid-19 hasn’t changed a damn thing about my social life. I never go outside. And I’ve always avoided people.
Although Covid hasn’t altered my Schopenhauerian tendencies, it has affected me in one significant way.. Namely, life during quarantine has me thinking a lot more about death.
The past year has put me in a thinking about death kind of mood.
Covid has also got me digging through my old record collection. I’ve been listening to The Beatles quite a bit; John Lennon in particular.
My not-favorite Beatle.
Listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, and thinking how “Run For Your Life” is possibly the most red flaggy song of all time (Jesus, how did they not see that song was problematic?), my mind, unoccupied with actual thoughts generated by actual socializing, naturally drifted to the question,
what if John Lennon wasn’t murdered?
Never said I wasn’t a morbid bastard.
As I’m a philosopher. I tell myself A) I can’t just toss out some simple, over-asked hypothetical question, and B) That’s a genuine THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.
So naturally I had to dig a little deeper.
And then the question hit me: WHY was I asking what if John Lennon hadn’t died in 1980? My (first) answer was this: the reason why I (and every other The Beatles fan) asks “what if?” is because we believe John Lennon shouldn’t have died in 1980.
John Lennon’s death was, for lack of a better word, bad.
And if you’re gonna say death is bad and not also say the name Thomas Nagel, I’d suspect you weren’t a real philosopher.
Yep. I’m going Nagelian on this one.
John Lennon’s death (he was only 40) deprived him of what could have (and arguably what should have) been.
There would be albums of songs that would never be recorded. Lennon would never again have the opportunity to perform live. Fans would never see a full The Beatles reunion. With his death, Lennon’s sons were deprived of their father; Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, deprived of her husband. More importantly, John Lennon himself was deprived of the ability to engage in a long, active, (hopefully fufilling) life.
Any person’s death, not just John Lennon, is bad because death, as Nagel writes,”is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains”.
Now, if I actually left my apartment and had any kind of a social life, I’d end things right there, satisfied with my slightly Nagelian thoughts on a decades-dead rock legend.
But I’m a lover of wisdom. We’re never satisfied.
Not when it comes to a damned thought experiment, anyway.
So I kept thinking.
The German not-actually-nihilist-but-existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, famously thought up a little mind blower of his own: Eternal Recurrence.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche introduces the thought experiment. He writes:
“What if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: “This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence—and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself.”
The underlying question the demon is asking is a question of the quality of life. If you say yes to the demon’s proposal to repeat your life forever, you’ve probably lived a good life. However, if your answer is no, you better go do something with your life. It sucks.
Ok, we got some Nagel. We got a little Nietzsche — but what does this have to do with John Lennon?
I’m getting to that.
Alright. Let’s imagine some scientist (or demon. Wait — is there a difference?) invents a machine that can transport us back in time to Liverpool in 1962, right before The Beatles made it big in England. After some sight-seeing, the science-demon stakes out a spot to meet a pre-fame John Lennon.
The science-demon meets John, and because it’s a science-demon, it’s able to talk to John for a few minutes, long enough to, in a most serious philosophical tone, offer a proposal: what if I told you you will be in the most influential rock & roll band in music history, be more famous than you can possibly imagine, become fabulously wealthy, and more popular than Jesus, BUT 18 years from now you’ll be murdered by someone who wants to kill you precisely because you’re rich, famous, and more popular than Jesus?
It tells young John Lennon if he agrees to be a famous star of the screen, he absolutely will be murdered in 1980 — there’s nothing he can do to prevent it. Of course, if John, not wanting to die young, gives up a career in music, he’ll (likely) live a longer, but perfectly ordinary, life.
The question that John Lennon has to ponder is which life is the better life — that is, which life is worth repeating for an eternity?
Would John Lennon choose the presumably good life — the life of a rich and famous (and rich) rock star, doomed to die at 40
Or, would he have chosen an ordinary, not-rich and famous (presumably longer) life?
That’s the question Nietzsche says we (all) must ask about our own lives.
Would you go back, Jack and do it again?
Of course we’ll never know what Lennon’s answer would be, but I have the feeling whatever he chose I’d still end up hearing “Say Say Say”.
Seriously, I like Paul McCartney. I like Michael Jackson. But that song sucks.
Thomas Nagel. Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge U. Press. 1979.