Sep 1, 2022
Ridding the world of values comes at a very great price: “…they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot!”
In 1971 John Lennon (and his co-writer and life partner, Yoko Ono) exhorted us to “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky…nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.”
Ok, I’m imagining, trying at least, and, well, turns out, it’s not so easy after all. In fact, it might just be impossible.
The ex-Beatle is inviting us to join Yoko and himself in New Eden (not to be confused with New England). Unfortunately, though, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” John’s utopia is nothing but the ‘flat’ world of Friedrich Nietzsche:
“What alone can our teaching be? – That no one gives a human being his qualities: not God, not society, not his parents or ancestors, not he himself…The fatality of his nature cannot be disentangled from the fatality of all that which has been and will be…it is absurd to want to hand over his nature to some purpose or other. We invented the concept ‘purpose’: in reality, purpose is lacking…One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole – there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
Nietzsche’s horizontal universe naturally contrasts with the hierarchical (i.e., vertical) cosmos of Judeo-Christian tradition. Note that Nietzsche’s World explicitly lacks values: There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being.
Ridding the world of values comes at a very great price: One is in the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole!
As Nietzsche knew only too well, ridding the world of values comes at a very great price A ‘value free xverse’ (not necessarily a universe) makes any Halloween House of Horrors seem like a kiddie ride at Disney World, but that did not prevent the philosopher from embracing his Nietzsche World whole hog. (Word is, he even bought himself a condo inside the park.)
Nietzsche had the courage of his convictions. He always philosophized in good faith.
Nietzsche had the courage of his convictions. He always philosophized in good faith. And his successors, the neo-Nietzscheans? Not so much! Like many neos in intellectual history, neo-Nietzscheans have a bad habit of leaving the back door unlocked and, you guessed it, everything of any worth has been stolen. In its place, the sloppy marauders have accidentally trekked-in the one thing Nietzsche most hated: stinky values!
When Nietzsche pronounced his death sentence on all Value, he did so with a heavy heart and a twinge of regret. He knew he was destroying a magnificent edifice…and he got no pleasure from it. When Lennon did the same, he celebrated!
Let’s unpack: Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.
Ok, nobody likes to think about killing or dying. Either way, it’s the ultimate sacrifice. But it may be that there are ‘things’ that you would ‘kill or die for’ (at least you’d like to think you’d kill or die for them), things you value more than your life itself. Finding those things and curating them is what religion is about.
John’s message in Imagine is the same as Nietzsche’s, even though John substitutes 20th century glee for Nietzsche’s 19th century gloom.
We live and then we don’t. We are our own highest value. This sounds benign enough, but it isn’t:
(1) If we have no values beyond ourselves, many of us will head straight for the Seven Deadly Sins (the combo pack is on sale this month at Costco): Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth. But why stop there? Sloth might further subdivide, like the tip of a Scottish tawse, into Tolerance, Despair, and even Suicidal Ideation.
(Side bar #1: What’s that? You don’t believe in sin? No problem! Imagine instead the utter misery of living life like Io, Zeus’ mortal consort, driven mad by the perpetual sting of these vices.)
(Side bar #2: Isn’t Tolerance supposed to be a good thing? Not when the beneficiary of your tolerance is pure Evil, Satan dressed to the nines for a costume ball. “Moderation in pursuit of Justice is no virtue” – Barry Goldwater, 1964.)
(2) We’re often told that death is one of only two certainties in life. We will all die someday and if we have been our own highest value, then our highest value will die with us. But Values cannot die; if they die, then they never were. To be a Value is to be both immortal and eternal. Otherwise, it’s not a Value, it’s a taste.
(3) If our primary value has no intrinsic value, then what becomes of all the secondary values we’ve celebrated during our so-called lives? If our highest value turns out to be the antithesis of value, then what value can there be in anything else?
John & Yoko are taking us down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death (i.e., Nihilism) at the same time they are depriving us of the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who was supposed to meet us there.
How cocky we once were, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” In other words, my Shepherd and I can handle anything life throws at us. Afraid of the valley? Heck no, we rule that valley. As long as I have my wing man (sic) with me, I’m good.
The problem, John (may I call you John), is that if there is nothing to kill or die for, then there can’t be anything to live for either. Killing and/or dying can’t be the ultimate expression of value because, per se they have no value.
We are all going to die someday. In that sense, we are all the same; we all come to the same end. We are all conceived ex minimis, and our future is a common, unmarked grave. And all that comes in between? According to Shakespeare, it will be “melted into air, into thin air… the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself…shall dissolve.” (The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1)
We live “now (and) at the hour of our death.” We should all be prepared to give that sentiment an Amen at any time. So ‘to be or not to be’ is not on the table. Our common fate is ‘to be and not to be.’ I am because I am giving this lecture, and I am not because I will one day perish from the face of the earth.
Only values can give our lives meaning. The sense of purpose, anathema to Nietzsche, is celebrated by Victor Frankl as the cornerstone of any and every life.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.