Tom Ellis
7 min readJan 24, 2024

What do John Lennon and Yuval Noah Harari have in common? At first glance, such a question seems absurd. John Lennon, as we all know, was an iconic English rock star, founder of the Beatles, who was tragically assassinated in 1980. And Harari is a contemporary, highly reputed Israeli public intellectual, professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of several best-selling books, including Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. (Lennon, while a talented performing artist with a scathing wit, was not exactly an “intellectual.”)

The common theme which links these two disparate figures is an ability to penetrate the illusions that most of us share, and even take for granted, and give us a glimpse of the reality underlying these illusions. Harari’s books and public lectures are predicated on his basic insight that humanity has risen to its current global dominance as a result of a cognitive revolution made possible by the evolution of digital communication through language: the ability to communicate not just attitudes, relationships, and feelings like other animals, but actual concepts and propositions — nouns and verbs, and all the linguistic apparatus that enables us to specify them, or convey relationships between them.

While most of us learn in elementary school that “a noun is a person, place, or thing” and “a verb is an action or a state of being,” they are actually no such thing. They are just words — coded vocalizations that humans make, or symbolize in written characters, which are understood only by members of their own linguistic community or tribe. It would be more accurate to define them as follows: nouns designate concepts; verbs designate propositions about those concepts. And all the other linguistic structures — adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and the like — simply add information to these.

Concepts can refer either to specific entities and categories of such entities, while propositions can range from simply establishing the entities’ existence or properties to describing their actions. And most crucially, concepts can refer either to realities — to shared, observable phenomena in the physical environment or in behavior — or to “fictions” — that is, to imagined or generalized value-laden concepts shared by a culture or linguistic community, which have no referent in the observable world. Accordingly, here are a few of Harari’s astute observations (paraphrased or quoted from a recent interview posted on YouTube):

1. Language is what has enabled us to cooperate, and thus is primarily responsible for our advantage over other primates and our ability to colonize the whole planet.

2. Religion, nation-states, the money system, and corporations are all fictions — shared stories made possible by language. None of these is “real.”

3. “Money, in essence, is a device for establishing trust.” (direct quote) And trust makes cooperation between strangers possible.

4. “What happens when trust, which is the basis of all human interactions, is no longer trust in humans, but is trust in nonhuman intelligence?” (Direct quote regarding the potential consequences of AI).

So how does this all relate to John Lennon? In 1971, shortly after the Beatles split up, Lennon collaborated with his wife and soul-mate Yoko Ono to write and record “Imagine,” the iconic best-selling anthem that is now known and beloved throughout the world. Most people regard the lyrics to “Imagine” as pure and naïve wish-fulfillment fantasy, enlivened by Lennon’s characteristic iconoclasm (“…and no religion, too”), but if we view the lyrics in the context of Harari’s insights, something else comes clear: Lennon is actually describing the real world, stripped of all the linguistic fictions we habitually impose on it. Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics:

Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try;

No hell below us/Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people/Living for today…

Here, Lennon focuses our attention on the fact that religion — all religion — is based on “fictions” or culturally shared linguistic constructs about imagined entities (“Heaven” and “Hell” and, more generally, an afterlife) — that have no actual or measurable existence. The last line, in particular, points to an insight widely shared by wisdom traditions worldwide: that the present is all there is, while both future and past are mere mental formations or “fictions.” The past is just memory; the future, just a projection of present trends based on either hope or anxiety. So ironically, Lennon is suggesting that we “imagine” a world in which people stopped getting caught up in imagining, or worrying about, things about the afterlife or the future, and instead recognized, and were grateful for, the miracle of being alive in the present moment.

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

Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too.

Imagine all the people/Living life in peace…

In the second verse, Lennon takes on what Harari describes as the “fictions” of nation-states and organized religion. Many religious people — especially Christians — take umbrage at Lennon’s suggestion that we imagine a world without religion, and some even accuse him hysterically of being a Marxist (ironic in light of his ridicule of Marxism in his song “Revolution”). But in a more syntactically precise reading of this line, we can see that the modifier “to kill or die for” to refer to both “countries” and “religion,” thus taking aim at the devastating consequences of both fictions — nationalism and religion. Lennon is asking us to imagine giving up our attachment to the “fictions,” or collective imaginative constructs of nationality and religion, which prevent us from living in peace. Yet again, he is asking us to “imagine” living in reality, free of the burdens of our collective imaginations!

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…

In the final verse, Lennon takes on the most tenacious shared fantasy of all — the idea of “possessions” and money, which actually create the closely paired vices of greed and hunger. Money, as Harari observes, was an essential, arithmetical fiction which enabled strangers to establish trust, and therefore facilitated trade in commodities. And trade — enabled by the surpluses created by the agricultural revolution (a symbiotic relationship between annual grasses like wheat, rice, or corn and human communities) — required the invention of a fiction called “possessions,” which could then be traded for others through the medium of money. This was, of course, essential to the establishment and rapid proliferation of civilization throughout the world. But the money system has two serious flaws: it is a zero-sum game, whose production rules are that more is always better, and what’s mine is not yours. As a result, unless the money economy continually “grows” by transforming resources into commodities, it quickly turns into a monopoly game, where wealth concentrates upward into ever fewer hands, leaving the multitudes impoverished. Money is thus both the indispensable basis of our complex civilization, and the cancer of the Earth,creating greed or hunger everywhere.

Possessions are likewise fictitious, and this fiction results in the destructive consequences of greed and hunger. In the modern world, we buy and sell land, but before we can do so, we first have to steal it from the natural world and from indigenous cultures, turn it from diverse ecosystems into simplified monocultures, protect those monocultures from pests by spraying poison on them, compensate for exhausting the soil by mining, processing, and selling artificial fertilizers that act like amphetamines, boosting short-term productivity while further exhausting and destroying topsoil, and then waging war with our neighbors to grab more land and repeat the process. In the natural world, conversely, organisms use resources, and sometimes fight over them, but don’t “own” them. A hole in a tree trunk, for example, will be created by one creature — say a woodpecker — but then be used by a succession of other creatures, both simultaneously and sequentially.

But what would happen, Lennon asks us, if we abandoned the fictions of money and possessions, and simply collaborated to share what we have with others who need it? While this may seem a pure, naïve fantasy, given our innate avarice and aggression, it is just possible that this avarice is exacerbated by the paired “fictions” of money and possessions.

But is a peaceful, shared, abundant world unburdened by our linguistic fictions — hence, without religious or nationalistic conflict, and without greed or hunger, even possible? Most would say no. I disagree.

Imagine…a viral social movement, starting today, based on the following core injunction: Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness…by learning, teaching, healing, and creating. And imagine it taking root at the local level, rather than from the top down, among friends and neighbors, teaching one another gardening skills rooted in Permaculture values (Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share) and practice (ecological design based on energy flows), and learning how to collaborate and nurture one another’s knowledge and skills, while developing resilience in the face of external threats. Then imagine clusters of such Garden Guilds forming community-wide, and then regional networks for sharing information and ideas.

And imagine these communities gradually reducing their dependence on the money economy by cultivating all the Eight Forms of Capital — not just money and materials (which are necessarily Zero-Sum) but also biological, experiential, intellectual, social, cultural, and spiritual capital (all of which are Positive-Sum: the more we have, the more others have access to as well). It all begins, no matter where we live, and what our circumstances may be, by simply dropping seeds into soil, even in a planting box, watering it, and sharing what you’ve discovered with your friends and neighbors.



Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.