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Songs With Philosophical Themes

Most of the Beatles songs, like most pop songs, are about love.  But as the group’s music developed, so their subject matter moved beyond “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah,” and “I want to hold your hand.” Some of their finest songs express, illustrate, or connect up with more philosophical ideas

01 of 10Can’t Buy Me Love

“Can’t Buy Me Love is a classic statement of the philosopher’s traditional indifference to material wealth compared to what is good for the soul. It is true that Socrates was more concerned with truth and virtue than “love” (which as conceived in the song is presumably not purely Platonic). And it’s only fair to note that Paul later said that they should have sung “money can buy me love” given his experience of fame and fortune. Still, the core sentiment, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love, would be endorsed by many philosophers from ancient times to the present day.

02 of 10A Hard Day’s Night

Karl Marx would have liked “A Hard Day’s Night.”  Writing about “alienated labor,” Marx describes how the worker is only himself when he’s at home.  When he’s at work he’s not himself, being reduced to the level of an animal forced to do whatever he’s told.  The wonderful “ooowwwwww” in the middle of the song could be a cry of ecstasy at being alone with the beloved or the howl of an animal from someone who every day has “been working like a dog.”

03 of 10Nowhere Man

“Nowhere Man” is a classic description of someone who is drifting without purpose in and disengaged from the modern world.  Nietzsche thought an appropriate response to the loss of meaning following the “death of God” would be a kind of panic. But the “Nowhere Man” seems to merely feel listless.

04 of 10Eleanor Rigby

Modern capitalism society is characterized by a pervasive individualism; and individualism produces, almost inevitably isolation and loneliness. This McCartney song poignantly captures the loneliness of ​a woman who witnesses other people getting married but lives to the end of her life by herself, so friendless that there is no-one at her funeral. “Eleanor Rigby” poses the question: “All the lonely people, where do they call come from?” Many social theorists would say that they are produced by a system that is more concerned with competition and commerce than community.

05 of 10Help

‘Help’ is a heart-wrenching expression of insecurity felt by someone making the transition from the blind confidence of youth to a more honest and adult recognition of how much he needs others.  Where ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is sad, “Help” is anguished.  At bottom, it’s a song about self-awareness and the shedding of illusions.

06 of 10 With a Little Help From My Friends

This song is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “Help.” With its pleasing melody, “With a Little Help From My Friends” expresses the security of someone who has friends. He doesn’t sound like someone with any great talents or ambitions; having friends to “get by” with is enough.  The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus would approve.  He says that not much is necessary for happiness, but of those things that are necessary, the most important by far is friendship.

07 of 10 In My Life

“In My Life” is a subtle song, one of John Lennon’s greatest.  It’s about wanting to hold two attitudes together at the same time, even though they somewhat conflict.  He wants to hold onto his affectionate remembrance of the past, but he also wants to live in the present and not be stuck in his memories or bound by them. Like ‘Help’ it’s also a reflection on the process of moving beyond one’s youth.

08 of 10 Yesterday

“Yesterday,” one of Paul’s most famous songs, offers a fascinating contrast with ‘In My Life.’ Here the singer prefers the past to the present–“I believe in yesterday”–and is completely locked inside it with no desire to come to terms with the present at all.  It’s one of the most covered songs ever written, with over 2,000 versions recorded.  What does that say about contemporary culture?

09 of 10 Hey Jude

“Hey Jude” extols the virtue of a cheerful, optimistic, uncynical outlook on life. The world will appear a warmer place to someone with a warm heart, while “it’s a fool who plays it cool, by making this world a little colder.” It also tells us, in a modest way, to “live dangerously,” as Nietzsche puts it in The Gay Science. Some philosophies argue that the best way to live is to render oneself secure against heartache or misfortune.  But Jude is told to be bold, and let music and love under his skin, for that’s the way to experience the world more fully.

10 of 10 Let It Be

“Let It Be” is a song of acceptance, even of resignation. This almost fatalistic attitude is one that many ancient philosophers recommended as the surest route to contentment. Don’t struggle against the world: conform yourself to it. If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.

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