HCH 8 / January 2016
What a Wonderful World, by David Cerdá
Got frightened, you rock lovers, didn’t you? Maybe you thought I was bringing the old Satchmo in this section. Keep Calm. We’re gonna talk about Joey Ramone’s version. The celebrated lyrics are the same but everything changes, because there’s irony there. But let’s start with the main message and its philosophical implications, before heading for what the previous master of punk may have done to this paradigmatic song. Do you remember the lyrics?
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I say to myself, what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
Bright sunny days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Peace of mind and gratitude; complete unison with what is around us; those are the emotions the song is supposed to provoke. We can find the same vein in Nina Simone’s Feeling good. The theme really blossomed in the seventies, those Flower-Power years. The subject is anything but new: it goes backwards to ancient Greek philosophy, mainly to stoicism, and to Taoism and a whole family of Chinese thoughts and creeds. The Universe, The Tao, is a totality in harmony, and rationality is the way we human may participate in this divine structure. It is exposed like that in Zeno, in Chrysyppus, and through Panaetius, roman stoics made the idea their own: first Seneca, afterwards Epictetus and, at its finest, Marcus Aurelius, speculated about these principles. In distant China, many centuries before, Laozi was putting into words the same ideas in this beautiful poetry-and-philosophy classic, the Tao Te Ching (“By being a part of the Nature, we are one with Tao”). And curiously, it was under Marcus Aurelius when both empires first met together.
The universe is one, we are just a part of it, and God is a universal soul. It may seem similar to what Spinoza proposed —pantheism—, but it is really monism. Let’s not bore everyone with technical details: the fact proposed is that everything’s connected. As a modern Gaia, the universe is alive, and everything’s in it with the same right to exist. Thus, as Francis Thompson beautifully explained,
Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star
Therefore, all those things we misleadingly consider evils (pain and death and catastrophes and plain illness) are not evil but simply are. Any human attempt to place some value on these facts is an error, we are told. Thus, they must be appreciated, even loved. Some centuries later, a man called Nietzsche toyed with the idea and wrote about amor fati (“to love one’s destiny”).
In this wonderfulness-in-front-of-the-world we may also see glimpses of Leibniz’s Theodicy: everything’s in order, this is the best world God can accomplish, and only our judgements may ruin the whole picture. Being in communion with Nature may also be the entry way to humanism, to empathy with the rest of living beings, including humans.
The colors of the rainbow are so pretty in the skies
Are also on the faces of the people walking by
I see friends shaking hands saying
How do you do?
They’re really saying I love you
I see babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world
What about the irony? Well: it’s not in the lyrics, but in the way Joey sings, and in what we know about his punk creed. Consider this amazing point: it is not the words, but who recites’em and how. Yet Louise Armstrong is gone and the whole setting is different and we maybe feel keen to embrace the other side of the argument, say, that it’s harsh to see the world built up as if it’s in harmony when you see all that suffering, the ugly side of the story. Maybe the world is a perfect construction; but dude, so often it doesn’t seem so.
Even the more enlightened eras (and the time of the stoic Marcus Aurelius was described so) have their ironical champions. In the ii century b.C. we had Lucian of Samosata. He seriously mocked this universal harmony idea. Skepticism was his way to understand the world, and his main tool to face the suffering life comes with. Alanis Morissette also saw it: how circumstances and elements (Nature) confabulate, seemingly, against us. She produced one of the most unstoic tunes ever; and called it Ironic.
Joey Ramone’s What a wonderful world was the main theme of Bowling for Columbine’s OS, the shocking documentary masterpiece. Michael Moore intelligently used Satchmo’s version to portray US homicidal practices of foreign interventionism (a video disgracefully of the times). Of course, Nature is only to blame in a very indirect way as to human atrocities. But it is no less true that stoics and Taoist and almost all the other thinking about Nature’s wisdom and essential goodness apply the same criteria to human nature, because it is considered just an aspect of that whole.
Irony hurts, but can heal too. Artists and thinkers that do not abide the “Anything goes” mantra are very valuable, although sometimes disturbing, or precisely because of it. So it’s also good not to be short of alternative thinkers, even when everything seems to be so wonderful. But do not worry not about a shortage. It appears that every time the universe manages to deliver a new Marcus Aurelius, it somehow produces a new Lucian too.