Shaggy, Blame-shifting, and Heraclitean Metaphysics – Students For Liberty

The 2000 hit single ‘It Wasn’t Me’ by Jamaican-American recording artist Shaggy famously features a fearful protagonist, who has been caught in an act of infidelity by his significant other, receiving some rather unhelpful advice from an overly-confident confidant.

“I don’t know what to do,” laments the shamefaced lothario in the song’s opening dialogue. His friend (the aforementioned Shaggy) has a simple solution: “Say it wasn’t you.”

Part of the song’s popularity at the turn of the century might be owed to the absurdity of the story. Throughout the course of the song, the listener discovers that the adulterous antihero was caught “red-handed” in his own home by his partner, who “even caught (him) on camera” and “stayed until it was over.” Unperturbed by this overwhelming evidence, Shaggy maintains that there is only one defence his guilty friend needs: the phrase “it wasn’t me.” While you and I might consider this irrational, there is one influential thinker from history who might disagree.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. c. 500 BC) notably saw the world as permanently in flux. His famous epithet ‘everything flows and nothing abides’ encapsulates a metaphysics where change governs everything.

For W.T. Jones, author of The Classical Mind (A History of Western Philosophy) (1952), Heraclitus’ theory entails a fundamental denial of reality. “Things endure, says experience. The desk, the chairs in my study remain the same, as far as perception goes… but such permanence Heraclitus had to deny.”

Leonard Peikoff elaborates on the Heraclitean position:  “(the table) is a whirl of activity, and it’s simply the crudeness of human senses that makes this activity undetectable to us… if you accept (Heraclitus’) principle that everything is changing in every respect at every instant, then there are no entities.”

But what are the implications of such a worldview? Some potential inferences are outlined below:

 Reality is Unknowable

The first conclusion to draw from Heraclitean metaphysics is that reality is unknowable through sense perception. If change governs everything, and human senses are ill-equipped to perceive the myriad changes occurring at the molecular level and beyond, then we cannot trust our senses, we cannot comprehend true reality, and we cannot truly know the world.

Individuals Don’t Exist

Heraclitus famously said that“you cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are always flowing in” to illustrate that all entities are constantly in flux, ceasing to exist in any static sense. But if there are no entities, then there are no individuals. If there are no individuals, and if we cannot know true reality, what does this mean for ethical considerations?

As Peikoff puts it, it means that “ethical relativism is the conclusion to draw.” After all, what role can a consistent, objective moral code play in a universe governed by change and contradiction? None. Furthermore, if you don’t exist as an individual, if you are nothing more than a construct of subatomic particles, constantly shifting, then why should you be held accountable for any past transgression? It wasn’t you.

A Heraclitean Society?

Peikoff furthers that Heraclitus is “from the Objectivist perspective… the first villain in the history of Western thought” for his attack on the law of identity, his admonishment of the senses, and the ensuing ethical conclusions of these positions.

Let us return briefly to Shaggy and his philandering friend. To any rational mind, “it wasn’t me” is an insufficient defence for a transgressor who has been caught red-handed by a wronged party – and particularly by a wronged party who trusts the validity of their senses. But if Heraclitus is correct, then no transgression has occurred, regardless of what the wronged party’s senses are telling them.

A political system based purely upon Heraclitean premises, then, would surely invite a society devoid of the concept of personal responsibility, devoid of moral certainty, and devoid even of belief in the attainability of knowledge. Any crime would be instantly forgivable, because its culprit no longer exists. Everything flows and nothing abides.

One could speculate further about the nature of a political system with a focus on change and contradiction as its essence. In the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism, for instance, history is driven by internal contradictions within social systems and antagonisms between groups with conflicting relationships to the means of production. The use of Heraclitean language to describe this theory is not unheard of. As Hubert Kay puts it in Life magazine, 

“…in the Marxian view, human history is like a river. From any given vantage point, a river looks much the same day after day. But actually, it is constantly flowing and changing… (until) the river floods, bursts its banks, and may take a new course. This represents the dialectical part of Marx’s famous theory of dialectical (or historical) materialism.”

It is not unreasonable to draw a line from Heraclitus through Plato to Kant, Hegel, and finally, Marx, to distinguish how Heraclitean metaphysics might fuel a Marxian politics – disregarding reason and the individual in favour of relativism and a tunnel-visioned focus on antagonisms.

Say It Wasn’t You

“It Wasn’t Me” has an absurd premise – the song even admits so itself: in the Middle 8 section, the protagonist tells Shaggy “I’ve been listening to your reasoning; it makes no sense at all.”

But for our purposes, it serves as a fun way of illustrating the ethical effects of a Heraclitean worldview. Denying the validity of the senses, the laws of identity and contradiction, and even the existence of entities and individuals themselves, can only have absurd conclusions.

And if Heraclitus is actually correct, then perhaps we should rejoice. Perhaps there is freedom to be found in the complete lack of moral culpability his guidance brings us. So go ahead: have that affair. Steal that car. Defraud those investors. Overthrow that bourgeoisie. You won’t be held responsible – it wasn’t you.

1. MCA Records, 20002. W.T. Jones, The Classical Mind (A History of Western Philosophy) (2nd Edition). (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1969), 16. (Heraclitus’) principle that everything is changing in every respect at every instant, then there are no entities.”3. Heraclitus of Ephesus: A World of Change and Contradiction by Leonard Peikoff, part 3 of 50. Retrieved from YouTube4. Hubert Kay, “Karl Marx,” Life, October 18, 1948, p. 66.

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