Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

The standard line in modern presentations of the history of Greek philosophy is that the Sophists were really horrible because they charged a fee for their teaching, but Socrates was really wonderful because he gave his teaching away for free. There might be a grain of truth to this, and it’s something that Xenophon in particular really plays up. But the picture may be a little more complicated.

Enter Protagoras, the title character in Plato’s dialogue of that name. As Plato tells the story, Protagoras had a standard fee for his instruction… but the student was only expected to pay at the end of the course, after the instruction had been received. And if at that point, the student did not believe that what he had received was worth the price his teacher was charging, all he had to do was walk into one of the local temples, swear an oath in the presence of the Gods as to what he judged Protagoras’ teaching was actually worth to him, and then pay only that amount.

The assumption seems to be that, in an important way, the Gods are keeping the student honest. It’s one thing to stiff your teacher for his fee. It’s quite another to swear a false oath in the temple of a God, who would certainly be able and willing to hold you to account.

Protagoras, then, hit on quite an elegant solution. He was able to assert the value of the education that he provided, while also allowing his students to make a free and informed judgment of their own about whether they agreed with that valuation. And thanks to the oath, this would be a judgment whose honesty Protagoras himself could believe. Yet it’s the presence of the Gods which makes the whole thing work. In the absence of that shared sense of divine presence and accountability, how can we create a culture in which it’s understood that philosophy (like other areas of human learning and artistry) has a deep and profound value, a culture in which there is a prima facie expectation that we make some appropriate recompense when we receive a thing of value?

While there’s something beautifully appealing about a “gift economy,” giving away the fruits of our labor (whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or otherwise) in the hopes of receiving gifts from others in turn, such a model requires at least two things which seem to me to be lacking in today’s world.

The first missing prerequisite is the understanding that things can (and often do!) still have value, even when there’s not a dollar sign attached to them. Witness the struggles over recognition for unpaid emotional labor, or for the value of the household economy, where significant contributions to physical and psychological well-being are discounted and ignored, simply because money is not changing hands. It may well be that in his own day, Socrates did not have to worry about this, because his fellow citizens were still capable of recognizing the value of a gift. Be that as it may, the Protagorean model offers a response to this contemporary problem, insofar as it insists that yes, in my own considered judgment as the teacher, the producer, the provider of this service, I do believe, and I now assert, that it has thus-and-such value.

This does not, of course, help to solve the larger problem of reducing all value to monetary value. It simply asks that one more thing be included within that reductive system. Yet what other strategies do we have, in our modern world, for asserting or insisting upon value?

The second missing prerequisite is a shared sense of having an on-going relationship with one another. With family members, friends, even many of my neighbors, I give to them in various small and large ways, without counting the cost or keeping an account. Indeed, it would feel wrong, even kind of “dirty,” if I were to keep score. But that’s because I trust in the ongoing web of relationships, where we really are giving to each other, mutually, on a continuing basis, just because we’re family, or friends, or neighbors. Just because we’re in it together.

At the purely human level, I’d suggest that Protagoras would not be able to count on such on-going networks of giving with his students. He was an itinerant teacher, travelling from polis to polis, teaching people who began as strangers, and who would become strangers once again, once Protagoras had finished the course and moved on to the next town. Socrates, by contrast, may have been able to count on such on-going neighborliness, and even on extended relations of kinship, since he so famously spent his whole life right there in Athens, constantly interacting with the same community. (Of course, we all know how that worked out in the end, with the hemlock and all.) Still, at the purely human level, Socrates had an advantage which Protagoras lacked in this regard. And that’s where the oath before the Gods comes in. Not (or at least not only) because Protagoras was looking to the God as some kind of superhuman mind-reader-cum-enforcer, but even more importantly, simply as a reminder that in fact, Protagoras and his student are part of a shared community, a community which is constantly being constructed and reconstructed with every act: a community which included not only Protagoras and the students, but the Gods as well. It is precisely because they stand in on-going living relations with the same Holy Powers, that Protagoras and his student stand in on-going living relations with each other.

And it’s at this point, quite sadly, that Protagoras’ model seems to break down in the modern world. To be sure, I’m not suggesting that a shared relationship with the living immortals is the only way to construct or to reinforce relationships of trust between humans. I’ve already mentioned ties of kinship, of friendship, and of the investment in a shared place—being together here—that can bind neighbors. Nor do I want to reduce reverence for the Gods to being only some convenient lubricant for human-to-human interactions. Far from it, both because I acknowledge the living personhood of the Gods themselves, and because in the absence of such acknowledgment on both sides, it’s not clear how much good the empty forms would actually do for giving humans the thick sense of being “in it together.” Still, it seems that there’s something Protagoras had, that we lack today.


As usual, these musings are not some final, considered conclusion about the issue. I just think Protagoras deserves a little more attention, and a little more credit, than he’s usually given.

What do others think? Should we revive Protagoras’ model? Even if we wanted to, is that possible today? What other models might work?

2 thoughts on “Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

  1. This is an interesting topic to bring up, and I would suggest a third prereq related to shared norms. Just based on how many results come up whenever I frantically Google how tipping and other types of payment logistics work (I grew up in a rural area without tacit exposure to a lot of tipped services), someone who doesn’t understand gift-culture would have a steep learning curve to understanding how it works, and le might never actually get it right.

    The “suggested cost” models that are common in some purchasing apps for books and music might work, as they give one or more suggested fees before allowing a person to choose any amount above a certain minimum value — it sets clear expectations. People should definitely be compensated for services, and I agree that in this day and age, it would be rare rather than common for someone to be willing to oath that they thought their fee was fair before a God, and definitely uncommon enough in the culture at large that it would risk tokenizing the Gods.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this! I might even go so far as to say that the prerequisite of “shared norms” is the general category, to which the two prerequisites I mention in the post, along with various other factors, all belong.

      And as an aside, I’m in my mid-30s, and I still struggle with tipping!

      Liked by 2 people

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