Buying a voice

There’s a dirty and difficult subject that I can avoid discussing no longer. We have to talk about money: that filthy lucre, as the Bible calls it.

I’m reading Plato’s Protagoras in which, as usual, Socrates takes a swipe at the sophists. The historical Protagoras was one of the first and possibly greatest sophists and, from what I can tell, was a notable philosopher in his own right. Socrates would not accept him as such, though. Philosophers pursued the truth whereas sophists, he insisted, were compromised because they took payment from students and would teach them to argue for either side of a debate. Protagoras is willing to teach wrongly for the sake of money (an act again referenced Biblically, in Titus 1: 11).

I’ve sometimes said that Socrates was my philosophical hero but this is mainly on the grounds that he saw philosophy as an antidote to common sense. I still like this conceptualisation of my discipline. As teachers of philosophy within an educational institution, however, we have to acknowledge that we are all sophists now. We receive payment for discussing philosophy and we show our students how to construct arguments for any position. We are not concerned for their souls, these days, and certainly are not there to tell them what is true and what is false. They must decide that themselves. Teachers have all become sophisticated by the system.

Protagoras had an excellent argument for his own sophistry. You are more likely to understand and remember something if you pay for it. We don’t value as much something that we get for free. I am sure that universities around the world will welcome this argument.

Granted that Protagoras has a point, I still think it’s good to give something freely even if it’s not all good to receive that way. Having posted a few pieces, WordPress emailed me this week and asked if I’d like to ‘monetise’ my blog. I’m not sure what that would involve – advertising perhaps – but, no, I definitely don’t want to monetise it. I’m delighted if anyone reads my words here. Communication concerns a precious human connection and I wouldn’t want to jeopardise that in any way. I’m just pleased that I have a voice.

I am lucky enough to be paid for some of the writing I do and I am grateful generally to have academic employment in a world of so much poverty. I wouldn’t blame anyone who takes payment, given the world’s socioeconomic arrangements. But it is liberating on some occasions, when we can, to do something just for its own sake.

Socrates saw the pursuit of truth as its own reward. I admire also a writer such as Alan Moore, who has turned down millions of dollars for movie adaptations of his work. To be able to do that already assumes a certain level of privilege, though. Even Socrates had that (note the references to slaves at the start of the Protagoras, 310a-c). Sadly, we have a world in which the model of knowledge production is based on privilege. That’s something I’d love to see destroyed. Historically disempowered people also need a voice and that should not be something that you have to buy.

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