Monday, April 14, 2008

Protagoras’s Wager

Protagoras had a pupil named Eulathus, who arranged to take Protagora’s course in rhetoric and sophistry, a kind of law school, for partial tuition. So sure was Protagoras of his abilities as a teacher that he told Eulathus he did not have to pay the balance until Eulathus won his first court case. In fact, Protagoras guaranteed that Eulathus would win his first case.

Time dragged on and Eulathus neither paid up nor argued any cases in court. Not only was Protagoras out the money, he looked bad to his students and to other Sophists. After all, if winning is what counts, and if appearance is reality, and if the pupil can outmaneuver the old master, why should anyone continue to pay his high fees? Protagoras was compelled to take actions.

Confronting Eulathus (probably in a public place where he could use his crowd-pleasing skills), Protagoras demanded payment in the form of this dilemma: “Eulathus, you might as well pay me, since I am going to sue you for the rest of the tuition. If I win in court, the court will rule that you owe me money; if I lose in court, you will have won your first case, and you will owe me the money. Either I win in court or I lose, you owe me the money.”

Protagoras, alas, was a good teacher, and Eulathus was ready for him. He shot back with a counter dilemma: “No, sir, you have it backwards. If you defeat me in court, then I have lost my first case and so do not owe the money; if I defeat you, the court will rule that I do not owe you the money. Either I defeat you or you defeat me. In either case, I do not owe you the money.” 


Ouch! Poor Protagoras.  I wonder how we can apply this wisdom in our daily lives? Hmm.