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Platonic Doctrines

Plato's views1 seem to have changed over time, and he nowhere presents one, coherent set of doctrines. Although it is unwise to try to summarize Plato rather than to read his dialogues as complete pieces, it is perhaps not too misleading to say that he taught that human beings cannot define and understand absolute virtues such as goodness, justice, beauty, or equality by the concrete evidence of these qualities in their lives. Any earthly examples will in another context display the opposite quality. For instance, always returning what one has borrowed might seem to be just. But what if a person who has borrowed a weapon from a friend is confronted by that friend who wants the weapon back to commit a murder?2 In this case, returning the borrowed item would be unjust. Examples of equality are also only relative3. The equality of a stick two feet long, for example, is evident when it is compared with another two-foot stick. Paired with a three-foot stick, however, it displays inequality. In sum, in the world that human beings experience with their senses, every example of the virtues and every quality is relative in some aspect of its context.

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