In the Ethics Aristotle says that the one thing which creates virtue is virtue itself. Now obviously this presents a problem for individuals trying to grow in particular virtues, after all how can I become better at managing fear, that is the virtue of fortitude, or moderating pleasures, that is the virtue of temperance, if I have already have to have fortitude and temperance in order to grow in them?
Luckily for all of us, “Man is a political animal.” We do not have to rely upon our own virtue in order to preform those acts which lead to good habits, we can rely on the virtues of others: our parents, mentors, and coaches.
When he speaks about the virtue of prudence in the Summa Theologica, St Thomas Aquinas says, “Adolescents participate in the prudence of their parents until the virtue is formed in themselves.” Prudence, the ability to apply universal principles to particular situations, is perhaps the hardest of the moral virtues to cultivate. It requires a detailed understanding of the universal principles of human action. On the other hand it is perhaps the easiest virtue to cultivate because every human action is an occasion to apply a universal principle to a particular situation. In a way the cultivation of each of the other virtues, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice, help us to grow in the virtue of prudence.
Adolescents however require more than the prudence of their parents. Parents provide a primary example and explanation of the life of virtue. This primary example is followed largely without question for little over a decade of the child’s life. However as we prepare to take our place in society, independent of our parents, we desire confirmation that this primary example is one that will work in the broader society.
Naturally Adolescents turn to the very people they will encounter in the broader society outside of their childhood home: their peers. It is from friends that teens seek advice about cloths, music, and the many pleasures only friendship can provide. But where do adolescents go when they need confirmation about their parents teachings on the many realities of life which their peers have no experience of?
Adolescents need mentors and coaches in order to grow in the virtues and to be confirmed in the specific virtues their parents have cultivated in them. Whether it is a question of choosing a college or receiving guidance on career choices older adults are necessary to guide the youth as they enter the wider world. People who are confirmed in the virtues which have begun to form in the adolescent are necessary to insure that these same virtues grow to perfection.
But how do we know when someone has the virtue we desire?
This is an important question both for parents, adolescents, and anyone who seeks guidance from another in perfecting a habit. One sign that someone might be a good teacher, or at least a good role model of virtue is that virtuous acts come easily to them. At first acts of virtue are hard, requiring effort and concentration to preform them.
Anyone who has every tried to diet knows that the first days and weeks are very difficult. However someone who has the habit of moderating their diet finds it easy to remain temperate. This kind of person is worthy of imitation and might be someone who can teach us virtue.