The Four Humors or Temperaments

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The Four Temperaments:

Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic

Four Temperaments is a theory of psychology that stems from the ancient medical concept of four humors, or “humors.”

Temperament theory has its roots in the ancient four humors theory of the Greek doctor Hippocrates (460-370 BC), who believed certain human moods, emotions and behaviors were caused by body fluids (called “humors”): blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Next, Galen (131-200 AD) developed the first typology of temperament in his dissertation De temperamentis, and searched for physiological reasons for different behaviors in humans. In The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna (980-1037) then extended the theory of temperaments to encompass “emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, self-awareness, movements and dreams.”

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) disregarded the idea of fluids as defining human behavior, and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), Alfred Adler (1879-1937), Erich Adickes (1866-1925), Eduard Spränger (1914), Ernst Kretschmer (1920), and Erich Fromm (1947) all theorized on the four temperaments (with different names) and greatly shaped our modern theories of temperament. Hans Eysenck (1916-1997) was one of the first psychologists to analyze personality differences using a psycho-statistical method (factor analysis), and his research led him to believe that temperament is biologically based.

Other researchers developed similar systems, many of which did not use the ancient temperament names, and several paired extroversion with a different factor, which would determine relationship/task-orientation. Examples are DiSC assessment, Social Styles, and a theory that adds a fifth temperament. One of the most popular today is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, whose four temperaments were based largely on the Greek gods Apollo, Dionysus, Epimetheus and Prometheus, and were mapped to the 16 types of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Each of the four types of humors corresponds to a different personality type:

Sanguine indicates the personality of an individual with the temperament of blood, the season of spring (wet and hot), and the classical element of air. A person who is sanguine is generally arrogant, cocky, indulgent, and confident. He/She can be day-dreamy and off-task to the point of not accomplishing anything and can be impulsive, possibly acting on whims in an unpredictable fashion. This also describes the manic phase of a bipolar disorder.

Choleric corresponds to the fluid of yellow bile, the season of summer (dry and hot), and the element of fire. A person who is choleric is a doer and a leader. They have a lot of ambition, energy, and passion, and try to instill it in others. They can dominate people of other temperaments, especially phlegmatic types. Many great charismatic military and political figures were cholerics. On the negative side, they are easily angered or bad-tempered.

In folk medicine, a baby referred to as having “colic” is one who cries frequently and seems to be constantly angry. This is an adaptation of “choleric,” although no twentieth/twenty-first century scholar or doctor of medicine would attribute the condition to bile. Similarly, a person described as “bilious” is mean-spirited, suspicious, and angry. This, again, is an adaptation of the old humor theory “choleric.”

The disease Cholera gained its name from choler (bile).  

Melancholic is the personality of an individual characterized by black bile; hence (Greek melas, “black”, +  khole, “bile”); a person who was a thoughtful ponderer had a melancholic disposition. Often very kind and considerate, melancholics can be highly creative – as in poetry and art – but also can become overly pre-occupied with the tragedy and cruelty in the world, thus becoming depressed. The temperament is associated with the season of autumn (dry and cold) and the element earth. This temperament describes the depressed phase of a bipolar disorder.  There is no bodily fluid corresponding to black bile; the medulla of the adrenal glands, which decomposes very rapidly after death, can be associated with it. 

A phlegmatic person is calm and unemotional. Phlegmatic means “pertaining to phlegm”, corresponds to the season of winter (wet and cold), and connotes the element of water.

While phlegmatics are generally self-content and kind, their shy personality can often inhibit enthusiasm in others and make themselves lazy and resistant to change. They are very consistent, relaxed, rational, curious, and observant, making them good administrators and diplomats. Like the sanguine personality, the phlegmatic has many friends. However the phlegmatic is more reliable and compassionate; these characteristics typically make the phlegmatic a more dependable friend.

How to Recognize the Temperaments (PDF)

Treating Children According to Temperaments (PDF)

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