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History of the Four Temperaments

The concept of the four temperaments — choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic—dates back 2,000 years to Hippocrates, the “father of medical science”. He held that differences in personalities were related to an individual’s predominant bodily fluid— hence, the rather unappealing names!

Choleric: yellow bile from the liver
Sanguine: blood from the heart
Melancholic: black bile from the kidneys
Phlegmatic: phlegm from the lungs

The “sanguine” temperament was thought to be eager and optimistic; the “melancholic” reticent and somewhat doleful; the “choleric” passionate; and the “phlegmatic” calm.

Though the concept of the four types had been around since the early Greeks, the use of the word “temperament” (from the Latin temperamentum, or “mixture”) first came into use in the seventeenth century. In the history of the Church, the concept of temperament was long used as a means to aid spiritual development through growth in self-knowledge. Understanding one’s self required understanding the whole person—his emotions and passions, natural tendencies and reactions—as well as his virtues and spiritual gifts. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, wrote about temperament and its relation to virtue in his Summa Theologica. Spiritual directors have long understood that one would be better able to identify not only one’s natural virtues, but also those virtues which may be more difficult to attain and the areas in which one would be tempted to vice—depending upon one’s God-given temperament.

In the 1920s Swiss psychologist Carl Jung advanced the theory that different personality types approached the outside world in distinct manners, and could be clearly categorized accordingly. Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1979) spent forty years refining the Jungian typology into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, with its sixteen different types of personality. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, is considered to be one of the most widely used personality inventories available, and has achieved great popular success.

Curiously enough, from Hippocrates to Isabel Briggs Myers, and even up until today, the concept of four basic temperaments underlying more complex personality theories has remained virtually unchanged! David Keirsey , Ph.D. author of the Keirsey Temperament Sorter avows that 2,000 years of consistency in terms of temperament distinctions is no accident. These distinctions “reflect a fundamental pattern in the warp and woof of the fabric of human nature” (Keirsey 26).1

Each one of us is uniquely and predominantly one of the temperaments — choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. After more than 2,000 years of intervening medical and psychological advancement, the concept of temperament itself — and in particular the classic four divisions — is still referenced by contemporary psychologists, educators, and spiritual writers. Today, Christians all over the world are re-discovering the value and wisdom of this most ancient tool for understanding ourselves and others.

1 David Keirsey , Please Understand Me II. 1996-2005, Prometheus Nemesis Book Company. p 26 ff.