Know Thyself and Thy Temperament


The recent presidential campaign sparked a renewed interest in temperament. Bloggers, journalists and talk show hosts speculated on the ideal “presidential temperament.” President-elect Obama’s cool detachment was widely hailed as being preferable to Senator McCain’s more passionate, but volatile temperament.

As authors of two Catholic books on temperament (the most recent is The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse), we believe the attention is appropriate. However, to describe one temperament as preferable to another is actually a misunderstanding of the concept. Each temperament has its own strengths and weaknesses and, in matters of the heart especially, no single temperament can lay claim to being the ideal.

Our character is more important than our temperament. One may have a passionate, strong-willed temperament which, through lack of formation and personal sin, is used to evil purpose. Such a person would be said to have a strong temperament, but a weak moral character. Ultimately, the choices we freely make shape our character for good or for ill.

Why study temperament at all, then?

As Teresa of Avila wrote that self-knowledge is something we can never get too much of.  “Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.” [1] If we do not know ourselves, then we aren’t as free as we think we are, to make those good choices that build a strong, moral character. Genuine self-knowledge always leads to humility–never to complacency or pride.

Knowing ourselves includes understanding our temperament. As Father Joseph Massman wrote in Nervousness, Temperament and the Soul, “Many people who mean well, but who do not know themselves, commit excesses, by giving way to their temperament, which costs them their situations or completely shatters their happiness.” [2]

Temperament is that part of us that is hard-wired in us from birth. It accounts for those predispositions, rooted in our biology, that account for how (not why) we react the way we do. We may react quickly or slowly, intensely or not, and our reaction may be long-lasting or short-lived. Our temperament sometimes helps–and sometimes makes more difficult—practicing certain virtues. A wise person will be aware of the potential pitfalls—as well as the areas in which he may excel—due to the gift of his temperament.

How does this relate to matters of the heart? What initially draws us to another person? Before we really know a person, it may be their physical features. But more often, it is something we find particularly compelling about their personality—perhaps a subconscious recognition that this person has unique strengths—the very strengths, perhaps, that complement our own weaknesses.

Father Maturin writes about the flash of insight, a startling moment of self-revelation, “in the presence of one whose life is a silent but most eloquent rebuke of the inmost tone and temper of your own life; and as you stand within the radiance of such a presence you feel at once what you ought to be, what you might be, and what you have failed to be.” [3]

Such is the transforming power of love.

But this serendipitous moment of self-revelation and transformation through another, requires humility and personal maturity. An immature or unhealthy personality tends to place the blame on the other (an extreme example of this being that of the narcissist, whose façade of self-importance requires the tearing down of everyone around him). As long as we continue to place the emphasis on the qualities, characteristics, personality, and perfection (or lack thereof) of the other, we miss the plank in our own eye.

A first step in having mature, healthy relationships is to acknowledge our own weaknesses. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses before we enter into a serious relationship is being prudent, like the man who calculates the cost of building a tower before he begins construction (Luke 14:28). Secondly, we must accept the other person’s imperfections. We cannot hold out for perfect. In this fallen world, nothing is perfect. Many singles continue to seek perfection (or a predetermined list of ideal qualities) in a potential spouse while failing to acknowledge their own weaknesses and sinfulness. This is pride.

Understanding my own temperament does not put me into a box. Rather, it frees me from the box of my temperament, through self-knowledge. When I am aware of my temperamental weaknesses, I will simultaneously know how to combat these weaknesses with virtue. For singles hoping to develop good relationships, this knowledge will be invaluable. For example, if I am sanguine, I should watch out for making snap decisions based on superficial qualities or information. If I am choleric, I should be aware that I may have a prideful tendency to write people off before giving them a chance. A melancholic may need to stop waiting for Mr. Darcy, and allow herself to enjoy and appreciate those ordinary real-life fellows she meets. A phlegmatic needs to stop procrastinating and make some decisive moves.

All this takes virtue. Going outside our temperament “box” (doing something different than what “comes naturally”) takes effort, perseverance, and fortitude. It takes humility to recognize our weaknesses and to rely on God’s strength, not our own. Ultimately, through our efforts and God’s grace, we will become men and women of strong character, capable of generous, self-giving love.  



[1] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle , trans. Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday, 1989)

[2] Joseph Massman, Nervousness, Temperament and the Soul. (Fort Collins: Roman Catholic Books, 1941)

[3] Basil Maturin, Self-Knowledge and Self-Discipline. (1915, reprinted by Roman Catholic Books).



  1. Anna-260166 January 30, 2009 Reply

    I recommend the book: The Temperament God Gave You: The Classic Key to Knowing Yourself, Getting Along with Others, and Growing Closer to the Lord, by Art Bennett & Laraine Bennett

  2. Anna-172699 January 6, 2009 Reply

    Interesting article. (That accompanying photo's from the Pioneer Woman's site, isn't it?)

  3. John-200068 January 2, 2009 Reply

    As a counselor, I am fascinated in personality diversity. Spiritual Development and Personality development go oh much together!

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