Your guide to the four temperaments
We each experience things differently. Our reactions to the same series of events may be completely the opposite to that of the person next to us. This difference in reactions is what we define as temperaments.
‘The basic difference between each is the amount of time it takes one to react and the duration of the resultant reaction. The sanguine reaction will be quick but brief, the phlegmatic’s long and brief, the choleric’s quick and enduring, and the melancholic’s lengthy and permanent.’
And there we have the list of the four temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.
History of the temperaments
The idea of the four temperaments is attributed to Hippocrates, c.450 BC, who divided people into four categories as a result of the dominant humours in their body: blood (sanguine), bile from the liver (choleric), phlegm (phlegmatic) and bile from the kidneys (melancholic).
At this time there was a popular view among the astrologers and philosophers that each of these temperaments represented one of the four elements: air (sanguine), fire (choleric), water (phlegmatic) and earth (melancholic).
In more recent times, David Kiersey has created a modern temperament sorter based on the historical legacy of the temperaments through various guises and based on his research, he has re categorised the 4 temperaments as: Artisan (sanguine), Idealist (choleric), Rational (phlegmatic) and Guardian (melancholic).
Anthropologist and author Helen Fisher is another who has conducted research into four ‘personality types’, however her categories are based on chemistry. Her four categories are: The Explorer who is defined by high dopamine activity and is adventurous, novelty-seeking and creative; The Builder who is defined by high serotonin levels and are cautious, conventional and managerial; The Negotiator who is defined by higher levels of oestrogen and are empathetic, idealistic and a big-picture thinker and; The Director who is defined by higher levels of testosterone and are aggressive, single-minded and analytical.
These personality types can be classified as: The Explorer (sanguine), The Director (choleric), The Builder (phlegmatic) and The Negotiator (melancholic).
So then, despite the many changes of names or categories over the years, the characteristics of the four temperaments have remained unchanged.
‘The sanguine is not seeking truth – he is looking for acceptance, and that he is likely to find, because, even if he becomes involved with a cause or a controversial matter, he will bend with the group’s tendencies.’ (Elizabeth G. Melillo PhD)
The sanguine temperament is generally regarded to be the most prevalent of the four temperaments. This temperament is defined by a quick but brief reaction to stimulus, and the reaction itself is superficial. The sanguine is easily swayed by peer pressure and will not make a decision that would steer them away from the status quo.
They are also extroverted and often the life of the party. Sanguine are optimistic and cheerful and live life to enjoy it. They are also sensitive and compassionate as well as being easily taught and happy to oblige superiors. They do not bear grudges and get along with even the most difficult of people. A sanguine is creatively swayed, with and active imagination and a very skilled conversationalist.
But all of the temperaments have their negative tendencies and the sanguine’s is superficiality. Sanguine form impressions but do not pause, and take time for deep thought or reflection. They show little or no interest in hard work and often partially finish what they start. They are initially really enthused by something but just as quickly this interest wanes and they flit on to something else.
A tendency to vanity and self-complacency is also part of the sanguine’s make-up. They are satisfied with themselves; the way they look, act and their achievements, and want others to be so too. They also take pride in their work, even if it is only half done.
They are also drawn to, and easily influenced, by external senses and attractions. They love beauty and are inclined to flirtation which can go further if not nipped in the bud. They are also susceptible to the vices of gluttony and lust as a result of their love of beauty and pleasure.
‘The phlegmatic have a degree of detachment that makes for great minds, but does not foster warm relationships. They will be unlikely to offend others, and equally unlikely to fall into the trap of judging, but will leave the others with a sense of indifference.’ (Elizabeth G. Melillo PhD)
The phlegmatic temperament is defined by a weak (if at all) reaction to stimulus and this reaction does not leave a lasting impression, like the sanguine, their reaction is shallow.
They are slow and meticulous workers who persevere even though thinking is an exertion for them. Phlegmatics are composed and thoughtful and insults, irritations and sufferings are not a great disturbance for them.
They are practical and rational and weigh up all options without bias. They have a lot of common sense and are relaxed and easy going. Phlegmatic’s are compassionate and reliable. They are often referred to as being like the tortoise who raced the hare; ‘slow and steady’.
They are however, inclined to take things too easy and become lazy. They enjoy sitting about eating or lounging about in general.
They lack ambition and are not attracted by lofty ideals or sentiment. Phlegmatics avoid penance and self-sacrifice wherever possible. They are very detached and aloof and show very little interest in all that is happening around them. And they are also very resistant to change of any kind.
‘The choleric approach is never in half measure, and what he embraces as most important in his life can make him the greatest of saints or the most picturesque of sinners.’ (Elizabeth G. Melillo PhD)
Those of a choleric temperament react very easily and strongly to stimulus and that initial impression is long lasting.
Choleric’s are natural born leaders and most determined people. They are perhaps aptly described of people of action before thought, though they are intelligent with a strong will and are not afraid of hard work or difficulties along the way. They will persevere because they do not see any value in giving up. They are ambitious both for things of the world, and of the next. A choleric can aim for the stars because their drive, enthusiasm and energy will see them work very hard and achieve those goals which they set their mind to.
Cholerics will put all their time and energy behind their pursuits and a self confidence that they can achieve their chosen goal. However, the choleric must watch out for the sin of pride which is their most common negative trait. Because of this tendency towards pride, a choleric who is humiliated is deeply hurt both at being embarrassed but also for having sunk to a level so as to make a mistake.
The choleric is impatient with obstacles, stubborn and opinionated and as such can be rather cold and heartless with those who do not share their views. They also have a tendency towards anger and have an acid tongue which they deliver condescendingly.
‘The depth and dedication of the melancholic will meet or exceed that of the choleric, but his natural caution and slowness to embrace new courses of action can leave him with a sense of having no way to channel his profound ideals.’(Elizabeth G. Melillo PhD)
A melancholic person will react weakly to stimulus but the impression will be deep and long lasting. Many consider this temperament to be that which longs so much for Heaven that this earthly life holds no pleasure for them.
Melancholics are inclined to solitude and deep reflection and meditation. Often melancholics feel out of place here (on earth) as their peace is found in prayer, in quiet contemplation with God. Prayer comes naturally to them and they are sober and modest in life as they take such a serious view of it.
The melancholic is capable of great endurance and has a sharp and profound intellect. They are careful and detailed and undertake further research on topics so that they have a full grasp of it.
They are extremely compassionate and they are sympathetic friends and a place of good counsel for others. When they love the attachment is so deep and strong that any coldness of ingratitude hurts them easily.
They have a tendency to sadness and melancholy and magnify difficulties which results in them losing confidence in themselves. They find it hard to reveal their feelings and long for closeness but it is hard for them to open up.
Melancholics are inclined to be passive or inactive because they are pessimistic in their outlook on many things and as such they can become easily discouraged. They hesitate to make decisions and postpone activities so that they become even more daunting.
They are slow in their thinking and speech because they consider every angle first. Melancholic’s are often reserved because they are actually anxious about the possibility of disgracing themselves and often will let others less talented than them be promoted ahead of them and then bear resentment to them for that promotion.
More on the temperaments
Typically, the sanguine and choleric temperaments are the outgoing extroverted temperaments and the melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments are reserved and introverted. But it is possible to be a combination of two temperaments, though one if usually more dominant. Some possible combinations include: choleric – sanguine, choleric – melancholic or melancholic – phlegmatic.
Determining your temperament is a great way to understand yourself, and those around you, and it is also a great help in tailoring your spiritual life to suit your temperament. In discerning your temperament you will be able to grow in holiness through understanding the positives and negatives of your personality type and adjusting your prayer life to focus on some areas more than others. For instance a choleric can direct their abundance of fervour and energy by taking leadership positions in the Church like running a youth group or joining the parish council, whereas a sanguine could focus on more people based involvement like visiting the sick and elderly or other similar charity work.
For more information on the temperaments, we suggest reading: ‘THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE “Know yourself.” By Rev. Conrad Hock which is now available free of charge online, and ‘The four classic temperaments and spirituality’ by (Elizabeth G. Melillo PhD)
Click here to take our temperaments quiz and determine your own temperament.
About the Author: I am a reformed perfectionist who is now a stay at home mum with five children under nine years of age. I am a qualified journalist and graphic designer with a decided creative streak, and run a hobby business called Emily Shaw Design + Write. I will attempt most craft activities and love to write about topical - and especially controversial - issues.