Skip to main content
No. 2564:
The Four Temperaments

Today, the Rev. John Price tells about the four temperaments.  The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Have you noticed the differences between medical doctors? Some have a terrific bedside manner and spend a great deal of time with their patients. Others are very precise, aloof, seemingly cold, as they go about their work. Another is an emergency room specialist, dealing with one flaming crisis after another. A fourth is dedicated to traditional medicine, doing what convention says ought to be done. These reflect the personality traits of the four temperaments, as described by Galen, a physician of mid- second century Rome. Of course, these statements apply equally to all professions and gatherings of people, engineering professors and clergy as well. 

One's "Temperament" indicates a basic way someone approaches the world around them, and there are many serious implications.

Medieval philosophers further developed the concept. The temperaments were named for the four bodily fluids of ancient medical theory: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic, with specific personality traits attributed to each. 

Carl Jung noticed that he, Adler, and Freud looked at the same material and came to different conclusions. Academe that he was, he wrote a book about it: Personality Types, which ignited new explorations of the subject. From it, a mother-daughter team produced the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is widely used. From that, David Kiersey developed his Temperament Sorter in his book, Please Understand Me. He gave new names and real clarity to the subject: action-oriented artisans; Guardians are traditionalists valuing law and order, idealists are driven by empathy, and rationalists, striving for competency and intellectual solutions.

Interestingly, the work of Msgr. Chester Michael, using the Myers-Briggs instrument with hundreds of participants in retreat houses and monasteries, shows a positive relationship between the four temperaments and the four distinct styles of meditation. Each Temperament develops its own separate style of meditation instinctively, as temperament is related to the way we think. You've been meditating in one of these ways all your lives, he points out. Your elementary school teachers got after you for doing it in whichever mode and lumped it under the term, "daydreaming."

It becomes fascinating to realize that the decision about what constitutes the Christian scriptures known as the New Testament was determined some 30-40 years after Galen wrote about the four humors and their personality issues. 

This theory points out that there were many "gospels" available at the end of the 2nd century, but these four were selected, strongly suggesting that the framers of the New Testament did so partly on the basis of Galen's writings: Matthew's Gospel specifically depicts Jesus fulfilling the traditions and prophecies of the Jewish scriptures; Mark presents Jesus as an action figure; Luke describes the empathetic side of Jesus with the parable of the prodigal son, the lost coin, and the lost sheep; and John takes the Greek concepts of  the Word, and Agápe love, describing Jesus as the embodiment of them both.

These four kinds of people surround us in all aspects of life and it makes life rich.

I'm the Reverend John Price, and I'm interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hippocrates' 4 Fluids Galen's terminology Kiersey's temperaments Myers-Briggs personalities Characteristics; Values:
Black Bile Melancholic Guardian Sensing-Judging Tradition
Blood Sanguine Artisan Sensing-Perceiving Action, options
Yellow bile Choleric Idealist Intuitive-Feeling Empathy
Phlegm Phlegmatic Rationalist Intuitive-Thinking Competency

M. Bates, with Peter B. Myers; Gifts Differing, (Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980).

Four Temperaments: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine

Courtesy of Wikipedia: "Four Temperaments" choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine. 

C. G. Jung,  Personality Types. H G Baynes (Translator), R F C Hull (Revised by), 1923 (in English).

D. Kiersey, M. Bates, Please Understand Me. 4th ed. (Prometheus Nemesis Books, 1984).

C. Michael, Prayer and Temperament. (Charlottesville: Open Door Press, 1984).

For more on the Myers-Briggs indicator click here.