Temperament Project 01: Getting Started

Blogging has helped me stay focused on some subjects, so why not use it to focus on writing my book about temperament? My aim is to write regular blog posts that will help shape and inspire an eventual book. Hope you like it!

What is temperament, and why should I care?

Temperament is the foundation of your personality. It’s the part of your personality hard-wired from birth, biologically based, that determines how you respond to the world.

It’s significant in the same way that physical attributes like height are significant. Some people are taller and some are shorter; and while your height doesn’t dictate anything about you, it does shape your experience and make certain outcomes more, or less, likely.

Being tall will give you an advantage in basketball, netball, swimming and some other sports, but it might be a disadvantage in weight-lifting, ballet, gymnastics or horse-racing.

Temperament is more complicated than height, but it has an analogous impact on your choices in life and the shaping of your personality.

Life-long traits

Contemporary psychology has studied aspects of temperament and found that traits identified in infancy will persist throughout life.

The ancient Greeks observed this too, and in their own proto-scientific context they came up with theories to explain these fundamental differences in temperament.

If the world was made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water, then obviously the human body must be governed by four basic substances too.

Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile were the four fluids or humours that determined health or illness, as well as the foundation of the personality: the temperament.

The word temperament itself means blend or mix and refers to the blend of humours within the individual.

We each have all four humours within us, but one or two tend to dominate. Depending on the blend, individuals are categorised as sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), choleric (yellow bile), or melancholic (black bile).

A perfectly balanced person would have all four in proportion. But most of us can be described by a primary-secondary blend. Thus a person with primary choleric and secondary phlegmatic is a choleric-phlegmatic.

But Greek medicine was wrong…wasn’t it?

Absolutely!

There’s no such thing as black bile, and there’s no indication that the other bodily fluids mentioned have any impact on personality or behaviour in the way the Greeks envisaged.

But observations are still valid data, even if the theory that attempted to explain those observations has been discarded.

In the case of temperament what we have inherited from the Greeks and the civilisations that adopted Greek medicine is a robust yet pragmatic set of observations spanning millennia.

We may not know yet what causes differences in temperament, but we do know that such differences exist, and the four temperament model remains a valuable framework for understanding, interpreting, and responding to those differences in ourselves and others.

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