While it’s nice to have observations like “cholerics are ambitious and melancholics are idealistic”, any attempt to truly understand human personality won’t be satisfied until it can reduce these kinds of descriptions to their most basic form.
Ambition and idealism are pretty complicated social, psychological, and behavioural phenomena. You can say that someone is born with ambition, but there’s no substance called “ambition” that we can study and measure.
I’m a cold, dry man
The Greeks had their own complex and interwoven theory on how these things worked.
The four elements and the four humours in the body were each described in terms of heat and moisture, and these applied directly to the four temperaments.
Fire/choleric is hot and dry.
Air/sanguine is hot and moist.
Earth/melancholic is cold and dry.
Water/phlegmatic is cold and moist.
These descriptions can be taken almost at face value if you understand that heat is life, movement, passion and activity, and moisture is pliable, malleable, soft and yielding.
Sanguines are hot because they are passionate, warm, active, energetic and lively. They are moist because they adapt easily, let go of conflicts and problems quickly, and are pretty much social glue holding everyone together.
Phlegmatics are cold because they are (comparatively) slow, quiet, less expressive and have lots of inertia. But they are still moist like the sanguine because they easily let go of things and quite happily adapt or go along with everyone, so long as no rules are being broken.
Neither sanguines nor phlegmatics have “hard edges” and both are relatively yielding under pressure. Like wet clay they can be reshaped without breaking, though both have their sticking points: injustice for the sanguine and rule-breaking for the phlegmatic.
Dry, hard, and brittle
Cholerics and melancholics are both dry, which means they are stiff rather than pliable, do not adapt easily, and like clay that has dried out, tend to hold their shape against other pressures or forces.
The difference is that the choleric is hot – so their dryness is given direction by this more passionate, active, lively, and energetic aspect. Like the sanguine a choleric has a certain zest for life, but where the sanguine energy is more spontaneous and malleable, in the choleric it takes on a hardness and longevity that we identify as “ambition” or “drive”.
The melancholic is cold, and that gives our dryness a passivity, quietness, and almost a heaviness of inertia. Both melancholics and cholerics take on a shape, like hardened clay, but the cholerics’ heat gives them the energy to move and strive, while the melancholic coldness leaves us reluctant to strive and in danger of sinking to the lowest point.
In extreme cases melancholics are described as being close to death, since the Greeks observed that a dead body loses its heat and becomes stiff. At the other extreme, sanguines are the most full of life thanks to their heat and moisture.
Four ways of living
These qualities of heat and moisture aren’t biologically sound in our current paradigm, so we can’t say that they “explain” the four temperaments’ different ways of living.
But they do expand on it, and show how the ways of living might be reducible to more basic factors.
Cholerics are ambitious because their dryness gives lasting shape to their hot, passionate, and energetic nature.
Sanguines are moist and so despite having the same kind of heat as the choleric, they don’t form lasting plans or ambitions but are instead continually shaped by their environment. Their hot passions and liveliness draws them to good experiences and nice objects, giving them the air of a bon vivant.
Melancholic dryness makes us hard and unyielding, but in the absence of hot passions and energy we lack ambitions. Instead we are left reflecting on our own circumstances and nature, including our lack of malleability and adaptability. This reflection and passivity draws us to ideals and meaning that promise far greater rewards and satisfaction.
Finally, phlegmatic coldness and malleability leaves this temperament similarly passive, but, unlike the melancholic, able to adapt and go with the flow. In their coldness they look for rules to follow rather than the strength of their own desire like the hot temperaments of sanguine and choleric.
I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now consider your own temperament and those of your friends, family, and acquaintances.
Are they “hot” or “cold”? Passionate and energetic like the sanguine and choleric, or passive and quiet like the melancholic and phlegmatic?
Are they “moist” or “dry”? To me this comes across more as a feeling of softness or hardness to the personality.
There are many other ways of explaining or describing these four temperaments, but this is the original. As we look at a few more, we will develop a more rounded picture of each temperament and hopefully understand ourselves and others much better!