A brief history of temperament

The four temperaments theory is the oldest and most consistently utilised theory of personality in the Western world.

Its origins lie at least as far back as the 5th Century BC when Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, described human health and composition in terms of four humours or bodily fluids: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile.

The four temperaments were further developed and codified by Galen, personal physician to Roman Emperors in the 2nd Century AD. Galenic medicine remained the authoritative medical paradigm in Europe until the 18th Century, and his texts were still studied as late as the 19th Century.

But even as Galen’s theories about the human body were slowly discarded, his observations of the human mind continued to fascinate philosophers, physiologists, and psychologists even to the present day.

What underlies temperament?

Various theorists have attempted to define the temperaments in terms of more basic physical elements.

Galen described them in terms of heat and cold on the one hand, and moistness and dryness on the other. The Choleric is hot and dry while the Melancholic is cold and dry. Sanguines are hot and moist, while Phlegmatics are cold and moist.

But with the advances of medicine people have sought to describe the temperaments in ever more up-to-date terms, corresponding to changes in medical or psychological paradigms.

The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant described the temperaments in terms of either feeling or activity that was short-lasting or long-lasting.  A Choleric is characterised by long-lasting activity while a Melancholic has long-lasting feelings. Sanguines have short-lasting feelings and Phlegmatics have short-lasting activity.

A generation later the German “father of psychology” Wilhelm Wundt described the temperaments in terms of either strong or weak emotion and slow or rapid change. Cholerics have strong emotion and rapid change, while Melancholics have strong emotion and slow change. Sanguines have weak emotion and rapid change, and Phlegmatics have weak emotion and slow change.

Another 19th Century German, the physiologist Jakob Henle, suggested that the temperaments might arise from the inherent activity or tonus of the nervous system.

Henle described each temperament in terms of the speed and the duration of reactions within the nervous system. Cholerics have quick reactions of a long duration while Melancholics have slow reactions of a long duration. Sanguines have quick reactions of short duration, and Phlegmatics have slow reactions of short duration.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov also studied the nervous system and he too drew on the ancient four temperaments to frame his theories.

For Pavlov the Choleric has a strong but unbalanced nervous system while the Melancholic has a weak nervous system. Both the Sanguine and the Phlegmatic are strong and balanced but the former is fast while the latter is slow. Though his studies focused on dogs, Pavlov applied his observations to humans also:

The melancholic temperament is evidently an inhibitory type of nervous system. To the melancholic, every event of life becomes an inhibitory agent; he believes in nothing, hopes for nothing, in everything he sees only the dark side, and from everything he expects only grievances.

The choleric is the pugnacious type, passionate, easily and quickly irritated. But in the golden middle group stand the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments, well equilibrated and therefore healthy, stable…

The phlegmatic is self-contained and quiet, – a persistent and steadfast toiler in life. The sanguine is energetic and very productive, but only when his work is interesting, i.e., if there is a constant stimulus. When he has not such a task he becomes bored and slothful.

The psychologists

While the physiologists were studying nervous systems and linking their findings to the four temperaments theory, the new field of psychoanalysis founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud approached the same questions of personality and temperament from a more psychological, clinically-oriented perspective.

Freud’s collaborator and contemporary Alfred Adler developed a personality theory that mirrored the four temperaments system.

Adler described each type or temperament in terms of high or low energy and high or low social interest. Adler’s Choleric equivalent has high energy and low social interest while his Melancholic equivalent has low energy and low social interest. Sanguines have high energy and high social interest, while Phlegmatics have low energy with high social interest.

Other psychoanalysts broke away from the four temperament model as they delved deeper into their own theories and observations. Carl Jung, for example, described a more complex range of cognitive functions and mental predispositions that were later codified into the famous Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most popular personality theory in operation today.

Yet the four temperament model was not entirely forgotten. It was retained primarily in the work of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who described the four temperaments in terms of extroversion and neuroticism. Extroversion refers to how outwardly oriented a person is, while neuroticism is defined as a tendency to worry, anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and jealousy.

In Eysenck’s model the Choleric has high extroversion and high neuroticism while the Melancholic has low extroversion and high neuroticism. The Sanguine has high extroversion and low neuroticism, while the Phlegmatic has low extroversion and low neuroticism.

Temperament today

Modern trends in psychology and medicine make researchers wary of trying to match their research to pre-existing ideas and concepts like the four temperaments.

Contemporary psychology does draw on the concept of temperament, but it avoids the original four in favour of a research-driven approach. Psychologist Jerome Kagan is one example of an influential researcher on temperament, demonstrating throughout his career that key biological/behavioural traits in infants persist throughout adult life.

Kagan’s work focused on high and low reactive children, and he acknowledges that there are many other ‘temperaments’ or aspects of temperament yet to be studied.


For a lay person like me, learning about these different theories and approaches to the four temperaments adds to the sense that there’s a central phenomenon behind the archetypal four, and help us clarify exactly what the differences between them are.

As Kant wrote:

In this way the ancient forms can be preserved, and only receive a meaning better suited to the spirit of this doctrine of temperaments.

I still believe that Henle’s two-factor model of excitability versus duration of impression is the most fundamental, yet it helps me to have the others available too.

How better to explain a melancholic than “low energy, low social interest”? That’s me in a nutshell.

Other theories may seem more or less apt, but at the very least they show how different people have perceived the temperaments. We can also see where they have gotten it wrong, describing temperaments in ways that don’t at all accord with our experience, or letting their own temperament blind them to the true nature of the others.


Temperament Tests

I just came across this temperament test created by a historian of ideas from Paris.

Her book is a history of the humours in Western medicine and culture, and that includes the temperaments.

Have a go at the test. Every test has its limitations, and I did this one a couple of times because I had conflicting responses to some questions.

Regardless, I ended up predominantly melancholic each time, as expected:


As a bonus, she offers some historical medical advice for balancing out your humours! Mine included taking a one hour walk every day, to which I had an immediate visceral reaction of opposition and incredulity. So it’s probably good advice.


This next test was sent to me by a friend some time ago. As with all tests, I found the questions a little hard to answer. For example, when it asks whether I prefer novelty or routine, my first thought is that of course I prefer novelty. But that just means I like the idea of novelty. If I look objectively at my life, I obviously don’t like novelty…I am a terrifyingly routine person.


This test was created using self-descriptions from people who already knew their temperament – which explains why I laughed so hard at some of the criteria, such as “I radiate joy”.

Yep, that’s me alright.

The actual explanations of the temperament aren’t amazing, but it’s still one of the best tests I’ve seen.


TCAW: Corporal punishment for Goblins

Judging by the feedback, everyone’s favourite character in my new fantasy novel To Create a World is Torvol the Goblin:

“All goblins are beaten when we’re young,” Torvol explained, “it makes us hungry.”


“For power, for position, for profit. Beating is a challenge, not a punishment. So a goblin child who is more fearful than the others will get extra beatings – but he’ll also know he’s getting extra beatings, that he’s being singled out.”

“I don’t get it.”

“If he knows he’s getting extra beatings, then there’s nothing left for him to be afraid of. The worst has already happened. He’s surviving harsher treatment than the others. It’s all part of goblin formation, Tom. The confident ones realise they’re getting away lightly, and that makes them doubt their strength a little. The insecure ones realise they’re enduring the worst of anyone, and that gives them confidence. It’s brilliant.”

“I bet you were never beaten then,” Tom said morosely.

“Oh, I had my fair share,” Torvol grinned. But then his smile twisted bitterly. “But there are far worse things for a goblin than being beaten.”

Tom was too deeply immersed in his worries to ask what that meant.

“So are you going to beat me?” he asked instead.

“No, Tom, I’m not going to beat you,” Torvol sighed. “In the end you’re not a goblin. Who knows what effect it would have on you?”

I enjoyed writing Torvol because he’s almost the complete opposite of Tom. He’s choleric to Tom’s melancholic, but that rare breed of choleric who’s wise enough to be magnanimous without losing the inherent sharpness of his temperament.

I think many readers enjoyed seeing the Goblin tear into Tom, pushing him not so gently into getting his act together. And I loved that Tom was finally forced to confront a perspective so different from his own, without the excuse of turning the Goblin into an enemy.

It was also fun to try out some of my temperament ideas – wondering what it would be like for a whole race of creatures to be more choleric as an entire people and culture. Choleric was the obvious choice for Goblins, not because all cholerics are devious, subterranean, greedy little monsters (I still have choleric friends…) but because (brace yourselves, melancholics) the choleric temperament would ennoble the otherwise borderline-evil Goblin race, giving them a worldview and a way of thinking that encompasses not only greed and cunning, but wisdom and greatness also.

Torvol gave me an opportunity to play with the strengths of the choleric temperament – ambition and a quick wit – to offset Tom’s weaknesses, without him becoming choleric in the process. Who wouldn’t want a Torvol to advise them from time to time? Someone wiser and more astute than you, with an unrelenting yet open-minded conception of profit. You’ll be pleased to know I have big plans for him in future books.

If you enjoyed this excerpt about Torvol the Goblin, you might like my new fantasy novel To Create a WorldCheck it out!

Searching for Four Temperaments info?

I’m planning to write a book about the Four Temperaments theory, but in the meantime I notice some of the search terms that bring people to my page, and in lieu of actual questions I thought I would respond to some of them.

choleric sanguine mbti

I use Keirsey’s temperaments to match the four temperaments to the MBTI, though I don’t necessarily follow his system.

Cholerics are Keirsey’s “rational” which is NT in MBTI terms.

Sanguines are Keirsey’s “artisan” which is SP.

My theory is that one’s secondary temperament corresponds to one’s inverse Myers-Briggs Type. So for a person to exhibit both NT and SP characteristics suggests extroverted sensing is in their functional stack, as either their tertiary or inferior function. So if we know that an NT has extroverted Sensing (SP) in third or fourth place, then they must have the inverse in their perceiving function: introverted Intuition. That means a Choleric-Sanguine (as in, a Choleric with secondary Sanguine characteristics) must be an NTJ, either an ENTJ or INTJ.

In theory, an ENTJ will be more Sanguine than an INTJ, because the extroverted Sensing (SP) that makes Sanguines what they are will be tertiary for an ENTJ and inferior in an INTJ, hence more prominent in the former.

is melancholic sensor or intuitive

Intuitive. Definitely intuitive. Melancholics are NF according to the MBTI.

skill and ways of learning sanguine temperament

From the temperament perspective, Sanguines are easily distracted and like “nice things” which includes beautiful objects, fun experiences, social events, etc. In MBTI terms, it helps to consider that Sanguines are defined by their extroverted Sensing, which simply means they are oriented to their sensory input from the external world.

I like to think of Sanguines as being either “entertainment” types or “artisan” types, borrowing from Keirsey a little. Every Sanguine I’ve ever met enjoys a party, but some are more introverted than others and seem more inclined to make things. Bear in mind that Sanguines in the MBTI system can either be Thinking or Feeling dominant, so I wouldn’t generalise about how they learn. The common factor is their appreciation for sensory stimuli.

i am melancholic but i have met some choleric type guys but we always end up fighting why

Because Cholerics are *****.

Just kidding. Some of my best friends are Choleric, I swear!

In the temperament system, both Cholerics and Melancholics form long-lasting impressions of the world. The difference between them is that Cholerics are excitable, which translates into ambition, desire to accomplish things, and pride. Melancholics are not excitable, which translates into hesitancy, rumination or endless reflection, risk-aversion and pessimism. But despite these differences, they are nonetheless on the same “wavelength” when compared to the other two temperaments.

Melancholics and Cholerics will often end up fighting because the Choleric will come across as arrogant, insensitive, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The Melancholic will come across as stubborn, unwilling to cooperate (or be manipulated), and risk averse. Cholerics and Melancholics are most likely to clash when the Melancholic has something that the Choleric wants or needs to accomplish his goals.

By contrast, Sanguines and Phlegmatics can usually be convinced to go along with a Choleric’s plans. They seem more “open-minded”, less risk averse, and often have a shorter memory for the manipulation, forcefulness and deceit that some (many?) Cholerics will use to get their own way.

Ultimately, both Cholerics and Melancholics like to be in control, actively for the former and passively for the latter. Hence conflict is often assured.

intps introverted sanguine

I don’t think so. An INTP should be a Choleric, and extroverted Sensing (SP) should be difficult for them according to the MBTI.

mbti 4 temperaments

I use Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter which does a good job of linking temperaments to MBTI. Just treat the Guardian as Phlegmatic, the Artisan as Sanguine, the Idealist as Melancholic, and the Rational as Choleric.

melancholics and high stress

No thank you.

Actually, Melancholics are quite gifted at creating their own sources of stress. It’s due to the idealism that arises from our lack of excitability and enduring impressions. We don’t get excited by the same things as everyone else, but positive and negative experiences leave a deep impression on us. As a result, we start searching for rules or principles or ideals that can help us to operate more effectively in the world. Unfortunately this very search tends to make us less pragmatic and less tolerant of our own mistakes and imperfections in the world.

In addition, our society tends to be dominated by Choleric and Sanguine and to a lesser extent Phlegmatic influences. We’re told to be more aggressive, ambitious, competitive, and achievement-oriented. We’re encouraged to consume, to have fun, to be easy-going, to smile a lot, and be sociable. Finally, we’re told at the very least to obey the rules, to not make trouble for others, to not stand out, and not be demanding.

So, Melancholics are left trying to find a place in a society that doesn’t really recognise or understand their temperament, with the additional handicap of not knowing their own temperament very well either, and to top it all off they go in search of answers that tend to exacerbate the problem of fitting in.

infp melancholic temperament

All NF types are Melancholic according to Keirsey’s system. INFPs are more likely to be Melancholic with a strong Phlegmatic influence, because their tertiary function is introverted Sensing – the defining feature of the Phlegmatic.

Melancholic-Phlegmatics are hard to find, perhaps because they’re more likely to be at home on their own.

Their idealistic Melancholic characteristics are influenced by the Phlegmatic’s desire to avoid conflict, follow the rules, and get the details right. I think this tends to conflict with the Melancholic desire for eccentricity, radical change, and frustration at the status quo.

melancholy temperament and worrying

Melancholics worry because the experience of being unexcitable but with enduring impressions is like living in the midst of a thick fog, while you’re assailed from all around by the sounds of people enjoying life, achieving things, yelling at you to get out of their way or cajoling you to follow their lead.

All you can see are the brightest lights and the biggest landmarks, but you’re not even sure how close they are, let alone how to reach them.

Occasionally you work out where you are and what lies in front of you, but then the fog swirls and you’re lost in it once again.

So you worry. You worry about going the wrong way, falling down in a hole, getting in people’s way, failing to arrive at your destination, having the wrong destination, and so on.

In real life you don’t even realise there is a fog. So you experience worry on a more subconscious level with the sense that something just isn’t right, that you don’t fully understand what everyone else is doing and why, and they in turn don’t seem to understand you at all.

strange melancholics


Imagine if everyone around you suddenly became fascinated with cat feces. They started collecting it, writing about it, featuring it on the news. Some people accumulate huge piles of cat feces and are celebrated as heroes and pillars of society. Cat feces becomes a new currency, a status symbol, and an object of adoration.

What would you do? Maybe you shrug your shoulders and do your best to fake enthusiasm about other people’s cat feces and amass your own modest collection. After all, there are bills to pay.

But you would never get genuinely excited about it, and so you’d never really be able to relate to others. You’d wish there was something more to life than cat feces.

Everyone else would think you were strange.


That’s probably enough for now. I’ll continue later when I have the time…

How we vote: the four temperaments

My latest piece at MercatorNet suggests that differences in temperament may explain why otherwise intelligent and like-minded people have fallen apart over voting for Trump.

Choleric temperaments see the world in terms of achievement and ambition. They excel at rational calculations of whatever is to their advantage. Voting in an election is no different from investing in the stock market – you want to park your money or your vote where it has the best chance of making a return.

By contrast, the melancholic temperament sees the world in terms of ideals. For a melancholic, a vote for Trump implies an endorsement of the man and his politics, with all the accountability such support entails. In an ideal world, voters would take personal responsibility for the moral character of the candidate they support.



Finding your inner Trump

My latest piece on MercatorNet is part of a first foray into the four temperaments theory:

If you want to know what an extreme choleric looks like, start with Donald Trump.

If an ancient Greek physician met Donald Trump, they would be deeply concerned. Not for any of the usual reasons, but because Trump’s behaviour and appearance would be viewed as indicating a severe excess of yellow bile – a terrible imbalance of humour with associated medical complaints.

On the psychological level Trump is an excellent specimen of an extreme choleric. He is proud, ambitious, audacious, thin-skinned, aggressive, bullying, self-absorbed, energetic, and individualistic.

There’s a little bit of Trump in all of us, but more so (much more so) in others of the choleric temperament.


Temperaments and the MBTI

Following up on the previous post where I introduced Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, how about we take a look in more detail at the implications of linking the temperaments to the Myers-Briggs system?


We’ll stick with the Idealist type, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament.

First a brief run-down on the MBTI.

I was reintroduced to the system in my previous workplace as part of a Human Resources thing. I use the word ‘thing’ advisedly, since that particular episode defies more insightful analysis.

I fully intended to write something hateful and contemptuous about it, but found in the course of further research that I had a great deal of sympathy for the system, if not the practice of it in a corporate environment.

As with my aversion to corporate meditation, the problems lie in the self-serving, incoherent, and banal spirit that infects everything it comes into contact with, no matter how good or noble or valuable (or simply harmless) it may be.

So I spent some time digging deeper into the MBTI and came across various good resources.

The core of it lies in the cognitive functions of perceiving and judging. Perceiving comes in two forms: Sensing (S) and Intuition (N). Judging also comes in two forms: Feeling (F) and Thinking (T).

That gives four possible combinations of perceiving and judging: SF, ST, NF, and NT.

Broadly speaking, you could say that Sensing is about facts, details, and precision. Intuition is about patterns, similarities, and generalities. Feeling is about meaning, relation, and authenticity. Thinking is about reason, systems, and achieving goals.

To make matters more complex, the MBTI theory holds that these perceiving and judging functions are further divided by introversion and extroversion. That is, we use different functions to perceive interiorly as opposed to exteriorly, and likewise with judging.

If a person uses Sensing to interpret the exterior world, they will use Intuition to interpret the interior world. If a person uses Thinking to arrive at judgements about external things, they will use Feeling to reach decisions about internal ones.

In terms of notation, we can add a little i or e to the functions. So an NF person may be NiFe (introverted Intuition and extroverted Feeling) or NeFi (extroverted Intuition and introverted Feeling).

Not only are your functions introverted and extroverted, but you yourself are also more or less introverted or extroverted. In fact, introversion and extroversion of the individual (as opposed to the functions) is one of the most solidly researched and supported aspects of personality theory generally.

Why does this matter? Well, if your functions are NiFe, but you yourself are predominantly introverted (I), then your individual focus is going to be centred more on your introverted function: Ni – introverted Intuition.  That is to say that your introverted Intuition is going to figure more in your experience of life than your extroverted Feeling.

An Extroverted NiFe person will have the inverse experience. They will still have introverted Intuition, but their extroverted Feeling will be more central to their experience.

For some reason, the Myers-Briggs notation settled on four characters. So instead of writing, for example, INiFe, they write INF, and add a P or J to tell you which of the functions is extroverted.

Thus, an Introverted person who has introverted Intuition (Ni) and extroverted Feeling (Fe) will be written as INFJ, because the Judging function is extroverted. Conversely, an Introverted person who has extroverted Intuition (Ne) and introverted Feeling (Fi) will be written as INFP.

Phew! This is hard work. Writing strictly explanatory material like this is rather exhausting. A structured, detailed approach is really better suited to a Sensing type.

Anyhow, as I was saying, all NF types are classed as Idealists in Keirsey’s system, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament. But in MBTI terms, there are still notable differences between the various NF subtypes. An INFJ and an INFP may have a lot in common, but these commonalities will highlight their differences as well.

One way of thinking about these differences is in terms of temperament. There aren’t a lot of Melancholics around (half of them are hiding), but even so I know enough of them to spot consistent differences. Some Melancholics are a little, dare I say, Sanguine. Others are a little more Phlegmatic.

We might, in the typically crude style of the temperaments theory, suggest that some people are Melancholic-Sanguine and others are Melancholic-Phlegmatic. And if we look at the MBTI in Keirsey’s approach, we can see how this might work.

An INFJ has Ni and Fe as his predominant functions. But that means he also has Ti and Se as his tertiary and ‘inferior’ functions. Each of us uses all of the functions to greater or lesser degrees. What the MBTI really indicates is one’s preference or strength in the various functions. So when you see NF, you know immediately that S and T are in there somewhere.

Extroverted Sensing (Se) in Keirsey’s system signifies that a person is of the Artisan or Sanguine temperament. Whether you are an ISTP, ESTP, ISFP, or ESFP, you all have extroverted Sensing and are therefore all Sanguines.

This implies that all NFJ types are a little bit Sanguine, since they have Se as either their tertiary (for ENFJ) or inferior (for INFJ) functions.

Accordingly, all NFP types are a little bit Phlegmatic, since INFP and ENFP types have introverted Sensing (Si) as their tertiary and inferior functions respectively.

In theory then, all INFP types are Melancholic-Phlegmatic, though in practice it will depend on the individual as to how strong the relevant functions are. The functions of any given INFP will tend to be arranged as follows in order of preference: Fi, Ne, Si, Te.

But if you’ve ever done an MBTI test, you might find some unusual results. You might find, for example, that your inferior function is almost as strong as your dominant function.  In fact, before I really understood the functions I was never sure if I was INFP or INTP, because I usually scored equally high in both F and T.

As various sources suggest, the inferior function is not supposed to be so strong but can emerge under stress or duress, or even as part of a developmental stage. The idea is that this weakest function can come to hold a certain mystique, potency or promise. Discovering an underdeveloped function that is, in a sense, the other side of the coin to your dominant function can present apparent opportunities and adventure.

For me, the development of extroverted Thinking coincided with my discovery of a system of ethics and an approach to philosophy that was new, exciting, and extremely powerful.

I pursued this philosophy in a single-minded way for several years. It was pretty much all I talked about.  What I loved most about it was the clarity and certainty it provided, in stark contrast to the relativism and pluralism of the academic philosophy I had been exposed to.

And yet, the more I pursued it the more confined and restricted I felt. The sense of having all the answers at first provided wonder, but eventually the wonder collapsed in on itself. The excitement at having the tools to discover answers in time became weariness at the kinds of answers these tools could provide, or the kinds of puzzles they could solve.

In MBTI terms, I reached the limit of exploring my inferior extroverted Thinking. It no longer felt mysterious or interesting or powerful.  The answers it provided may have been as true as ever, but they were no longer satisfying.

Developing or relying on my inferior function skews the results of various tests, and can result in MBTI mis-identification. I did wonder in the past whether I was INTP or INFP…but if we revert to the temperaments theory such mis-identification becomes laughable.

An INTP is, like all NT types, a Choleric. An INFP is, like all NF types, a Melancholic. And while Melancholics and Cholerics can have a lot in common, on closer inspection there is really no mistaking the two.

Yet prior to discovering the four temperaments theory, I did see strong similarities between myself and several Cholerics I know. The similarities are real, but from a Melancholic perspective, they are not as significant as the elements that give us a different ‘feel’.

And this is, again, where the MBTI suffers compared to the temperaments theory.  By going into greater detail, offering 16 types rather than four main temperaments, by dealing in functions rather than reactions, the MBTI offers a lot more, but at greater risk of confusion and mis-identification.

In a very unMelancholic style, it turns the extremes of the four temperaments into the finely variegated 16 types. It reduces the ancient biological analogy of the humours to the interchangeable binary of the MBTI pigeon-holes, and loses something in the process.  Like the inferior function that (for me) it represents, I don’t mind delving into it on occasion, but it’s not something I can depend on wholeheartedly.

What are you trying to prove?

Dtcwee wondered in response to my previous post:

If proving something to others is unnecessary, I wonder what the blog post is for then.

To be honest, the question struck me as a non sequitur.  There are plenty of reasons to write blog posts besides trying to prove something to others. Wanting to communicate something to an audience is not the same as trying to prove something.

In the previous piece I had written:

I need to advance on the basis of what I know to be true, not on the basis of what I can prove to others

And I went on to provide the context of “theoretical certitude”.

If you replace “prove” with “show to be theoretically certain” in my statement, the meaning will become clearer. Yet if we do the same with dtcwee’s comment, his argument presents an obvious problem.

We could formulate it as follows:

1 Zac says he needs to advance by what he knows to be true not by what he can prove to others.

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to prove something to others.

3 Therefore, Zac either wants to prove something to others and is contradicting himself,

4 or writing a blog post is not always about proving something to others.

It’s tempting to read dtcwee’s comment in the context of the vernacular “prove something to somebody”, meaning:

to substantiate a claim about something to someone; to make someone believe or accept a statement about something.

By this interpretation, one could argue that everyone who publishes online is trying to prove something to somebody, though it may not always be conscious or obvious.

I might be trying to prove to people that I am a deep and thoughtful person, and strive to do so by writing cryptic or convoluted posts. I might, right now, be seeking to prove to people that I can be analytical and logical.

Nonetheless, this is not the interpretation of “prove” that I was using, as illustrated by my use of “theoretical certitude” in the original post. If we factor my meaning into the 4-point formulation above, we quickly spot the error at point 2:

2 But writing a blog post implies trying to show that something is theoretically certain to others.

It should be clear that theoretical certitude is a degree of proof far removed from idiomatic uses like “what are you trying to prove?”.

This kind of misinterpretation is known as equivocation, with wikipedia offering the following example:

A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

It’s a common problem in argument or debate, and that is why philosophy requires us to define our terms at the outset.  Dtcwee took my use of the word ‘prove’ and treated it according to a different definition.

But that’s not the end of it. Quite apart from the equivocation, I’m curious as to why dtcwee implicitly believes that publishing a blog post denotes trying to prove something to somebody.

I suspect the answer lies (conveniently) in one of my favourite topics: temperament.

The four temperaments see the world differently, have different values, motivations, and perspectives. And this may be as good a time as any to introduce a slightly different take on the four temperaments – the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

I won’t go into the background and details, but what the American psychologist David Keirsey has done is to group the famous Myers-Briggs personality types into four groups which correspond to the traditional temperaments.


Here we can see that the main difference in MBTI terms between the Rationalist (Choleric) and the Idealist (Melancholic) is their Thinking and Feeling functions respectively.  The Rationalist makes decisions based on “objective observations and factual analysis in any given situation”.  Strategic and goal-oriented thinking comes naturally to them.  As such, a Rationalist is predisposed to look for the strategies and goals underlying the behaviour of others.

By contrast an Idealist makes decisions on the basis of his feeling, which is just as obscure as it sounds. An Idealist is not precluded from making objective observations and factual analysis, but at the end of it all, he will make a decision based on how he feels. It is hard to describe, but just as thoughts may be true or false, so things can feel right or wrong. Things that feel right usually point toward meaning, purpose, identity, authenticity, and other ideals.

When I write, I almost always do so for the sake of ideals. I write to uncover meaning, I write with a goal of authenticity, and I write to establish and clarify my own identity for myself. These are all fairly self-absorbed purposes for which an audience is nonetheless important firstly because it imposes a discipline and a rigor that might otherwise wane, and secondly because ideals shared and communicated are thereby strengthened and clarified.

At least, that’s the ideal.

What my blog posts are for is primarily to discover something for myself through the creative and expressive effort. Half-formed ideas can expand, or collapse under their own weight. Intuitions can be tested. Ideals can be explored. If it’s of benefit to anyone else, that is a wonderful side-effect. But if I tried to think strategically about it, my motivation would shrivel up and die.

The Keirsey system offers a different perspective on the temperaments by aligning them with the Myers-Briggs functions. However, in so doing it brings forward other more refined possibilities. 16 types are more particular than four temperaments, and there’s a risk of getting lost in the minor details of the MBTI.

One of the reasons I like the temperament theory so much is that it is imprecise. It’s rough around the edges and barely doctrinaire, in a way that perfectly suits our imprecise nature. So I don’t take Keirsey dogmatically.

That said, there are interesting questions to consider and explore in detail: such as the shared intuitive function of Cholerics and Melancholics that makes them in many ways so similar.

Or the ‘slowness’ of both the Melancholic and the Phlegmatic perhaps arising from very different causes: the obscure strangeness of feeling in the one, and the introverted sensing in the other.

Likewise the excitability of Cholerics and Sanguines is, in Keirsey’s arrangement, most likely due to the powerful thinking function of the former, and the extroverted sensing of the latter.

Going further, you could explore some of the nuances of interaction between the different temperaments, such as why Cholerics often make Melancholics uneasy. I suspect it’s because despite sharing the same or similar intuitive function, Cholerics are quick to think in directions that don’t feel right to the Melancholic. Likewise, Cholerics may get frustrated with Melancholics whose rambling observations and insights never get to the damn point….


Philosopher rejects Orthodoxy, Christianity, all religion

Modern philosopher rejects Orthodoxy -> Christianity -> all religion as incompatible with philosophy:

“For these reasons I have come to regard religious commitment as incompatible with philosophy. The lover of wisdom, the philos-sophos, is one who never ceases searching and questioning, even if they become – like Socrates, the “gadfly of Athens” – irritating and infuriating, and are ostracised or condemned by their society. The life of the mind as practiced by Socrates is not well suited to church membership, or any religious affiliation for that matter other than perhaps liberal groups like Ikon. Institutional forms of religion, at least, will sooner or later put a stop to questions and demand answers, since it is the answers that define the boundary and identity of the group. For the philosopher, however, answers are always fluid and provisional; the only constants are the questions, and therefore the path to wisdom must be a solitary one.”


Lengthy, but worth a quick read. I can sympathise with some of it, but the ultimate objections seem strangely facile.  The author, Nick Trakakis, is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Australian Catholic University where I was temporarily a PhD student.  I never met him, but had some brief interaction in an administrative context.

The comments are well worth reading. A sound reply comes in one of the early comments:

“(1) Weren’t all the “logical” problems with Christianity evident from the start? What makes them become at some point a sufficient reason for rejecting Christianity? What suddenly gives the principle of non-contradiction (so narrowly understood!) priority over the source of being and the apophatic way? What is the source and grounding of this logic and what are its scope and limitations? (2) Isn’t this rejection of Orthodoxy and Christianity and “commitment” for questioning inevitably a kind of exclusivism of its own? And doesn’t this exclusivism arise from a too logical-intellectual understanding of the very complicated ways our belonging to any religion or tradition is made up of practical commitments and systematic doubt and communitarian loyalties and more?”

More pithily:

“I understand your position, but do you? I am unsure as to how one reconciles the argument outlined in your paper, with your position as “Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University”.”

Okay, the comments are quite enjoyable:

“As for His Eminence or Blessedness or whatever-title-he-goes-by, Thich Nhat Hanh (whose picture has started appearing in Theology and Religious Studies Department almost by magic!): He is no LESS exclusivist than Timothy Ware in his outlook . . . which is why he’s a Zen Buddhist monk and not a monk of the Rule of St. Basil the Great. Please, read the work of inter-religious and ecumenical scholar Gavin D’Costa, who has already carefully demolished the myth that somehow pluralist views of religious truth are in some way not exclusivistic. They are — except, they’re couched in “pluralistic”-sounding jargon.

As for the conception of what Dialogue ought to be. Well, what a very EXCLUSIVIST definition. People come at dialogue from many different angles and with different motives . . . or, shouldn’t they? Not every person and group would accept that Dialogue is some kind of search for truths that each one’s religion doesn’t have. Why? Because some religions are based on the claim of an ultimate revelation (Christianity, Islam) or a special choice (Judaism) or of just having been around forever and from the beginning (Hinduism). Trakakis might know a lot about Orthodoxy; apparently, he doesn’t know so much about other religious belief systems . . . or, at least, he wants to collapse and crush them down into his pluralistic, open-ended view of Dialogue.”


“To sum: A philosopher on the payroll of a Catholic Institution publicly repudiates the Christian religion in particular for being intolerant towards the “true” (read – materialist) search for truth. He then, unsurprisingly, calls for a V2 ‘renewal’ within the Orthodox Church – all the while forgetting it is the traditional churches that are indeed regaining numbers (e.g. Latin mass communities). The author then styles himself as a lover of wisdom and compares himself to Russell and Socrates (an awkward cliche). All the while pushing a left-learning social philosophy. It’s just all so… typical.”

There are two very good replies on the site arguing that philosophy is not at all incompatible with religion, or rather, that Trakakis’ depiction of the interplay between religion and philosophy is by no means definitive:

I guess the moral of the story is that you can’t use “philosophy” as an excuse for ceasing to be religious. But perhaps there is something in philosophy that attracts people who are ambivalent about religion?

I can sympathise with this as someone who is and has been attracted to philosophy, or something in or about philosophy, and yet experiences great ambivalence about religion. I’d hate to end up a cliche of pluralism, and I’m yet to see depictions of possible pluralist principles that don’t make me cringe on some level. I hope it is not in vain to swear that I will never ever describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”.

Philosophy has given me a way of entering into religion, but it is not the common way. Indeed the “common way” is a stumbling block, and many of us attracted to philosophy are already quite uncommon by definition.  In some religions the peculiarities of a philosopher would find a welcome home. Variegation of spiritual practice and depth of understanding would be assumed from the outset. But in other religions, including Christianity, the merit of the philosopher’s approach is held in check by the assurance that God’s grace will flow not even to the humble and the poor, but primarily to them.

Christianity depreciates elitism. It specifically eschews great depth of understanding in favour of simplicity, because the work of salvation is not accomplished through human merits. In other words, the philosopher’s temptation to look down on the common folk with their obviously flawed ways of worship and prayer and theology is already marked out and condemned in the Christian tradition.

Which is not to say that there is no room for philosophy and theology and intellectual work in Christianity, just that it is as much an “extra-curricular” activity as sport, engineering, music, and mathematics.  “Philosophers are deeply holy people” said no one, ever.

There’s a famous letter written by a Zen master to a Samurai, in which the Zen master describes the deeper significance of the Bodhisattva Kannon – a kind of Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy” – who is sometimes represented as having a thousand arms and a thousand eyes:

The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and its thousand eyes. The man of half baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.

All religions are like this. I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.

The ordinary man thinks only on the surface. The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.

Philosophers are not “ordinary men”, but I think it is a mistake to take “extraordinary” to mean superior, and, à la Trakakis’ non-exclusivist yearnings, it is a mistake to think that the philosophically-minded among us are implicitly further along some unnamed path than the hoi polloi who just live their lives all unexamined.

We cannot generalise about the inner lives of religious believers. While not philosophically, at least psychologically: what is “true” for me is not “true” for others. If liturgy or doctrine or devotion means nothing to you, isn’t it more befitting a philosopher to wonder why this is the case, how it could be different, to reconcile or at least comprehend the conflict between one’s own beliefs, desires, and sensibilities and those of others, rather than assert one’s own ambivalence, conflict, and doubt under the guise of some noble search for truth?

At risk of disappearing down a relativist rabbit-hole, I’ll extend this principle to Trakakis’ confession: I don’t know what’s going on with him, but personally I would feel it a cop-out to tell myself that I’m giving up on religion because the noble, questioning spirit of philosophy cannot bear the limitations of “creeds” and “faith” and the “exclusivism” implicit in believing something rather than doubting everything.

Maybe there is a place for people who for whatever reason cannot reconcile themselves with “organised religion”? But finding a place does not presuppose or require asserting one’s personal difficulties as objective reality. Being interested in philosophy does not demonstrate that one is closer to objective reality; it could mean one is simply more rigorously, more self-assuredly deluded.

Being a philosopher is not a sign of psychological health or good judgement. Feeling that one’s personal and professional interest is intellectually laudable can be a cover for an imbalanced and dysfunctional inner life, something that our religious traditions warn against.

My failures as a philosopher have at least the good fortune of keeping open the idea that my interest in philosophy, my thinking style, and my inexhaustible search for certain truths, are rooted more in negative personality traits than in “love of wisdom”.

But even this tentative position may be temperamentally determined. How typical for a melancholic philosopher to worry that their whole identity might be a feel-good facade to distract from profound personal failings. A choleric philosopher might have an easier time believing that their own peculiarities indict the rest of the world.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part three

In part one we looked at the anxiety of a melancholic in a sanguine world, and in part two we covered the anxieties that arise from a melancholic’s mistakenly taking phlegmatics as a social model. Part three will examine anxieties that stem from the influence of cholerics.

So how does the choleric contribute to melancholic anxiety?

We saw in part one that our society is heavily influenced by sanguine ideas of fun and excitement. In a similar way, society is heavily influenced by choleric sensitivities toward ambition, power, and achievement.

Most people enjoy socialising to some extent, but sanguine influences shape our experience and understanding of what it means to be social, of how to be social. Likewise, everyone desires some degree of success in their efforts and exploits, to improve their position in life, to accumulate some measure of wealth; yet how we go about it is shaped by a variety of choleric influences.

The melancholic tendency to form and pursue ideals means that we idealise the choleric approach to ambition just as we idealise the sanguine approach to social life. And in a sense this is accurate: sanguines are the ideal socialites, cholerics are the ideal achievers; melancholics just need to learn that recognising an ideal does not mean we can or should achieve the ideal.

Cholerics are as diverse as any of the temperaments, but what they have in common is achievement and ambition as their primary motives. Cholerics are excitable and reactive like sanguines, but like the melancholic they form long-lasting impressions. This combination can leave cholerics with the impression that they’re the smartest guys in the room, and there’s some truth to this conclusion.

The excitability and reactivity of the choleric makes them far more sensitive to opportunities than the melancholic or the phlegmatic can ever be. Their enduring impressions give cholerics a long-term vision and a capacity for focus that sanguines typically won’t sustain.

Every “self-made man” story is most driven by a choleric temperament. But that’s not to say that every choleric will resemble a business tycoon. Even amongst the usual list of ambitious and successful businessmen (and women) there’s a diversity that reflects the range within the choleric temperament: flamboyant, viscerally arrogant men like Trump; quiet achievers like Gates; intense iconoclasts like Jobs; their success stories can differ wildly, and even the quality of their success may be open to debate, but they share an ambitious quality that, once you recognise it, is distinctly choleric.

Cholerics are successful across a range of endeavours. You will find choleric musicians, actors, academics, managers, bureaucrats, and of course, politicians.  Their particular combination of excitability and enduring impressions leads them to find the most advantageous position in any domain.  Put yourself in a choleric’s shoes:

Imagine you’re hiking with three friends and together you stumble across traces of gold out in the bush. You realise there may well be more gold in this area, and naturally you start considering whether you could buy the land or carry out a quiet survey, what exactly the logistics and possible returns on such a venture might be.  You decide to discuss it with your friends* but to your surprise your sanguine friend seems put off by the hard work involved. Your melancholic friend seems to like the idea of a gold mine, but doesn’t seem to realise that this is potentially what you are all standing on. Your phlegmatic friend is agreeable, but doesn’t really have an opinion on the matter. Since no one seems to be truly on board, you pursue it for yourself and become the proud owner of a literal gold mine.

*Actual cholerics may be wondering why you would risk sharing the gold mine idea with your idiot friends in the first place.

As per the example, cholerics are more ‘tuned in’ to the opportunities and advantages in life. Sanguines are (apologies) too superficial, while melancholics and phlegmatics are too oblivious.  It’s not that these other temperaments don’t want to be successful or that they can’t be successful, they just have difficulty pursuing success in the choleric way.

For these three temperaments, it might be better to say that they achieve success through doing what they love or enjoy.  Actually this is true of the choleric as well, they just happen to love succeeding, overcoming challenges, pursuing what they believe is worthy.  Unfortunately, the biggest defect of the choleric is an overestimation of their own worth. Feeling like “the smartest guy in the room” encourages a sense of arrogance, and cholerics are known to struggle with or succumb to a powerful pride.

So while it is true that the other temperaments often fail to see the opportunities before them, it’s also true that they tend to recoil from the ruthless and self-serving actions that are sometimes implicit in seizing those opportunities. Australian politics is at present exemplary of the dark side of the choleric temperament. Idealists need not apply, and thankfully the poisonous nature of the process is evident enough to dissuade most non-cholerics (and probably many cholerics) from getting involved.

For the melancholic, it is vitally important to recognise cholerics and the choleric influences in society, and to understand that we are fundamentally unsuited to the kind of life that puts ambition and personal advantage ahead of ideals. While all temperaments can learn from one another, with knowledge it becomes clear that choleric attitudes and strategies are simply not appropriate for the melancholic idealist.

For me this translates into the recognition that I am deeply averse to commercially driven activities. My idealism does not incorporate what I regard as a mercenary motive. Yet at the same time I know that such things simply do not seem ‘mercenary’ to a choleric, within reason. When I think of all the cholerics I have met or worked with, I know that their ‘successes’ would seem to me either empty success or even failures.  Yet there are other cholerics with whom I have a great deal more in common, whose goals are perhaps more idealistic in their ambit.

Regardless, it is a great relief for a melancholic to realise that many of our socially reinforced ideas of ambition and success simply do not apply to us.  We are idealistic rather than ambitious, or if you like, we are ambitious about our ideals.