Temperament Project 03: Heat and Moisture

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.

Practical application

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!

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.

Conclusion

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.