Choleric Villains: a Kung Fu Panda case study

Lately I’ve been thinking about and discussing the two basic types of choleric. I’ve also been watching a lot of Kung Fu Panda with my son. So let’s use the villains of Kung Fu Panda to explore the two types of choleric and how they function!

Tai Lung 

Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 feature well-developed villains with sympathetic origin stories.

The villain of KFP1 is Tai Lung, an orphan snow-leopard adopted and trained by Master Shifu in the Jade Palace, who so excels at martial arts that he and his teacher both assume Tai Lung will become the Dragon Warrior.

But when Grand Master Oogway decides Tai Lung is not Dragon Warrior material, Tai Lung is outraged. He goes on a rampage and is eventually defeated by Oogway and imprisoned.

In simple temperament terms, Tai Lung is clearly choleric.  He is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful against those who have wronged him.

He pursues his revenge with the determination and focus of a choleric, having already displayed extraordinary patience, biding his time until the opportunity to escape presents itself.

Having escaped, he immediately returns to his goal of obtaining the Dragon Scroll, convinced that he is – or deserves to be – the Dragon Warrior.

Lord Shen

Lord Shen, the villain of KFP2, is the scion of a family of peacocks who ruled Gongmen City and brought joy to the people through their mastery of fireworks.

When Shen begins experimenting with fireworks as a potential weapon, his parents consult a soothsayer who warns that if Shen doesn’t alter his course, he will be defeated by “a warrior of black and white”.

Interpreting the prophecy, Shen takes his army to wipe out all the pandas in China and thereby avoid his fate. On his triumphant return Shen’s parents are horrified and banish him.

Like Tai Lung, Shen is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful. He bides his time while further developing his explosive new weapons and awaits the opportunity to exact revenge (symbolically) against his now deceased parents, returning to his ancestral home before setting out to conquer all of China.

Using MBTI to unpack temperament

The similarities between Shen and Tai Lung as cholerics are obvious. Of course they are also villains, which makes the comparison very direct.

Disclaimer: Not all villains are choleric and of course not all cholerics are villains. But cholerics have qualities that lend them to being either great heroes or great villains….great anything, potentially.

But there are specific areas of difference between Tai Lung and Shen that can be observed in real-world cholerics too.

Power in oneself vs power over others

One of the most fundamental distinctions between cholerics is the nature of their ambition, which directly relates to their underlying skills or cognitive functions in an MBTI context.

Tai Lung is a skilled warrior. He is very nearly the most skilled warrior in the world of KFP1, which is the foundation of his pride and also the means by which he pursues his ambition to be recognised as the Dragon Warrior.

In MBTI terms, Tai Lung has introverted intuition (Ni). 

Like all the cognitive functions, it’s hard to understand Ni if you don’t have it. As a non-Ni user, the best I can grasp is that Ni-users intuitively know how to do things.

Intuition is simply unconscious mental processing. The difference between Ni and Ne (extroverted intuition) is that Ne unconsciously processes information and patterns about the external world, while Ni unconsciously processes the user’s own actions, skills, and “how to do things”.

Strong Ni users seem to have a knack or talent in at least one area, sometimes many. They know how to dress well and present well. They take to hobbies and skills with instinctive sureness.

They might not be able to explain to others how they know, because the processing is unconscious, but in art, music, sports, or martial arts, their skill is evident.

For an Ni choleric (INTJ or ENTJ) ambition is channeled through this innate facility.

Hence Tai Lung’s pride and ambition are all about his own excellence, being the best. In his own mind he is the Dragon Warrior, and therefore deserves the Scroll that promises to further enhance his already superlative skill.

Non-villainous cholerics with Ni might describe their ambition in terms of being the best they can be, or wanting to compete with themselves (as an INTJ friend put it).

After all, Tai Lung doesn’t want to conquer all of China, he just wants to be the best.

The kind of choleric who does want to conquer all of China

While Tai Lung is the embodiment of kung fu as an individual skill honed to near-perfection, Lord Shen will happily destroy kung fu in the pursuit of his own ambition.

Instead of the power within himself, Lord Shen cultivates power over others, beginning with his intuitive realisation that the fireworks created by his parents could be used for violence.

This detail of Shen’s origin story is a perfect clue to the kind of intuition he wields: extroverted intution (Ne).

Ne is all about patterns and connections in the external world. As an Ne-user I can fully appreciate Shen’s recognition that the explosive power of fireworks could be “repurposed”. NB: but as a melancholic the idea doesn’t appeal to me!

Shen’s power is almost totally externalised, as represented by the cannons he invented and the army of wolves and gorillas he commands. While he has kung fu skills of his own, they are clearly insufficient to achieve his true aims and ambition.

Lacking the innate talent of the Ni choleric, Lord Shen’s ambitions are not grounded in his own personal attributes. This is reflected in his willingness to destroy his own ancestral home in pursuit of something greater.

Instead of being motivated by his own innate skill, what motivates an Ne choleric like Shen is the self-evident truth that bigger is better:

Soothsayer: “Are you certain it is the panda who is a fool? You just destroyed your ancestral home, Shen!
Shen: “A trivial sacrifice, when all of China is my reward.

Yet at the same time, Shen’s Ne is apparent in his respect for the Soothsayer, a fellow Ne user whom he spares in part to prove her wrong, but also in recognition of her own gifts.

As a fellow Ne user, Shen is intrigued by the Soothsayer’s predictions and insights. He sends her away only when he is confident that his own path is certain.

The weakness of cholerics

In temperament terms, an Ni choleric would be choleric with a secondary temperament of sanguine, and an Ne choleric would have a secondary temperament of phlegmatic. But that’s an “all things being equal” scenario.

In practice we can see that different cognitive functions can be exaggerated or diminished through circumstances, formation, and our own choices.

Tai Lung’s excessive ambition was fostered by Shifu, his adoptive father and teacher. Shifu encouraged Tai Lung’s desire to be the Dragon Warrior:

Tai Lung to Shifu: Who filled my head with dreams?! Who drove me to train until my bones cracked?! Who denied me my DESTINY?!?

Things get a bit subtle at this point, but I think the “filled my head with dreams” aspect would relate to Tai Lung’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) in either a tertiary or inferior position; my guess would be inferior.

Fi is all about ideals, meaning, and “dreams”. But in an inferior position, Fi is very rudimentary.

At various stages in life our inferior function is more influential, and it’s common for people to suppress their dominant function and be driven by their inferior.

In Tai Lung’s case, that would mean his dominant extroverted Thinking (Te) was suppressed, and his inferior Fi was engaged and stimulated by Shifu’s excessive encouragement.

So when Tai Lung is denied the long-expected meaning of becoming the Dragon Warrior he is enraged and goes on a pointless and destructive attack on the valley, ending in his defeat by Oogway and imprisonment.

Living under the shadow of rudimentary Fi, he actually weakens his “efficiency”, his Te, and loses everything of value.

A healthier choleric would have had a clearer sense of his own goals to begin with. He would have found a different way to excel, even if that meant spurning the Jade Palace altogether.

Ironically his loss of control showed that he had less confidence in his own abilities, because he had tied them so strongly to the specific “dream” of becoming the Dragon Warrior.

The search for meaning is his downfall not only in this first instance, but in his subsequent effort to obtain the Dragon Scroll.

The weakness of Lord Shen

As an Ne choleric, Lord Shen has extroverted Feeling (Fe) and introverted Sensing (Si) in his tertiary and inferior positions; but in which order?

There’s a case to make for either option: ENTP or INTP. Honestly, I’m not sure which is correct.

But his character flaws certainly relate to extroverted Feeling, which is all about harmony with others. For Lord Shen it was his parents’ horror and rejection following his attempted genocide of pandas that scarred him. Shen thinks his parents hated him, and is unable to reconcile their repudiation of his actions with their parental love.

But even prior to the incident, it is curious that Shen didn’t buy into the foundation of his parents’ power – the colour and joy that their fireworks brought to the lives of ordinary people. If Shen had more well-developed Fe he ought to have been more appreciative of that relationship between his parents and their subjects.

The frightening aspect of Lord Shen’s Fe is that he massacred the pandas without realising the effect this would have on his parents, and without having previously heeded their worries and fears about his attempts to weaponise fireworks.

It’s suggestive of psychopathy – not only that he would massacre the pandas but more importantly that he would fail to understand his parents response!

What went wrong with Shen?

Unlike Tai Lung, there is no indication that Lord Shen was misled, or that his head was “filled with dreams”.

What seems more likely is his parents’ failure to properly educate their son and instill in him more compassion or care for others. By the time he was willing and able to massacre all the pandas in China, it was already too late in his development.

While this indicates a failure to develop Fe, it also suggests (or rather, my brother suggested while discussing this question) an Si-related failure to fill a young Shen with formative memories that would reinforce the virtues of compassion, benevolence, and mercy.

Shen’s attempt to use his intellect (Ti and Ne) to conquer China with gunpowder is a merciless and violent recapitulation of his parents’ “conquering” Gongmen City through the joy and wonder accomplished by their fireworks.

Without an appreciation for the happiness of the people and the virtues that go along with that, Shen would see his own path as a bigger, better, and more glorious version of his own parents’ success.

Cholerics in real life

Learning about the four temperaments helped me understand myself, but it also helped me understand how and why some people act like complete a***holes when it seems like they should (and maybe do) know better.

Cholerics in general are weaker in the “feeling” functions of the MBTI. In Big 5 terms, they are more “disagreeable” than “agreeable”.

Villains with troubled origin stories aside, cholerics tend to be proud, which they might prefer to describe as being objective about their own strengths.

For Ni cholerics, their strength is the innate talent facilitated by introverted intuition, coupled with extroverted thinking (Te) that helps them be very goal-directed and efficient.

For Ne cholerics, their strength is the systematic world-modelling comprehension of introverted thinking (Ti), enabled and given full-flight by extroverted intuition.

Being strong and disagreeable is advantageous if life is a competition. But cholerics struggle when they seek to “win” at non-competitive goals or attributes such as being agreeable.

A common trope for successful cholerics (villainous or not) is to reach the pinnacle of success only to realise that they have neglected or even harmed the things they valued but did not excel at.

That’s why the choleric “solution” is essentially a softening or slowing down where it might otherwise be easier for them to fight, compete, and perhaps win. It’s for cholerics, I think, that we have the spiritual advice to embrace weakness, meekness, humility, and poverty of spirit.


Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

Myers-Briggs functions vs temperamental factors

I’ve been using the MBTI functions as a way of sharpening focus on the four temperaments.

This is because pragmatically the functions allow a finer-grained analysis of the temperaments.

For example, what’s the difference between a melancholic-phlegmatic and a melancholic-sanguine?

Both are NF types. Melancholic-phlegmatics are xNFP and melancholic-sanguines are xNFJ.

This means that melancholic-phlegmatics are using extroverted intuition (Ne) and introverted feeling (Fi), whereas melancholic-sanguines are using introverted intuition (Ni) and extroverted feeling (Fe).

So in the first instance, although both are melancholic with the combination of feeling and intuition, the NeFi combo is already a more introverted way of being than the NiFe combo. Fe is externally oriented, meaning that the melancholic-sanguine makes decisions according to their sense of how others are feeling, for the sake of group harmony.

Fe types want to connect with others and maintain good relationships, whereas Fi types are more motivated by internal coherence and authenticity.


In addition to the orientation of the feeling function, the third and fourth functions of either type also play a role in describing the difference in temperament.

Melancholic-phlegmatics’ third and fourth functions are extroverted thinking (Te) and introverted sensing (Si). Melancholic-sanguines’ are introverted thinking (Ti) and extroverted sensing (Se).

The significant part here is that Si and Se are the determining functions of the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments respectively. Si gives the phlegmatic their inward, mnemonic focus. Se gives sanguines their sensory, outward, experiential focus.

That’s why these two types of melancholic can be similar, yet in other ways so distinct. What makes one melancholic partly phlegmatic is the inward orientation of their Feeling function plus their introverted sensing (Si) in third or fourth place. What makes the other melancholic more sanguine is the extroversion of their Feeling, plus the extroverted sensing (Se) in their third or fourth place.

Or is it…

But the functions are just useful, finer-grained descriptions. No one knows if they are actually different cognitive functions, and so we can ask which is the underlying reality: MBTI functions, or temperamental factors?

What I mean by temperamental factors is that the four temperaments are typically described as combinations of two factors – the clearest of which (in my opinion) are excitability and duration of impression.

Given that a melancholic has low excitability with enduring impressions, but that melancholics differ by degrees, we can ask the following interesting (but not very pragmatic) question:

Are the differing degrees of melancholic due to real differences in cognitive function, or are supposed differences in cognitive function just ways of describing varying degrees of melancholy?

In other words, are Fi and Fe different things, or are they just different degrees of the same thing?

As far as I can tell, it’s quite possible that Fi is really just a less excitable form of Feeling, and Fe a more excitable one.

But going a step further, I’m not sure that Feeling and Thinking are necessarily different things either.

It’s plausible that F and T represent less excitable and more excitable forms of the same cognitive process. In effect, F is like a blurred and impressionistic version of the sharper, detail-oriented T.

Can you trust your feelings?

There’s a widespread perception that feelings are an untrustworthy guide.

I think this probably comes from situations where people have bucked the conventional trends and rules of life and justified it rightly or wrongly on the basis of feelings that defy scrutiny and interrogation.

“It just feels right to me!”

But the same thing happens all the time with thinking. Thinking too can be an untrustworthy and dangerous guide for many people, but in those instances we tend to label them “stupid” or “irrational” or “stubborn” rather than criticise them for thinking per se.

The truth is that there’s such a thing as good and bad feeling, just as there is good and bad thinking.

What makes either one good or bad is the degree of honesty with oneself, and the knowledge in and around the thought or feeling that guides us.

For example, if we think that vaccination is bad for us, or that raw chicken is okay to eat, then we are being guided by thoughts that are either insufficiently scrutinised or else coloured by some ulterior motive.

Similarly, our feelings can be coloured by deeper motives, or we can be mistaken in our own interpretation of them.

In accord with temperament, I think we can use either thinking or feeling to work out what we want to do. But it’s up to us to be honest with ourselves and clear about the nature of the thoughts or feelings we are following.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that both our thoughts and feelings should be genuine or authentic. In my own life I seem to get into trouble when – either thinking or feeling – my words and actions are coloured by ulterior motives of which I am not fully conscious.

Things like insecurity, escapism, avoidance and so on.

I might have a desire to say something, but what is driving that desire? Is it the genuine expression of a good feeling, or is it a shady evasion of a bad one?

OCEAN follow-up: disorganised and disagreeable

I did an online test for the Big 5 personality traits just now, and the results were interesting:

As expected, I’m both extremely Introverted and extremely Neurotic.

In my previous post I suggested that I might be high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, but I also noted that these qualities felt forced and unnatural.

I subsequently read the actual criteria for the two traits, and concluded that I’m practicing “pseudo-” Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, attempting to mimic traits I don’t actually possess.

In other words, I’m not naturally an organised, disciplined, tidy person, but I put pressure on myself to be organised and disciplined where it counts.

The results of the online test corroborate my suspicions.

Openness to new experiences was surprisingly high, but that could be because the trait is manifested differently between introverts and extroverts. An extrovert might be open to “new experiences”, but an introvert can be open to “new ideas”, ways of thinking and seeing the world.

So I think I’m on the right track: trying too hard to be conscientious and agreeable in certain circumstances is actually a manifestation of neuroticism, and exacerbates those negative emotions.

Being less agreeable and more disorganised might not change my other traits, but it would be more authentic, and, if I’m right, authenticity could be the key to ameliorating neuroticism.

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.

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.


First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.


Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.


All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

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….


Melancholic resentment

One of the drawbacks of studying religion at an early age is lacking the maturity or the intelligence to distinguish between personal conditions and universal ones.

For instance, all the religious traditions of which I am aware are pessimistic about worldly goals and prospects. Whether it’s being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara or being dashed to pieces in the shipwreck of worldly desires and cares, our religious traditions use pessimism to encourage us to find the permanent, unchanging spiritual centre of all existence.

We are not supposed to take this pessimistic view as a justification for resentment, a sardonic defence against feeling let-down by life or the people in it.

Resentment is a particular risk for Melancholics. As Conrad Hock writes:

The melancholic who gives way to sad moods, falls into many faults against charity and becomes a real burden to his fellow men.

a) He easily loses confidence in his fellow men, (especially Superiors, Confessors), because of slight defects which he discovers in them, or on account of corrections in small matters.

b) He is vehemently exasperated and provoked by disorder or injustice. The cause of his exasperation is often justifiable, but rarely to the degree felt.

c) He can hardly forgive offences. The first offense he ignores quite easily. But renewed offenses penetrate deeply into the soul and can hardly be forgotten. Strong aversion easily takes root in his heart against persons from whom he has suffered, or in whom he finds this or that fault. This aversion becomes so strong that he can hardly see these persons without new excitement, that he does not want to speak to them and is exasperated by the very thought of them. Usually this aversion is abandoned only after the melancholic is separated from persons who incurred his displeasure and at times only after months or even years.

d) He is very suspicious. He rarely trusts people and is always afraid that others have a grudge against him. Thus he often and without cause entertains uncharitable and unjust suspicion about his neighbor, conjectures evil intentions, and fears dangers which do not exist at all.

e) He sees everything from the dark side. He is peevish, always draws attention to the serious side of affairs, complains regularly about the perversion of people, bad times, downfall of morals, etc. His motto is: things grow worse all along. Offenses, mishaps, obstacles he always considers much worse than they really are. The consequence is often excessive sadness, unfounded vexation about others, brooding for weeks and weeks on account of real or imaginary insults. Melancholic persons who give way to this disposition to look at everything through a dark glass, gradually become pessimists, that is, persons who always expect a bad result; hypochondriacs, that is, persons who complain continually of insignificant ailments and constantly fear grave sickness; misanthropes, that is, persons who suffer from fear and hatred of men.

I’ve been looking into resentment recently and the definition I like best so far is that:

Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.

At times any one element of the mixture might predominate, but the heart of the resentment is ultimately a sense of injustice – persistent and far-reaching enough to cause not only anger but disappointment and fear.

Failure breeds resentment when it not only feels unjust but also has implications for future hopes and prospects. Failure makes us angry at ourselves or others, it also disappoints us when we realise that the hoped-for success will not come, and it makes us afraid of future failures, or of the missed opportunity to succeed. It’s much harder to feel resentment if the failure doesn’t really hurt our future prospects.

The danger in becoming a pessimist is that we may roll all our small resentments into one big resentment against the world, God, or life itself. This is problematic partly because such a large and all-encompassing resentment is hard to bear and hard to escape or forget. But also because pessimism is often couched as a ‘realist’ perspective. Believing that one’s large, all-encompassing resentment is objectively valid only makes it harder to let go.

So what can we do about this resentment?

The best advice I have found so far (and it came easily, despite my pessimism) is that we need to recognise resentment as a form of addiction, that is, a compulsive activity we indulge in order to escape other feelings or experiences.

Resentment is addictive because it gives us a cheap sense of self-righteousness and vindication, or as the article puts it, an illusion of strength. After all, the anger component of resentment is classically defined as a desire for vengeance: that is, a desire to set right the perceived injustice perpetrated against us.

So long as we hold on to either anger or resentment, we feel that our cause is not lost. The perceived injustice might be decades old, but we can still feel that we are achieving some measure of vindication by remaining angry, where ‘forgive and forget’ feels too much like letting the guilty party off the hook.

Yet for that same reason, resentment is incredibly weak. It’s like saying to your oppressor “See? I’m still suffering for what you did to me!”  The emotional logic is childish: you made me feel bad, and I shall keep feeling bad until you realise your mistake. Naturally, it’s childish because most of us begin resenting people and situations in childhood, the same place we learn all our primary emotional responses.

It’s hard to remain resentful when you realise that you’re engaging in an adult form of sulking.


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.