Medieval Latin rhymes about temperament

On the preservation of health in Medieval rhyming Latin verse.

Note how they conflate personality with physical features. Subsequent sections of the verse go on to describe physical symptoms of illnesses attributed to excess of each humour.

Complexions cannot virtue breed or vice,

Yet may they unto both give inclination.

The Sanguin gamesome is, and nothing nice,*

Loves wine, and women, and all recreation.

Likes pleasant tales, and news, plays cards and dice,

Fit for all company, and every fashion :

Though bold, not apt to take offence, nor ireful,

But bountiful and kind, and looking cheerful :

Inclining to be fat and prone to laughter,

Loves mirth, and music, cares not what comes after.


Sharpe Chollcr is an humour most pernitious,

All violent, and fierce, and full of fire,

Of quick conceit, and there withal ambitious.

Their thoughts to greater fortune still aspire,

Proud, bountiful enough, yet oft malicious,

A right bold speaker, and as bold a liar,

On little cause to anger great inclined,

Much eating still, yet ever looking pin’d.

In younger years they use to grow apace.

In elder, hairy on their breast and face.


The Flegmatique are most of no great growth,

Inclining rather to be fat and square,

Given much unto their ease, to rest and sloth.

Content in knowledge to take little share,

To put themselves to any pain most loth.

So dead their spirits, so dull their senses are :

Still either sitting like to folk that dream,

Or else still spitting, to avoid the flegme,

One quality doth yet these harms repair,

That for most part the Flegmatique are fair


The Melancholy from the rest do vary,

Both sport, and ease, and company refusing,

Exceeding studious, ever solitary,

Inclining pensive still to be, and musing,

A secret hate to others apt to carry:

Most constant in his choice, tho long a choosing,

Extreme in love sometime, yet seldom lustful,

Suspitious in his nature, and mistrustful,

A wary wit, a hand much given to sparing,

A heavy look, a spirit little daring-

*Nice used to mean ‘ignorant/foolish’, then came to mean ‘finicky, very particular’. I suspect the latter meaning in this context. The Sanguine is gameson and not very particular or finicky.


A fifth temperament?

So apparently in the late-twentieth Century a husband and wife team set out to create a:

scripturally based therapeutic procedure that would produce effective, positive, and more immediate results with those needing guidance/counsel.

Along the way, Drs Richard and Phyllis Arno discovered the existence of a fifth temperament which they named “supine”.  I’ve come across this innovation a couple of times in the past, and the other day a reader expressed some surprise that I haven’t mentioned it on my blog. I promised to do a post on it after I’d done a little more research, and accordingly, here are my observations of the fifth temperament.

While Wikipedia has an entry on “five temperaments” there is little information on the concept beyond the Arnos’ work, which appears to be focused on their own enterprises in the US. I’m not hugely familiar with the intricacies of protestant Christian denominations in the States, but I did find that the Arnos not only run, provide certification in, and charge for reports from their Arno Profile System, they also founded and run the National Christian Counselors Association which provides training and certification for Christian Counselors, in association with various tertiary institutions.

As far as I can tell, this is the sole origin of the “fifth temperament” idea.

How does it relate to the traditional four temperaments system? Is the fifth temperament a genuine discovery?

As readers may know, the traditional temperament theory is a two-factor system. That is, each temperament is a combination of two variables: excitability and the duration of impressions. Cholerics are excitable with enduring impressions, Melancholics are not excitable with enduring impressions, Sanguines are excitable without enduring impressions, and Phlegmatics are neither excitable, nor do they form enduring impressions.

The Arnos also utilise a two-factor system as the basis for their temperament theory, but instead of excitability and duration of impressions, they utilised the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation system or FIRO-B, created by William Schutz in 1958.

The FIRO-B is two-factor in that it measures expressed behaviour – how much a person expresses to others – and wanted behaviour – how much a person wants from others. These two factors are applied across three domains of interpersonal need: inclusion, affection/openness, and control.

The four temperaments were at some point mapped onto Schutz’s system. This is not unusual, people have done the same with the Myers-Briggs types. And while directly correlating “expressed behaviour” to excitability and “wanted behaviour” to duration of impressions is not self-evident, the first problem to capture my attention lay in the inclusion of “moderate” categories along with the high/low dichotomy.

In the traditional temperaments theory, it was accepted that a person may be more or less melancholic without this signifying a difference in temperament. The four temperaments are extremes that can be combined, but also present to greater or lesser degrees.  Two pure cholerics can differ in the degree of their choleric tendencies. From the humourist perspective this could be understood as a person in whom yellow bile predominated, but with the caveat that yellow bile could still predominate to varying degrees.

For some reason, the FIRO-B describes the phlegmatic as having moderate expression and moderate wanted behaviour. This decision establishes a gap for a fifth temperament in the FIRO-B system. By contrast, the traditional system has no place for an “in between” temperament. Such an in-betweener would be perfectly balanced, an ideal balance of the four humours, a perfectly healthy human being.

The decision to create a space for a moderate temperament in the FIRO-B is not simply an error. Rather, it shows the disparity between the two factors of the traditional model and those of the FIRO-B. They may have some similarities, and they may result in similar temperament types, but ultimately they are different models that just happen to coincide at key points.  Excitability is not the same as expressed behaviour, and endurance of impressions is not the same as wanted behaviour.

In fact, if we examine more closely the combinations of the two factors within the different systems, it turns out that a direct correlation is not even possible. The FIRO-B shows the melancholic temperament as having low expressed and low wanted behaviour. But in the traditional system the melancholic has low excitability but “high” endurance of impressions.

One of the particular merits of the traditional temperament system is that it reduces aspects of personality to fundamental biological constraints. Excitability and endurance of impressions are not concepts, but facts of individual biology; tendencies towards degrees of expressed and wanted behaviours is, by contrast, highly conceptual and dependent on additional levels of theory about behaviour and social interaction.

Whatever its actual merits, the five temperaments theory is giving a different meaning to the traditional vocabulary.  It is therefore not accurate to say that a new temperament was discovered in the late-twentieth Century, but rather that a new system emerged and took on some of the language and concepts of the traditional temperaments theory.

This is not a big deal; there are a plethora of personality theories out there, and ultimately what matters is whether they are useful to people.  These systems are all imperfect ways of cutting up reality to make it easier to comprehend. However, it is good to be clear about the provenance and limitations of the theories we use. No one owns the traditional temperaments theory, but those of us who find it useful have a role to play in researching and understanding it, and laying out its strengths and limitations for others to see.  Avoiding confusion with new theories that use the same terminology is part of that role.




Imagine you’re a phleg

Melancholics are the most unusual of the four temperaments, but also the most rare. As a result of their rarity, melancholics tend not to find exemplars or role models; they may not be able to truly relate to any of their peers.

Perhaps for these reasons, melancholics typically do not understand themselves well. They might look at all the sanguines, phlegmatics, and cholerics, and try to emulate the qualities exhibited by these temperaments. But none of them will be a true fit.

In fact, melancholics can come to grief by misidentifying with their closest temperament, the phlegmatic.  The phlegmatic, you may recall, is similar to the melancholic in that neither experiences strong reactions to stimuli. Yet they differ in that the melancholic forms lasting impressions of things, while the phlegmatic’s impressions do not last long. You could say that melancholics are phlegmatics with long memories.

Or alternatively, imagine a melancholic with a short memory and that is essentially a phlegmatic. Imagine if, as a melancholic, you could do things without being assailed by countless deep memories and impressions of every problem, shortfall, and fault in your experience and the experience of others.  It’s not that phlegmatics truly forget things, but these impressions just aren’t as prominent in their minds.  The phlegmatic mind does not regard these memories as especially salient.

This is what gives the phlegmatic their easy-going nature. They aren’t easily excited, nor are they internally driven by deep impressions. They are usually happy to go along with others, avoid rocking the boat, and can be left to their own devices.

Because they are not excitable, phlegmatics often present as introverts, and because of this apparent introversion, melancholics may incorrectly identify with them. This mis-identification is problematic because in social contexts melancholics are always looking for clues as to the ideal way to behave. A phlegmatic may appear to be socially adept, good natured, well-liked, relaxed, happy and comfortable; all qualities that can seem just out of reach for the melancholic.

Yet phlegmatics differ from melancholics in two very potent ways. Firstly, phlegmatics are not assailed by enduring, pessimistic impressions of things that have gone wrong, could go wrong, and probably will go wrong. Their easy-going nature is not a skilled, careful poise between enjoyment and disaster; they are, if my phlegmatic friends will excuse me, a bit like human potatoes – comparatively impervious to the fears and anxieties that wrack the melancholic.

When, as discussed in the previous post, a melancholic is considering attending a normal social gathering, we tend to regard ourselves as if we were not melancholics at all, but mysteriously anxious, awkward, or depressed phlegmatics. That is, we wrongly imagine ourselves to be phlegmatics – easy-going, unfazed phlegmatics – who will surely enjoy whatever social environment we end up in if we can somehow shake this irrational sense of pervasive dread at the thought of going out.

But the fact that the mere anticipation of some soiree, concert, or festival can leave us grappling with the meaning of life, reality, and existence itself is a fairly strong indicator that the phlegmatic approach to life is not for us. If I were truly honest with myself, I would have to admit that these conventional social outings were an added burden on top of a hundred other obligations, and that the effort of voluntarily celebrating in some minor, insignificant form would betray my profound sense of dismay at life more generally.

Or to put it another way: it’s bad enough that I had to stumble through the obligatory, banal demands of school, university, and working life, but on top of that I had to attend voluntary social functions and pretend to be happy about it all?

But even so, opting out is not a satisfying answer. Melancholics do care about their friends, but what can you do when your friends are socially avid sanguines, cholerics and phlegmatics, who interpret opting out of social events as a rejection of friendship? Perhaps that’s why the melancholic (second from left) is always depicted as such a relaxed and happy fellow:

Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic


That’s the face of an irresolvable internal conflict.

But it’s not all bad news. The second major difference between phlegmatics and melancholics is that phlegmatics lack the powerful idealism of the melancholic. To emulate a phlegmatic would be to deny this powerful aspect of our own temperament. Without idealism, the melancholic temperament would indeed be as miserable as a depressed phlegmatic.

The idea of ‘artistic temperament’ often pairs great creativity with bouts of misery, but in the melancholic temperament this relationship is much easier to understand: we see the world through the lens of ideals, and while the ideals can be the most perfect and inspired visions, the reality usually falls short. Trying to fit into an imperfect world, a society ruled by other temperaments, is a source of distress and misery. But the bright side can more than compensate for this distress if we invest in our ideals rather than investing in conformity.

After all, the phlegmatic may be easy-going; he may even achieve great things in music, philosophy, writing, or other creative and intellectual pursuits, but he is not driven, impassioned, and inspired by profound ideals. He is not moved as the melancholic is moved; and ultimately it is our enduring impressions, the ‘long memory’ that assails us when we contemplate some social gathering or work event, that is equally responsible for our most meaningful and potent ideals.

Our deep, enduring impressions extend the range of our inner world, lending us an expansive, complex domain we seek to conquer or transform.  Our long memory moves us to seek not easy answers but ultimate ones, answers that are powerful enough to give meaning to the whole of life, reality, and existence.

I think that to really understand our struggle with everyday life, we need to recognise firstly that our ‘everyday life’ is lived in the shadow of our inner search for meaning and answers; yet it is a search carried out by a rare minority, and one temperamentally inclined to introversion and withdrawal from society.  As such, this ‘inner meaning’ is less and less present to everyday life. The two are increasingly polarised, and it can seem to the melancholic that they are entirely alone, merely disqualified from a normal existence by some yet-to-be-identified fault.

I think it is up to us, then, to start to bring our ideals back into everyday life. It is up to us to more openly reject and push back against the conventions established or shaped by other temperaments – not in a hostile manner, but merely by making space for genuine idealism that is not subordinate to the approval of other temperaments with their vastly different motivations and values.


Fun with melancholics

A melancholic idealist will typically have a strong sense of being ‘different’ from the majority of people. Both cholerics and melancholics are supposedly less common than phlegmatics and sanguines, yet while cholerics tend to see themselves as superior to the herd, melancholics are usually more self-effacing – interpreting their own differences as faults or flaws.

A melancholic might wonder why he is not more like others, or how to be more like others; yet the details of the differences are quite complicated.

When I was younger I wondered why I didn’t like going out to pubs and clubs with my friends. For some reason the thought of going to such venues for no clear purpose other than to socialise filled me with a general sense of anxiety and fatigue. I don’t know if my friends understood why I hated to go out – I certainly didn’t understand. But from a melancholic perspective it begins to make sense.

Firstly, melancholics do not react strongly to stimuli, but what reactions they have are very enduring.  What this means in the context of the above example is that I was never particularly excited by the positive aspects of going out drinking. I liked drinking, I liked socialising, but I wasn’t as excited by these prospects as a sanguine or a choleric might be, with their highly reactive temperaments.

And if the positive aspects of going out drinking were not especially salient, the negative aspects were almost overwhelming.  Thanks to the melancholic’s enduring impressions, the thought of going out drinking and socialising would immediately bring to mind a (short) lifetime’s catalog of bad and potentially bad, awkward, and dissatisfying experiences, as if to offer a brief reminder of all the things that might go wrong.

Like the melancholic, phlegmatics do not react strongly to stimuli. However, phlegmatics do not have long-lasting impressions either. A phlegmatic might be happy to go out drinking if everyone else is as well. They won’t be put off by an unending stream of bad memories and cautionary tales.

Secondly, the melancholic’s onslaught of mental warnings, bad memories, and careful catastrophising translates almost immediately into fatigue. It is mentally exhausting to have one’s mind suddenly produce a variety of unwanted scenarios without any obvious solution. This mental exhaustion crushes whatever slim enthusiasm or motivation might have remained, and exacerbates the intensity of whatever worries seem most realistic.

Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the all-encompassing pressure to go out, relax, have fun, and socialise, even if you are temperamentally unsuited to all of the above. A melancholic may be tempted to conclude that with sufficient effort they too can – and therefore should – take part in these hallowed social conventions.

But any genuinely self-respecting answer ought to take into account the peculiarities of the melancholic temperament. We don’t expect sanguines to enjoy endless hours sitting and reading or just thinking to themselves, nor should we expect ourselves to act dramatically against our temperament for the sake of fitting in.

Perhaps the key point – and one I neglected for years – is that it is fundamentally unreasonable to force yourself to do something that other temperaments do for sheer enjoyment.  What a melancholic really needs is not additional effort but greater motivation – that is, a purpose more motivating than drunken socialising to loud music.

Whatever the circumstance, if the purpose is supposed to be ‘enjoyment’ but it feels more like wearying obligation, then perhaps the problem is that it’s simply not enjoyable enough?

The flip-side of the melancholic’s seemingly unhappy nature is that the ideals which motivate us, the things we really do enjoy, can be ecstatic. It just happens that these ideals and sources of enjoyment are not shared by the loud majority.

In the end, that’s all there is to it. It takes more to motivate us because we want more out of life; not more quantity, but more quality. Not more noise, but a more pure note.  We want to be inspired and moved, and it just happens that mainstream culture and society rarely achieve this.