Posted by David Harper on March 16 at 1:00 AM


Approximately four hundred years before the birth of Our Lord, Hippocrates noticed that blood removed from the body separated into four fluids. He held that human beings consisted of a soul and a body and that illness resulted from an imbalance of these bodily fluids (humours). Being composed of a soul and body, an imbalance in the body would naturally affect the soul, and thus our behaviour. The humours were each related to a major organ.

The Greek physician Galen produced a commentary on the four temperaments, and on physiological reasons for different behaviours in humans. He held that differences in personalities were related to an individual's predominant humour. Thus, the sanguine temperament was eager and optimistic, the melancholic was doleful, the choleric was passionate, and the phlegmatic was calm.

After more than two thousand years of study, the four temperaments have remained virtually unchanged, and are still used today for understanding ourselves and others around us. In fact, even the sixteen types found in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) have been shown by David Keirsey to boil down to the four basic temperaments.

What is a Temperament?

A temperament is the pattern of inclinations that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual. It is a dynamic factor that takes into account the way that the individual will react to stimuli of various kinds. It is innate, hereditary, permanent, and admits of only secondary modification.

It is a fundamental disposition of the soul, which manifests itself whenever an impression is made upon the mind by thinking about something or by representation through the imagination, or by external stimuli. The reaction of various persons to the same experience is different; it may be quick and lasting, or slow but lasting; or it may be quick but of short duration, or slow and of short duration. Do I react immediately and vehemently, or slowly and superficially, to a strong impression made upon me? Does it last for a long time or only for a short while? Am I inclined to act at once or to remain calm and to wait? Our temperament also determines whether we are naturally an extrovert or introvert, active or passive, outspoken or reserved.

The four temperaments, named after the four humours, are the sanguine, melancholic, choleric and phlegmatic. All four temperaments are natural tendencies with the potential for good or evil. Like all passions or emotions, the temperaments demand self-mastery and self-possession. Individual persons generally manifest a combination of the characteristics of several temperaments, but there is usually a single predominant temperament. In general, a person is happier if his temperament is not a pure one. The combination smoothes the rough edges of the main temperament.

It is important to remember that it is different from character, which is the pattern of habits that are the result of education, personal effort and environmental factors. Temperament is the basis; character is the end result. And while the temperament as such is immutable, it can be modified by character. Temperament is the material out of which character is made, much in the same way as the clay, marble or wood is the material out of which a particular statue is fashioned. It is the character that gives the formal distinction to the personality.

Benefits of Understanding Temperaments

If one knows one's own temperament, he can work out his own perfection with greater assurance, because the whole effort toward self-perfection consists in the perfection of the good and in the combating of the evil dispositions.

The person who knows himself will become more humble, realising that many good traits which he considered to be virtues are merely good dispositions and the natural result of his temperament, rather than acquired virtues.

Hence, the choleric will judge more humbly of his strong will, his energy, and his fearlessness; the sanguine of his cheerfulness, of his facility to get along well with difficult persons; the melancholic will judge more humbly about his sympathy for others, about his love for solitude and prayer; the phlegmatic about his good nature and his repose of mind.

Knowledge of the temperaments aids us in understanding both ourselves and others. As per the scholastic axiom, 'By knowing others, one knows oneself.' We learn to treat people more correctly, and bear with them more patiently. Knowing that their defects are the consequence of their temperament, we excuse them more readily and will not so easily be excited or angered by them. This knowledge leads to prudence.

Without a knowledge of the temperaments of our fellow men we will treat them often wrongly, to their and to our own disadvantage. Knowledge of the temperaments is beneficial for healthy functioning teams, families and communities.

The Choleric Temperament

The choleric person is quickly and vehemently excited by any impression made; he tends to react immediately, and the impression lasts a long time and easily induces new excitement.

The choleric is gifted with an energetic mind and an indomitable will. He is ambitious, magnanimous, idealistic, energetic, enthusiastic, passionate, focused and driven. His characteristic is pride.

Pedagogically, cholerics can be best reached through mutual respect and appropriate challenges that recognise their capacities.

Cholerics are passionate, extroverted, and prefer to lead.


  • Is self-composed; seldom shows embarrassment, is forward or bold.
  • Eager to express himself before a group if he has some purpose in view.
  • Insistent upon the acceptance of his ideas or plans; argumentative and persuasive.
  • Impetuous and impulsive; plunges into situations where forethought would have deterred him.
  • Self-confident and self-reliant; tends to take success for granted.
  • Strong initiative; tends to elation of spirit; seldom gloomy or moody; prefers to lead.
  • Very sensitive and easily hurt; reacts strongly to praise or blame.
  • Not given to worry or anxiety. Seclusive.
  • Quick and decisive in movement; pronounced or excessive energy output.
  • Marked tendency to persevere; does not abandon something readily regardless of success.
  • Emotions not freely or spontaneously expressed, except anger.
  • Makes best appearance possible; perhaps conceited; may use hypocrisy, deceit, disguise.

The Melancholic Temperament

The melancholic person is but feebly excited by whatever acts upon him. The reaction is weak, but this feeble impression remains for a long time and by subsequent similar impressions grows stronger and at last excites the mind so vehemently that it is difficult to eradicate it.

A melancholic person is made suspicious and reticent by a rude word or an unfriendly mien; by continuous kind treatment, on the contrary, he is made pliable, trusting and affectionate. He is reflective by nature, and easily prone to sorrow, worry and self-criticism.

Melancholics have little capacity to love themselves and are extremely sensitive.

Pedagogically, they can be best met by awakening their sympathy for others and the suffering of the world.

Melancholics are introverted, passionate, and prefer to lead.


  • Is self-conscious, easily embarrassed, timid, bashful.
  • Avoids talking before a group; when obliged to he finds it difficult.
  • Prefers to work and play alone. Good in details; careful.
  • Deliberative; slow in making decisions; perhaps overcautious even in minor matters.
  • Lacking in self-confidence and initiative; compliant and yielding.
  • Tends towards detachment from environment; reserved and distant except to intimate friends.
  • Tends towards depression; frequently moody or gloomy; very sensitive; easily hurt.
  • Does not form acquaintances readily; prefers narrow range of friends; tends to exclude others.
  • Worries over possible misfortune; crosses bridges before coming to them.
  • Secretive; seclusive; shut in; not inclined to speak unless spoken to.
  • Slow in movement; deliberative or perhaps indecisive; moods frequent and constant.
  • Often represents himself at a disadvantage; modest and unassuming.

The Sanguine Temperament

A person of sanguine temperament reacts quickly and strongly to almost any stimulation or impression, but the reaction is usually of short duration. The stimulation or impression is quickly forgotten, and the remembrance of past experiences does not easily arouse a new response. He may flare up in anger or resentment, but it passes quickly. There is no obstinacy and stubbornness.

The sanguine does not like to enter into himself, is not given to reflection, but directs his attention to the external. He is typically optimistic, cheerful, confident, energetic, outgoing, charismatic, carefree, friendly, accepting, impulsive, unpredictable, talkative, sensual and fun-loving. His characteristic is thoughtlessness.

Pedagogically, they can be best reached through awakening their love for a subject and admiration of people.

Sanguines are extroverted, passionless, and prefer to be led.


  • Is self-composed, seldom shows signs of embarrassment, perhaps forward or bold.
  • Eager to express himself before a group; likes to be heard.
  • Prefers group activities; work or play; not easily satisfied with individual projects.
  • Not insistent upon acceptance of his ideas or plans; agrees readily with others’ wishes; compliant and yielding.
  • Good in details; prefers activities requiring pep and energy.
  • Impetuous and impulsive; his decisions are often (usually) wrong.
  • Keenly alive to environment, physical and social; likes curiosity.
  • Tends to take success for granted. Is a follower; lacks initiative.
  • Hearty and cordial, even to strangers; forms acquaintanceship easily.
  • Tends to elation of spirit; not given to worry and anxiety; is carefree.
  • Seeks wide and broad range of friendships; is not selective; not exclusive in games.
  • Quick and decisive in movements; pronounced or excessive energy output.
  • Turns from one activity to another in rapid succession; little perseverance.
  • Makes adjustments easily; welcomes changes; makes the best appearance possible.
  • Frank, talkable, sociable, emotions readily expressed; does not stand on ceremony.
  • Frequent fluctuations of mood; tends to frequent alterations of elation and depression.

The Phlegmatic Temperament

The phlegmatic is rarely aroused emotionally and, if so, only weakly. The impressions received usually last for only a short time and leave no trace.

The phlegmatic person has a great deal of common sense and mental balance. However, he has very little interest in what is going on around him. He has little inclination to work, preferring repose and leisure. With him, everything proceeds and develops slowly. He is a rationalist, calm and reserved.

Pedagogically, their interest is often awakened by experiencing others' interest in a subject.

Phlegmatics are introverted, passionless, and although they comfortable with leading, prefer to be led.


  • Deliberative; slow in making decisions; perhaps overcautious in minor matters.
  • Indifferent to external affairs.
  • Reserved and distant.
  • Slow in movement.
  • Marked tendency to persevere.
  • Constancy of mood.


The study of the temperaments is the beginning of self knowledge and an indispensable guide in understanding others.

For more information, see the temperaments page here.