D. I.S. C.

 

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The four temperaments – aka the four humours/humors

The Four Temperaments, also known as the Four Humours, is arguably the oldest of all personality profiling systems, and it is fascinating that there are so many echoes of these ancient ideas found in modern psychology.

The Four Temperaments ideas can be traced back to the traditions of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations over 5,000 years ago, in which the health of the body was connected with the elements, fire, water, earth and air, which in turn were related to body organs, fluids, and treatments. Some of this thinking survives today in traditional Eastern ideas and medicine.

The ancient Greeks however first formalised and popularised the Four Temperaments methodologies around 2,500 years ago, and these ideas came to dominate Western thinking about human behaviour and medical treatment for over two-thousand years. Most of these concepts for understanding personality, behaviour, illness and treatment of illness amazingly persisted in the Western world until the mid-1800’s.

The Four Temperaments or Four Humours can be traced back reliably to Ancient Greek medicine and philosophy, notably in the work of Hippocrates (c.460-377/359BC – the ‘Father of Medicine’) and in Plato’s (428-348BC) ideas about character and personality.

In Greek medicine around 2,500 years ago it was believed that in order to maintain health, people needed an even balance of the four body fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These four body fluids were linked (in daft ways by modern standards) to certain organs and illnesses and also represented the Four Temperaments or Four Humours (of personality) as they later became known. As regards significant body fluids no doubt natural body waste products were discounted, since perfectly healthy people evacuate a good volume of them every day. Blood is an obvious choice for a fluid associated with problems – there’d have generally been quite a lot of it about when people were unwell thousands of years ago, especially if you’d been hit with a club or run over by a great big chariot. Phlegm is an obvious one too – colds and flu and chest infections tend to produce gallons of the stuff and I doubt the ancient Greeks had any better ideas of how to get rid of it than we do today. Yellow bile is less easy to understand although it’s generally thought have been the yellowish liquid secreted by the liver to aid digestion. In ancient times a bucketful of yellow bile would have been the natural upshot, so to speak, after a night on the local wine or taking a drink from the well that your next-door neighbour threw his dead cat into last week. Black bile is actually a bit of a mystery. Some say it was congealed blood, or more likely stomach bile with some blood in it. Students of the technicolour yawn might have observed that bile does indeed come in a variety of shades, depending on the ailment or what exactly you had to drink the night before. Probably the ancient Greeks noticed the same variation and thought it was two different biles. Whatever, these four were the vital fluids, and they each related strongly to what was understood at the time about people’s health and personality.

Imbalance between the ‘humours’ manifested in different behaviour and illnesses, and treatments were based on restoring balance between the humours and body fluids (which were at the time seen as the same thing. Hence such practices as blood-letting by cutting or with with leeches. Incidentally the traditional red and white striped poles – representing blood and bandages – can still occasionally be seen outside barber shops and are a fascinating reminder that these medical beliefs and practices didn’t finally die out until the late 1800’s.

Spiritually there are other very old four-part patterns and themes relating to the Four Temperaments within astrology, the planets, and people’s understanding of the world, for example: the ancient ‘elements’ – fire, water, earth and air; the twelve signs of the zodiac arranged in four sets corresponding to the elements and believed by many to define personality and destiny; the ancient ‘Four Qualities’ of (combinations of) hot or cold, and dry or moist/wet; and the four seasons, Spring, Summer Autumn, Winter. The organs of the body – liver, lungs, gall bladder and spleen – were also strongly connected with the Four Temperaments or Humours and medicinal theory.

Relating these ancient patterns to the modern interpretation of the Four Temperaments does not however produce scientifically robust correlations. They were thought relevant at one time, but in truth they are not, just as blood letting has now been discounted as a reliable medical treatment.

But while the causal link between body fluids and health and personality has not stood the test of time, the analysis of personality via the Four Temperaments seems to have done so, albeit tenuously in certain models.

The explanation below is chiefly concerned with the Four Temperaments as a personality model, not as a basis for understanding and treating illness.

early representations of the four temperaments as a personality model

Richard Montgomery (author of the excellent book People Patterns – A Modern Guide to the Four Temperaments) suggests that the origins of the Four Temperaments can be identified earlier than the ancient Greeks, namely in the Bible, c.590BC, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who refers (chapter 1, verse 10) to four faces of mankind, represented by four creatures which appeared from the mist:

“As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.” (from the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 1, verse 10)

Montgomery additionally attributes personality characteristics to each of the four faces, which he correlates to modern interpretations of the Four Temperaments and also to Hippocrates’ ideas, compared below.