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THE “FOUR TEMPERAMENTS”


Introduction

The Four Temperaments personality system is designed to help describe a person’s mentality toward problems, other individuals, and the general day-to-day of life in broad terms. None of these temperaments are meant to determine every detail of a person, like their favorite color or time of year, rather, it describes their general attitude. Think of it in terms of how defining someone as he, she, or they communicates useful information without reducing the person’s individuality.

These four temperaments are combined into twelve pairs known as ‘blends’. Every person has at least one ‘blend’ that describes their demeanor most of the time. This is a trait that is constant throughout life – not a changing attitude or mood. In the end, temperaments do not change with circumstance. Instead, they dictate how we react to different scenarios.

A bit of history…

The Four Temperaments began in ancient Greece, known roughly 2500 years ago as the ‘four humors’. Created by Hippocrates, this system was created to help spot a specific type of illness in patients. If the name Hippocrates sounds familiar, it’s probably because each physician is required to take the “Hippocratic oath” – an oath that ensures proper conduct and an understanding of their obligations.

At that time, they believed a person’s personality to be a result of the balance of phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile within the body. In turn, the four temperaments were on the receiving end of some ancient, barbarian names. Today, we are fortunately aware that this is not true. However, while Hippocrates and his associates were wrong about their cause, many of their personality observations still ring true today.

If you think about it, it’s similar to how ancient Egyptians thought the sun rose due to a giant invisible dung beetle rolling it into the sky. While they were wrong about the beetle, they weren’t wrong about the sun rising. So, thanks to their knowledge of the effect, they were able to craft sundials and calendars, making their knowledge valuable nonetheless.

What is temperament?

Temperaments are used as a method for classifying a person’s emotional attitude–the true foundation of a person’s personality. These classifications are vague and do not attempt to specify every single detail of an individual’s personality. You can think of them like the words ‘mammal’ or ‘insect’, not ‘human’ or ‘spider’.

Keep in mind that the words personality and temperament are not one and the same. Rather, temperaments only describe small facets of one’s complete personality. While two individuals might have the same temperaments, they could be unique in all other aspects. For example, many fiction works feature a hero and villain with identical temperaments who are otherwise entirely dissimilar.

Once you’re familiar with the patterns, it is easy to spot temperaments. In the end, you won’t have to know someone for more than five minutes to gain insight into their temperament. So, while you might be able to tell whether someone is male or female at first glance, this will only give you a slight idea about their personality rather than exposing every detail.

While two women may be classed together, they will differ in all other details. On that same token, two people with the same temperaments will also be set apart according to the intensity of their temperamental traits. People have access to a vast array of emotions, ranging from anger and happiness to sadness and so forth. Sometimes we wish to be around others and sometimes we like to be alone. Temperaments depend on the balance of these emotions.

For instance, cholerics are quicker to anger than other temperaments. But while we all get angry at times, being angry does not mean you are choleric. If, however, you find that you are mad easily and often, that might be a sign that you are choleric.

Blends

While there are only four temperaments, there are many different blends consisting of a primary and secondary temperament. Some examples include melancholic phlegmatic or choleric sanguine. Keep in mind that the order is important as melancholic phlegmatic is noticeably different from phlegmatic melancholic.

The primary temperament encompasses the most dominant part of someone’s personality. The secondary temperament serves to help flesh it out in more detail. The reason they’re referred to as blends and not pairs is that a melancholic choleric doesn’t have a melancholic half and a choleric half. To be more specific, while purple light is comprised of red and blue, it doesn’t have a red half and a blue half. Instead, the colors are blended distinctly so neither red nor blue are isolated.

They stay the same

Temperaments are permanent; they are not a passing mood or phase. In fact, they serve as the building blocks of our emotional nature. They stay constant in life (unless brain damage occurs), all the way from birth to death, even as other aspects of your personality might change. Again, temperaments are merely facets of a personality.

Think of it like how in adulthood you might build muscle, start jogging, curl your hair every day, and so forth, but your skeleton does not change one bit. You won’t grow taller nor will your eyes change color. Similarly, while our views, beliefs, and tastes will change, we are always bound to a fundamental temperament that ultimately impacts how these aspects change.

For instance, if a choleric person is abused, they might grow more aggressive towards others in a subconscious effort to express their anger and the dominance they can’t have over their abuser. Alternatively, a phlegmatic individual in this situation might self-destruct or become catatonic. Similar stimuli affect people differently according to their temperaments, which are determined by nature, not nurture.

There’s Still Room for Mystery


While a person’s temperament might hint at their interests or behavior, it is impossible to use their temperament as a definite predictor of anything. However, they may be used to help understand why someone took a specific action. For example, a phlegmatic person who is being teased may choose to withdraw and cry due to their shy and sensitive nature. On the other hand, cholerics may choose to fight as a result of their bold and domineering personalities.

Not mutually exclusive!

Rather than being seen as lists of parts, temperaments should be viewed as ‘wholes’. While they can be described using various traits, they aren’t determined by these traits. To view the bigger picture when defining a person’s temperament, you must connect the dots. You’ll likely discover the person has traits from each temperament, however, only the broad description fits. For example, while all grass is green, not everything that’s green is grass.

There is no such thing as a ‘melancholic trait’; you can describe a melancholic temperament using a list of traits, but someone isn’t ‘part melancholic’ because they possess a melancholic trait. So, let’s say you’re describing an animal using this list of traits: pointy ears, four long legs, a long face, and a mane on its neck. Combining these traits would produce something like a horse while taking one trait in isolation doesn’t work. Foxes have pointy ears but aren’t horses nor are they part horses. Similarly, losing an ear doesn’t change the horse into something else. Because lacking a common temperament trait doesn’t mean you don’t fit that temperament as you may fit the whole picture.

One of the most common objections to the theory of temperaments goes as follows:

“People are far too complex to be described using such simple labels.”

“That fox has pointed ears, so it’s part horse… Oh, it also has paws, so it must be part cat! It’s part of every animal and can’t be defined using a single label.”

Why use temperaments?

As you can see, some oppose and refuse this personality system as they feel as though it cheapens individuality. They believe that people are too special to be categorized in such a way. Having a slight understanding of the various personality types can prove useful in your interactions with others. Additionally, you’ll learn more about yourself and how others see you.

Different temperaments respond to situations in different ways. Understanding how to interact with other people in a way that they can be receptive is vital to getting along and pleasing them. For instance, cholerics expect to prove themselves through challenge and they challenge others as a result. Others will respond well, forming friendships as two choleric people have come to respect one another.

On the other hand, phlegmatics respond negatively when challenged because they don’t care to prove themselves. Instead, they like to keep things nice, gentle, friendly, and non-threatening. If a choleric were to approach a phlegmatic in the manner in which they’d like to be approached, the phlegmatic may get upset and scared by their challenging nature. But if he approaches them on their terms, they’re likely to respond positively.

Diving in deeper, a choleric sanguine might say to a melancholic phlegmatic:

“Relax. Get over it. Get thicker skin and stop complaining.”

Who might reply:

“I wish you’d stop being so aggressive and care about the feelings of others.”

Neither person is wrong here, they are simply viewing the world from totally different perspectives where each one believes that their way is better. Understanding that we are all different allows us to easily tolerate the different attitudes of others.

But aren’t people too unique to be described with such narrow labels?

That’s essentially the same as saying all music is unique and can’t be broken down into genres. But are all pieces of rock music the same? No, they’re not, however, they have enough traits in common to be classified under the same label. This makes things easy as it tells you enough about the music without letting you in on even one note before you hear it. You wouldn’t mistake a piece of jazz music for rock. Alternatively, you can think of animal classification. While dogs and bears are both mammals, they are not identical even though they share traits.

So, the answer is no. It’s entirely possible for a person to be classified under a label without losing their individuality. We are all unique and temperaments are not meant to undermine this fact. Two people with the same temperaments likely won’t be similar at all due to their vastly different upbringings and life experiences. Instead, temperaments attempt to provide convenient labels to one facet of someone’s personality, never defining them as a whole. Think of them as a way to convey complex concepts in a concise manner.

Aren’t there FIVE temperaments?

Depending on the model of the temperament, some add a fifth temperament to the mix. Known as ‘supine’, this temperament becomes the name for the phlegmatic described above, with phlegmatic going to a different, more moderate temperament that is similar to the phlegmatic/choleric or choleric/phlegmatic. When it comes to blends, it is our belief that five temperaments are unnecessary.

 

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