Saturday, October 28, 2006

What are the Temperaments?

“Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.”

(St. Theresa of Avila)

In my last post, I promised to start off my series on Catholic Psychology with a study of the Temperaments. The most important reason is this: Self-Knowledge is crucial for growth in the Christian life, as well as for basic, joyful Christian living. With this quote above from St. Theresa of Avila, we can see that the saints saw the importance of self-knowledge. Rather than being a product of narcissistic pop-psychology, self-knowledge – especially knowledge of our temperament - is crucial for understanding not only ourselves and others, but for growing closer to the Lord. Besides the witness of St. Theresa, we also have the witness of other spiritual behemoths such as St. Francis De Sales, Adolphe Tanquerey and Jordan Aumann, O.P. who have all given witness to the importance of understanding, and learning to deal with, one’s temperament.

I make this fuss in support of the temperaments because it is a topic that is ultimately psychological and I think many in conservative circles view psychology with suspicion. Psychology, like any other discipline, can be (and has been) abused. As destructive as some psychological principles have been to souls, I think the opposite is also true: The absence of sound, faith-informed self-knowledge and its accompanying psychological principles in a person’s life can lead to the very same self-destructive tendencies that bad psychology leads to. Human beings have an innate desire to understand things. No one can escape from themselves. Without self-knowledge informed by faith, a person is forced to suffer through an endless maze: He wonders why he is so prone to self-destructive tendencies even though he has sworn them off; he wonders why he is still so prone to sin, even after a regular habit of Confession and other spiritual exercises. In short, he wonders why his actions are so out of step with the faith he professes. He may have a lot of “head” knowledge, but he is blind to his own tendencies, insecurities and ways of reacting to life that are innate and, therefore, barely noticeable at times. Or, he knows what he is “supposed” to be doing, and how is he supposed to be living, but he doesn’t know “how” to do it. How many of us have ever questioned the fact that there may be something involved in all of this that we have never even considered; the fact that we each have underlying tendencies, tendencies given to us by God, that can either be our sanctification or downfall, regardless of how well we know our faith and regardless of how well we try to live it? The answer to this question lies in our temperament.

So what, exactly, are the temperaments? The authors of a newer book titled, “The Temperament God Gave You” (to whom I give credit to all that comes hereafter in this piece) give this definition coined by Aumann and Tanquerey:

“Within the Catholic Tradition, temperament is defined as the pattern of inclinations and reactions that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual.”

(“The Temperament God Gave You”, Bennett, 6)

For those who find this definition a little too clinical and precise, the authors bring it down to earth in this way:

"We are each born with a basic temperament, which is the sum of our natural preferences; it shapes our thoughts, ideas, impressions, and the way we tend to react to our environment and to other people. It is our predisposition to react in certain ways, hardwired in us. It is not learned or acquired through contact with our environment." (emphasis in original)

(Bennett, 5)

In short, temperament is what “comes naturally.” Some people are naturally the life of the party, while others are more reserved and slow to warm up; some are natural leaders, while others tend to be followers; some are naturally optimistic, while others tend to always expect the worst, and so on.

Hippocrates (c. 460-377 B.C.) was likely the first to develop an idea of basic personality types. He based his theory on the idea that certain personality types have an imbalance of fluids in their body. The names which follow (and their associated body fluid) are based on this theory, and are still the names used for describing the temperaments in Catholic based works on the subject. These personality types are the Choleric (yellow bile from the liver), the Sanguine (blood from the heart), the Melancholic (black bile from the kidneys) and the Phlegmatic (phlegm from the lungs).

For all that may be lacking scientifically from this theory, what has been proven over and over in the centuries of research on the subject is that each human being does indeed fall predominantly into one of these four personality types. Researchers, especially from the last two centuries, are not in exact agreement as to how many combinations can be made from these four types, but what is certain is that everyone identifies strongly with at least one of them.

An overview of each temperament’s predominant traits is listed as follows:

Choleric: Quick to react, intense reaction of a long duration; leader; initiator; logical; pragmatic, person of action, forthright; pushes plans through; doesn’t display emotions easily, except anger; not given to anxiety; impetuous; eager to express himself; loves debate; can be defensive and prideful; persevering; self-confident; self-reliant; not a follower; driven to achieve goals; private; inclined to retaliation; extraverted; take-charge; argumentative; abhors sentimentality; logical; goal-oriented; decisive; intense; quick-tempered; optimistic; interruptive; needs acknowledgement; wants to be right; a doer; headstrong; competitive; looks for the positive; impatient; productive; makes decisions based on principles/ideas.

Melancholic: Slow to react, with intense reaction growing over time and of long duration; thoughtful; spiritual; deep; poetic; introverted; overly cautious; perfectionist; thinker; critical; doesn’t prioritize well; tends to discouragement and self-pity; worries over possible misfortune; can be a hypochondriac; easily hurt; slow and sometimes indecisive; pessimistic; moody; goal-oriented; detached from environment; few friends; exclusive; likes to be alone; second guesses; introspective; holds grudges; abhors injustice; is motivated by problems; looks at the down side; idealistic; self-sacrificing; sensitive; makes decisions based on principles/ideas.

Sanguine: Quick to react; reactions of a short-duration; relationship-oriented; doesn’t hold grudges; life of the party; funny; loves to be with people; optimistic; likes groups; talkative; popular; docile; follower; seldom embarrassed; loves variety; attuned to environment; likes clothes; can be faddish; enjoys shopping and eating out; high energy; quick to forgive; welcomes change; frank; talkative; sociable; less interested in follow-through; can be superficial; cordial; makes friends easily; self-assured; carefree; eager; likes to talk in front of groups; enthusiastic; prone to vanity; artistic and creative; spontaneous; sometimes forgetful; process-oriented; restless; makes decisions based on relationships/feelings; needs help in persevering; social butterfly.

Phlegmatic: Slow to react; doesn’t react intensely; reactions of a short duration; quiet; diplomatic; peaceful; makes decisions based on relationships/feelings; sensitive to others; dependable; procedural; dispassionate; dry wit; follower; introverted; calm under pressure; dutiful; likes structure; requires motivating; hates conflict; enjoys peace and quiet; well-liked by most everyone; peacemaker; reserved; homebody; constant; polite; prefers routine; process-oriented; patient; tolerant; not easily provoked; but feelings can be easily hurt; well-behaved; respectful; would rather please others than do what he wants; orderly; can be sluggish or in-different; unmotivated; low-key.

(Bennett, 263-264)

Most likely you found nodding in agreement while reading at least one of these lists! Most people are a combination of two with one being predominant. Though we all can identify with maybe one or two traits from each list, most people would find themselves identifying with almost all traits on one (or at most two) on the above lists.

What the Temperaments are NOT

We’ve seen briefly what the basic definition of a temperament is. At this point let’s look at what they are not.

First and foremost, temperaments are not an excuse. For those of you read the above lists, breathed a sigh of relief and said to yourself, “well, that’s just the way I am” you’ve missed the point. Rather than being an excuse for unsavory behaviors, attitudes, etc., study of the temperaments is an exercise in self-knowledge and humility so that you will be better able to discern what disciplines you must acquire in life in order to bring yourself into balance.

Second, temperaments are not character or personality. Character and personality refer to what a person has become, not what a person is. Character and personality are formed by behaviors and habits based on the decisions one makes in life. In short, character and personality are formed, not innate as is the case with the temperaments. Character and personality are formed by how we use or abuse our temperament. This is where study of the temperaments is crucial. By understanding our natural tendencies we can learn to work with them in order to bring about the best character and personality possible, given our own peculiar make-up.


What is immediately noticeable about the study of the temperaments is that the temperaments are based around one over-arching theme: Patterns of Reaction. Some of us are quick to react and our reactions last a long time, others of us are slower to react and tend to let things go rather easily; some of us focus more on principles while others focus more on people. Temperaments, in a nutshell, are a list of the ways people naturally react to their environment. This is why their understanding is so important for not only growth in spirituality but for basic enjoyment of life. If one does not understand that he or she has an innate, God-given way that they react to life then they will be lost as to how they can bring themselves into balance. Life is hard enough, and if there is to be any enjoyment in it then study of one’s patterns of reactions when it comes to life is crucial in living the abundant life that has been promised to God’s children.

Growth in the spiritual life is also, in my opinion, only possible with an understanding of one’s temperament. Some people are tailor-made for some forms of spirituality and prayer, while others will get nothing out of them. Our spiritual/prayer life needs to be based on what works best for our temperament. Spirituality can be like medicine: one man’s cure is another man’s poison. Spiritual works that focus on the topics of Hell, Judgment etc. may cause a destructive downward spiral in a doleful, self-deprecating melancholic, but it may be the cure for a prideful, rule-bending Choleric. Silent retreats may be great for a reclusive phlegmatic but may drive a talkative sanguine into a complete rut. The Choleric needs to learn how to control his anger, the melancholic his moodiness and self-doubt, the Sanguine his lack of follow-through and superficiality and the Phlegmatic his tendency to be complacent and apathetic. The trick is to discover your temperament and from there gather information as to what you need to do in your secular and religious life in order to get you to the ultimate goal of heaven with as few needless disasters as possible. In my next post, I will begin looking at each individual temperament separately and give some ideas as to what works and doesn’t work for each of these temperaments. My first post will cover the Choleric temperament.

For more information on the temperaments see: “The Temperament God Gave You”, Art and Lorraine Bennett, Sophia Press, 2005. Another good treatment is given by Fr. Conrad Hock, “The Four Temperaments.” This pamphlet can usually be found online.