Monday, September 5, 2011

Temperaments And Personality Types, Part One - The Ancients

In the middle of the last century, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katherine Briggs dusted off a copy of Carl Jung's 1923 work Psychological Types and began developing a questionnaire based on it designed to "sort" people into one of sixteen possible personality types called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Neither the work of Mrs. Myers nor Carl Jung was particularly revolutionary, however. They stand at the near end of a long tradition of personality "sorting" that can be traced back to the beginning of Western Civilization. This post will be the first in a short series tracing the development of that tradition.

In his book Please Understand Me II, David Keirsey recounts the early history of "personology" thusly:
"It was the Roman physician Galen who, developing the ideas of Hippocrates, proposed (around 190 AD) that it is neither the stars nor the gods that determine what we want and what we do; rather, it is the balance of our bodily fluids, the four 'humors,' as they were called. If our blood predominates Galen called us 'Sanguine' or eagerly optimistic in temperament; if our black bile or gall predominates, then we are 'Melancholic' or doleful in temperament; if our yellow bile predominates, then we are 'Choleric' or passionate in temperament; and if our phlegm predominates, then we are 'Phlegmatic' or calm in temperament," (23).
An artist's unflattering rendition of the Four Temperaments.
Of course, we all know how the application of Galen's theory of Humorism worked out when applied medicinally. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the personological element has merit, technically unrelated to bodily fluids as it may be. If you think about it, it's probably pretty easy to sort everybody you know into one of Galen's four temperaments. Try replacing his terms with some more familiar ones: "Sanguine" with "cheerful," "Melancholic" with "broody," "Choleric" with "excitable," and "Phlegmatic" with "calm."
"Nearly six hundred years before Galen, Plato had written in The Republic of four kinds of character which clearly corresponded with the four temperaments attributed to Hippocrates. Plato was more interested in the individual's contribution to the social order than in underlying temperament, and so he named the Sanguine temperament the iconic (artisan) character, endowed with artistic sense, and playing an art-making role in society. He named the Melancholic temperament the pistic (guardian) character, endowed with common sense, and playing a caretaking role in society. He named the Choleric temperament the noetic (idealist) character, endowed with intuitive sensibility, and playing a moral role in society. And he named the Phlegmatic temperament the dianoetic (rational) character, endowed with reasoning ability, and laying the role of logical investigator in society," (Ibid.).
The Greek words Plato has used here to identify the driving forces behind Hippocrates' four temperaments can be translated as follows: icon = "image", pistis = "trust", noein = "insight", and dianoia = "reason". In other words, if you're Sanguine, you're driven by imagery (iconography) and will likely be drawn to the arts, crafts (such as carpentry or masonry), and creativity in general; if you're Melancholic, you're driven by honor, duty, and trust in others and society, and you'll likely be drawn to traditional leadership (guardian) roles; if you're Choleric, you're driven by intuition and insight and will likely be drawn to activities involving ethics, relationships, and establishing harmony; and if you're Phlegmatic, you're driven by cold and calm reason, and you'll likely be drawn to logical, mathematical fields.
"A generation [after Plato], Aristotle defined character in terms of happiness, and not, as his mentor Plato had done, in terms of virtue. Aristotle argued that there are four sources of happiness: 'The mass of men,' he said, find happiness either in 'sensual pleasure' (hedone) or in 'acquiring assets' (propraietari), while some few find happiness either in exercising their 'moral virtue' (ethikos) or in a life of 'logical investigation' (dialogike)," (Ibid.).
 Not surprisingly, the categories we have thus far established (humors, temperaments, drives, societal roles, sources of happiness) were eventually seen as corresponding to other groups of four like the seasons, the major organs, and the four elements. After a brief survey of the Classical temperaments, then, we end up with the following chart:


  1. Thanks for the insights and especially the Platonic typologies. Just busted out my Bollingens (XX:Jung and LXXXI:Plato).

  2. You know, many of those classic works series don't collect the best translations or contain the best commentary, but there's something imminently valuable in owning a set of books which gathers together the whole of Western thought into one, conveniently-organized system. Almost like the internet, actually. It's not there so you can read the whole thing cover-to-cover. It's there so you can look through it for something you need when you need it, an anthology of written Civilization.

    A lot of times the first thing people will say when they see someone's extensive library is, "Have you read all of these?" More often than not, the answer will be no. Our minds are far too small, our memories too feeble to be responsible for ingesting every piece of knowledge 3000 odd years of written history have produced. Books exist so we don't have to.

    They are like sacraments (sacramentals if you prefer), symbols which contain and effect that which they symbolize. They are sacraments of knowledge--the material manifestation and incarnation of the information contained therein. It's Manichaeism in disguise to suggest that they are only tools, only a means of obtaining the knowledge. They are a means of obtaining the knowledge, but they are not only that. They grant knowledge because they are knowledge, symbolically and sacramentally.


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