Temperament and the early Greeks and Romans—everyone had a theory!

Earnest theories about the origin of temperament differences sprouted early in Western culture.  (Eastern cultures also have interesting and rather different ideas, but that is another blog.)  Ancient Greek theorists, especially, favored an explanation based on what they called the four “humors”  These were black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm.  Phelgm being a  euphemism for mucus, and phelgmatic people being sluggish and apathetic, it seems possible that they got cause and effect backwards on that one.  Black bile led to sad, depressed mood and behavior, and you were said to be melancholic. The origin of black bile was something of a mystery both then and now, perhaps because melancholy itself seems mysterious to those who do not suffer it. Yellow bile (your liver at work) was more likely to produce irritability, anger and resentment as a way of life, and you were said to be choleric.    Blood (lots of it), finally, seemed to be the most desirable humor of the four, producing the sanguine temperament–lively, cheerful, and energetic.

These were seen to come in opposing pairs, with melancholic balancing sanguine and choleric balancing phlegmatic.  Just draw yourself a nice square cross with Phlegmatic and Choleric taking up the ends of the vertical line and Melancholic and Sanguine at the two ends of the horizontal line, and you have the idea.   In this view, the ideal temperament would be located somewhere near the center (the intersection of your two lines).  Thus the person at the midpoint between phlegmatic and choleric would be neither lethargic nor constantly irritable.  Presumably they would be capable of anger when it was needed, otherwise fairly calm and stable, but certainly not sluggish or lethargic.  Optimistic doers are likely to feel that the closer to sanguine the better, on the Sanguine, Melancholic line, but perhaps the truly Sanguine person was cheerfully reckless and with all that energy, impulsive and dangerously unreflective. 

As is always the case once a good theory gets started. other thinkers soon found interesting variables to add.  Some Greek and Roman thinkers added the idea that everyone also had a balance between bodily warmth and coolness, and dryness and moistness.  (No surprise phlegmatics were moisties).  These were seen as complementary to the humors, not in opposition.  Galen, a brilliant second century physician, drew on the  concepts of temperature and moisture, along with the humors, and boosted the four types to nine.  This is covered in nice detail in a book by a highly respected modern researcher in temperament and child development–Jerome Kagan and his 1994 book, Galen’s Prophecy.

Warmth/coolness and moistness/dryness soon led to concepts that long term external weather conditions would affect the expression of temperament.  Autumn was associated with greater melancholia (not too far from our concept of seasonal depression), Winter with being phlegmatic (those winter colds?) Spring with being more Sanguine (and there is that line about where a young man’s fancy turns in spring), and Summer with being more Choleric (dog days of August and all of that).  This may be one of the earliest environmental theories of the development of temperament.

So, what does all this tell the 21st century person pondering temperament.  Well, one point is certainly that it is easy to make some pretty wild guesses when you are trying to find good causes for your effects.  Phlegm and black bile would seem to be especially fine examples.  Another point though, is how much that which goes around comes around.  We don’t pay much credence to bile, blood or phlegm, but we do recognize short term effects of hormone imbalances for women in premenstrual mood changes and postpartum depression, and–in current television ads–we are constantly reminded that “low testosterone” may take the joy out of life–even make a man feel tired and downright phlegmatic!

Moving to other humors, we are tense and anxious for lack of proper serotonin function and take prozac and paxil to counteract this.  More serious disorders require medications to balance dopamine, norepinephrine, and again, serotonin.  Vigorous exercise may elevate endorphins, perhaps making us more Sanguine?

The real point though–however right or wrong our theories–is that we do take individual differences, and therefore temperament, very seriously.  TemperamentMatters.


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