The Four Temperaments

One of the oldest pseudo-psychological personality systems is called the Four Temperaments. Although the temperaments were originally connected to medicine, we now use them simply to understand ourselves and one another. It is a way of comparing and contrasting people’s motives and preconceptions about the world. Most important of all, it is a way for us to characterize our own excesses so that we can balance them.

The Four Temperaments

If life were an ocean…

There are pros and cons, positives and excesses, in each temperament. Each looks at life differently. If life were an ocean, each would choose a different sea craft, journey for different reasons, in search of a different happiness.


The choleric man would sail in a sloop of war. Quick, navigable, and defensible, it would have to be large enough to be crewed by his many devoted followers. He would seek exploration, happiness in experience of other lands. He would court danger, for he is not content to hear of great deeds; he must do them himself. He would not stay long in port, but must always go a’roving.


The sanguine man would be out in his yacht. He, too, would sail quickly, but look for pleasure and happiness, any place where he and his friends could have enjoyment. When he finds a good place, he shares word of it with everyone he meets, that they might enjoy the place together. Like the choleric, he will not stay put for long. Unlike the choleric, he searches for more friends and goodness rather than a name for himself.


I’m not sure the phlegmatic man would be in a boat. He would probably prefer the sea shore, where he can stand on solid ground and enjoy the beauties and stories of the ocean from a safe place. If he had to pilot his own boat, it would be a small, sturdy craft. He would drift along, avoiding storms and large waves. He searches for peace and stability in a world that seldom offers it. But he is also content and can find happiness anywhere he goes. Though he travels with only a few good friends, he is welcome aboard anyone’s boat, for he brings peace and comfort with him.


The boat of the melancholic man would be a one-man submarine. For he is not content with the surface of the ocean. He wants to know it, from its shallows to its depths. This drive sends him on great journeys, with little sunlight, little air, little contact with other men. Legends of him glide about the surface above him: “His sub sank long ago. He was transformed into a merman. Even if he returns, we shall not recognize him.” He smiles to hear this; the shallow parts of his humanity are a fair trade for the kinship he has gained with the great ocean.


The word “temperament” comes from the Latin word temperare, to mix. Most people are a mixture of two of the four temperaments, which is good. Mixtures can help to balance out excesses.

Any of the people described above are worthy of stories, probably stories of sadness, because their excesses would lead to destruction. We must see the world in its fullness and seek happiness everywhere. It can be found in danger or in peace, at the surface or in the depths. To acknowledge that is the first step towards finding happiness, no matter your temperament.


One thought on “The Four Temperaments

  1. Pingback: The Problem of Melancholy | A Grain of Salt

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