Knowing your temperament is very helpful to the spiritual life. It also assists you in understanding yourself and understanding and getting along with others.
But what is a temperament?
There are four temperaments – choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. The idea of four temperaments may have begun with Hippocrates. He believed that people behaved in certain ways because there was an imbalance of bodily fluids. This is where the names of the temperaments come from. Hippocrates believed that if a person had too much yellow bile from the liver he was a choleric. Too much blood from the heart indicated a sanguine, and a melancholic had too much black bile from the kidneys. A phlegmatic had too much phlegm from the lungs. This theory, however, is rather unlikely.
Throughout the ages, though, people made variations on Hippocrates’ idea of all people being divided into four main personalities (even though personality is a different thing from temperament). The four temperaments are indeed a predominately Catholic idea.
Now let’s take a look at each of the four temperaments.
Choleric- Cholerics react very quickly to situations, and the reaction is of a very long duration. They tend to have a very strong will. They usually have a problem with controlling their anger. They are the “my way or the highway” type, and are sure their ideas are the best and woe to anyone who disagrees! They make good leaders because they’re strong-willed and logical, and like to take charge. This wish to always be in charge can lead to dire consequences, however! They are headstrong and impatient, and are not always careful of other peoples’ feelings. They can be overly critical of others, and tend to blame others rather than themselves. They enjoy arguing and are inclined to retaliation. They have a very strong pride, and feel that they would prefer to die rather then humble themselves.
On their good side, however, cholerics are very dedicated and determined. They will dauntlessly go through all sorts of difficulties to attain their goal. They tend to be optimistic. They are good workers and thrive on activity. They are very enthusiastic and independent. They are very frank and direct, which is not always good, as they frequently display a lack of prudence! They set high goals and standards for themselves. They are very decisive. They have a very keen mind and are often very intelligent. The virtues the choleric needs to increase in particular are compassion and humility. They are extroverted (I will explain this later).
Saint with this temperament: St. Paul
Melancholic- Melancholics are very slow to react to a situation, but their reaction grows and becomes very strong and long lasting over time. They tend to be perfectionists, and spend a lot of time carefully considering every little detail of plans. They have a very pessimistic outlook on life and are very sensitive and easily hurt, but tend to keep their feelings to themselves (unlike a choleric). They can be very moody, and like to be alone. They are more of thinkers than doers. They can be very indecisive, and are prone to being self-pitying and are easily discouraged. They make friends slowly and don’t always really want any. They have a tendency to hold grudges, as do cholerics.
Some strengths of the melancholic temperament are that they are attracted to beauty, nobility, and all ideals even more than any other temperament. They long for perfection. They have a natural love of prayer and meditation. They have a very strong will, but they can be so cautious that it seems as if they have no courage. Some things that would be useful for the melancholic person to increase are their self-confidence, optimisim, and nfeeling of self-worth. Melancholics are introverted (this will be explained later).
Saint with this temperament: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Sanguine- The sanguine is a fun-loving, cheerful person with a very eager, unembarrassed, and carefree manner. They have quick reactions to situations, but the reactions are of short duration. They make friends easily, but seem to prefer to have lots of friends over a few close ones. Friends and relationships are important, and sanguines want to please everyone. They lack follow-through and are very impulsive. They are very attuned to their senses and notice and enjoy clothes and details. However, if they are not careful, they are prone to becoming very materialistic. They may be rash or imprudent, but this is most often not entirely willfully. They can be superficial, and tend to talk without thinking and hurt people, somewhat like cholerics. However, it’s easier for the sanguine to apologize, because they just want to be loved.
Some of the good traits of the sanguine temperament are their generous and forgiving nature. Sanguines are very co-operative and accepting and work well in groups. They are very friendly and outgoing. They enjoy change, new things, and people. They love having friends and being with people, and are often the “life of the party” because they enjoy being the center of attention.They have a strong sense of humor and enjoy teasing people. They are very optimistic and look at everything from the bright side. They are very energetic and self-sacrificing, and will do anything for someone they love. Sanguines should try to be less superficial and acquire more follow-through, and to develop the energetic, caring part of their nature. The sanguine is an extroverted temperament.
Saint with this temperament: St. Peter
Phlegmatic- Phlegmatics are quiet people who react slowly and with a low intensity. They don’t get angry easily, but their feelings are easily hurt. However, they usually don't say anything to retaliate because they would rather do what others want than their own desires. They have a tendency towards being lazy and indifferent to everything. They are very accepting of rules and tradition, even if it doesn’t make sense or is unjust. Even though they often try to avoid things like people and mental or manual exertion, they think relationships are important.
Good things about phlegmatics is that they tend to be very peaceful and hate strife and arguing. They are very patient and can control their feelings very well, and tend to be well liked. They are very calm, low-key, and easy-going. They have a large store of common sense. They have a special gift of being good mediators, as they want to preserve peace almost at any cost. Phlegmatics should try to become less dispassionate and uninterested. They are introverted.
Saint with this temperament: St. Thomas Aquinas
Introverted: This means the person is less sociable, is more comfortable with his thoughts and emotions than material things, reserved, and more distant.
Extraverted: This means the person is very comfortable in a sociable environment, is comfortable with people and events, is livelier, and more enthusiastic.
But how can you discover your temperament? The two books I mention at the end of the article both have very thorough tests you can give yourself. I personally prefer the test in the latter book. Even though you may be pretty sure you can tell what your temperament is from this article, it is a good idea to take the test. You may be surprised!
When taking the test, you need to remember to put down the traits you naturally posses, not the ones you want! This is difficult but doable. Pray to the Holy Ghost to help you.
Every person has a temperament. However, as we are all completely different, we usually have traits from more than just one temperament. One temperament usually predominates, and this is called the primary temperament. Another temperament we may have many traits from, but not as many as the primary. This is the secondary temperament. For example, I am a melancholic-sanguine. This means my primary temperament is melancholic, but I also have many sanguine traits. We usually have a few other traits from different temperaments as well. However, the primary and secondary are the most important to focus on.
But why should you “know thyself”? This is an important thing because you need to know what sins you are most inclined to. I’ll use myself as an example. As I am a melancholic-sanguine one of my worst faults is saying too much too frankly and out of turn. Before I knew my temperament, I was not nearly as aware of this fact. But now that I know my temperament, I also have a better understanding of my weaknesses. I know that I must be on my guard for talking too much, being too proud and argumentative, being materialistic and self-centered, and all the other faults that come with my temperaments.
You also should know your temperament because of the positive things. It will help you know your capabilities. If you think you’re “no good” because you aren’t as good of a leader as one of your friends, you are good in a different way. Perhaps you can restore peace between people, or simply listen to them. The temperaments help us understand that God created us all in a very different and special way for His use. If you know your temperament you have a valuable key that will help you know what is wanted of you on earth. You will understand yourself, and see that God made you in this way for His Own purposes. You will understand why you have inclinations to do certain things. If they are bad, you can weed them out. If they are good, you can cultivate them. But you will see all your faults and good points so much more clearly if you know yourself.
If you understand the temperaments, you can also understand other people much better. We will know what not to say to a sensitive melancholic, that we can’t step all over the peaceful phlegmatic, that the choleric is prone to anger, that the sanguine often says all those hurtful things in jest. If we have an understanding of the way others view the world, we will not be so inclined to do some things that would be hurtful to them. We can also understand more when they hurt us. If they need help in any way we will know better how to give it. We can help each other to Heaven so much better if we truly understand each other.
I think the temperaments are an important and often neglected part of the spiritual life. If you found this article interesting, you may want to read more on the four temperaments. There are many books on it, but I have read two that I can recommend. One is a booklet entitled The Four Temperaments, by Father Conrad Hock. It can be obtained from the Pallotine Fathers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The other is a book called The Temperament God Gave You, by Art and Larraine Bennet. It is also written by Catholics from an entirely Catholic point of view. It can be obtained from the Leaflet Missal Company. Both are very good, informative books.
I hope this article gave you some help in “knowing thyself”. St. Teresa of Avila once said, “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.” In the preparation for the St. Louis de Montfort consecration to Our Lady, one of the weeks is devoted to knowledge of self. In his book, The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis reminds us of the importance of this. All through the ages the saints have repeated this – to know God you must know yourself!
True knowledge of self will never lead to pride. Instead, it will lead to humility. We will know our infirmities and, seeing our weakness and imperfections, know that we must fly to God and that only He can give us the necessary strength. If we do not know ourselves we will have a difficult time seeing that we truly need the help of God in our lives. Without Him we are nothing and can do nothing.