The four classic temperaments and spirituality
Though many treatments of temperament by the great scholars were based on the relation between temperament and the religious (that is, monastic) life, the concept also infiltrated the understanding of those not of a scholarly bent. Chaucer's pilgrims, for example, make reference to the idea in their tales. No one would discount that temperament, which greatly influences one's perceptions and reactions, can vary extensively amongst individuals. However, contrary to some popular thought, recognition of this (again in a religious sense) is in no way a justification for faults or a sign of predisposition to virtue - therefore an excuse for those who have the first or have little inclination towards the latter!
It is only within the past few centuries that religious thought, sadly, has often declined into a combined sense of a Creator (who more or less set the universe in motion then left it on its own), and of a sense of morality based on social needs alone. Until then, this life was seen as a preparation for unity with God in eternity, and moral concepts based on pleasing God through following the precepts He had revealed. We must understand this idea to grasp that the practise of virtue and avoidance of sin had deeper dimensions than many would realise today. One's temperament, rather than being reduced to an indicator of one's potential for success in business or the likelihood of being popular, was to be considered in the light of predisposition to a certain approach. This knowledge would allow one to not only understand others (which has never been an easy task!), but to use one's natural strengths and weaknesses in order to grow in virtue and avoid pitfalls to union with God.
The concept of temperament, incidentally, has nothing to do with divination. It merely recognises basic differences that influence one's approach to life and spirituality. Our medieval friends believed that one's temperament was determined by the "humours" in one's system (bile, blood, and so forth), but, if this notion can be discounted, the basic premise of temperament and spirituality remains valid.
A dear friend of mine had an excellent way of expressing the differences between the temperaments that I shall quote here. The basic difference between each is the amount of time it takes one to react and the duration of the resultant reaction. The sanguine reaction will be quick but brief, the phlegmatic's long and brief, the choleric's quick and enduring, and the melancholic's lengthy and permanent. This simple definition has more relevance than appears at first glance.
The idea of the four temperaments existed for over a millennium before the Middle Ages. Though I do not know exactly how the ideas became a part of popular medieval thought, the scholars had reached a point, long in coming, where seeing the merit in the philosophy of pre-Christian Rome and Greece was no longer seen as at odds with Christianity. (In the earlier Christian period, the pagan writers were viewed as knowing no truth, since Truth was the One God, and their works were seen as intrinsically dangerous.)
It actually was Hippocrates who divided humanity into four basic temperaments, around the year 450 BC. Hippocrates saw the root of one's temperament as being derived from the humours dominant in the body: blood (sanguine), bile from the liver (choleric), phlegm (phlegmatic), and bile from the kidneys (melancholic). A corresponding view, popular amongst the ancient astrologers and philosophers, would class individuals according to the elements of the natural order: respectively, air, fire, water, and earth.
It was for the medieval period, when Christianity was predominant in the West rather than the infant faith of a persecuted minority, to connect Christian spirituality with the idea of temperament. This undoubtedly was not the reason that it was a part of popular thought - since most of our medieval friends were hardly of a philosophical bent, if indeed they knew how to read - but does, once again, illustrate how homely and simple adaptations of the theological and philosophical speculation of the day infiltrated the common man's perception.
I personally believe that the sanguine temperament is the most common. Today, they would be prized for their extroverted and seemingly "happy go lucky" approach, but their lack of depth can be a weakness in spirituality.
Interestingly, these apparent free spirits often are most obedient in practise, because fitting in as part of a group is most important to them. They need the approval and attention of others (in fact, a spotlight often will suit them just fine), and not only enjoy the company (and security) of a group setting but seem to derive their energy from such interaction. Their general amiability makes theirs perhaps the most attractive of temperaments, but, in serious situation, it can be enigmatic.
Those of sanguine temperament, obedient and adaptable though they will seem in, for example, religious life, do not base their behaviour (or their apparent conformity to rules) on deep concepts or high ideals. They will go along with the popular ideas, and can appear, to those of a more philosophical bent, as lacking integrity. Indeed, if what is presented as true or desirable in January is totally changed by March, the sanguine not only will parrot the latter views without regard for the apparent contradiction, but will be unlikely to realise such discrepancies exist.
The sanguine is not seeking truth - he is looking for acceptance, and that he is likely to find, because, even if he becomes involved with a cause or a controversial matter, he will bend with the group's tendencies. Spiritual growth, for the sanguine, will depend on strong support from sources other than himself. The sanguine saints invariably will have had supportive and wise direction, and often will have been involved with a group of some sort that sought high ideals.
At first glance, the sanguine appear to be the most friendly of people, and, indeed, they are the most at ease in social situations. Nonetheless, they remain blind to the effect their actions or decisions may have on others. Being peripheral in their relationships, they seldom are the ones who can offer strength and support to others - they are unreliable, not through callousness, but because of their lack of depth. It would be a sanguine sort who would be puzzled by how others could revolt at injustice - and their response well may be something like "but the rest of the village had to do it, too."
On the positive side, those of sanguine temperament can have a simple, childlike faith that will appeal to those they serve, where the profound approach of some others can cause uneasiness. They will have gratitude to God for whatever blessings they know. With guidance from others with deeper roots, they can develop greatly, keeping in mind that they, when left alone, can be "like the wind." If their desire for obedience sometimes is a cloak for an unwillingness to accept responsibility, it remains that such responsibility may not be best in the hands of those who cannot see the impact their decisions could have on those in their charge.
They are likely to be faithful to any state of life they embrace, and, whether in married life or the monastery, are likely to have a pleasant home atmosphere, and a delight in the simple things of life that can be very positive for others. If they lack the depth and drive that some other temperaments possess, they are nonetheless spared the tumult and pain that is its invariable companion.
The phlegmatic lack the sparkle of the sanguine, but are also quite adaptable - and will not be likely to "rock the boat", neither through the zeal of the choleric and melancholic, nor unwittingly as with the sanguine. Frequently (as in the case of the great theologian Aquinas, who is often thought to have been of this temperament), they can be extraordinary scholars. Those intellectually gifted have the unique ability to be something approaching purely cognitive. Neither passion nor the need for attention will cloud their judgement and speculation.
To refer, for a moment, to Thomas Aquinas, anyone who has read his Summa will know that he methodically examined many disputed points of theology, presenting theoretical objections, then arguing the opposite. The phlegmatic will have this direct and rather scientific approach, as did the Thomas who believed that the pursuit of any academic discipline would ultimately lead to contemplation. The very lack of passion inherent in the phlegmatic, which can appear to be indifference in relationships with others, will keep their intellectual vision from becoming clouded.
The phlegmatic have a degree of detachment that makes for great minds, but does not foster warm relationships. They will be unlikely to offend others, and equally unlikely to fall into the trap of judging, but will leave the others with a sense of indifference. Where the sanguine role is largely pastoral, with active involvement with others (even if in the confines of a monastery), the phlegmatic is the translator, writer, scientist - and, quite possibly, creator of illuminated manuscripts.
Those of phlegmatic temperament are likely to be stabilizing forces in any group situation. They will have a sense of duty and responsibility that will be a strong influence on their actions and decisions. Different though they are from the sanguine, they, too, need positive influences from the authority figures or groups with which they associate themselves. Where the sanguine is a conformist for the sake of acceptance, the equally obedient phlegmatic will be so from a sense of obligation and respect for tradition and the status quo. This can be a problem if the idea of custom, tradition, and so on is false, because they will not question those in authority (true or usurped).
If you will excuse a brief foray into the present, I wish to refer to a situation with which many will be able to identify. It is an apt illustration of how differences in temperament can cause problems in understanding. During the 1960s and beyond, many within the Catholic churches felt confused, abandoned, even betrayed when the clergy and religious with whom they were acquainted drastically changed their "lifestyles", and often promoted ways of approaching religious practise that seemed to totally contradict what they themselves had encouraged but a short time before. Without touching upon far more serious considerations, unrelated to this topic, we can see how much of the sense of betrayal came from temperamental differences.
Not only in the Middle Ages but for centuries beyond, it is a fair assumption that those encouraged to enter the priesthood or religious life would most often be of sanguine or phlegmatic temperament. (And not only because the sanguine temperament is probably most prevalent in the population.) With obedience generally seen as the essential core of religious life, it follows that those who are likely to conform, and not to threaten the stability of the group thinking, would have been the most likely candidates for such a life. If the group thinking changed, the sanguine would conform without seeing any contradiction (their own practise, in any case, was never based on deep convictions), and the phlegmatic, with the unemotional and detached approach, would be unlikely to be stirred to any conflict.
It would be for the melancholic and choleric temperaments to perceive a lack of integrity or betrayal. Their depth makes their religious ideals based on multi-dimensional, often lofty concepts - and it is for them to be constantly puzzled at the seeming lack of strength on the part of those of another sort.
Many of those venerated as the greatest saints were of either choleric or melancholic disposition. Not, of course, because those of any particular temperament are pre-disposed towards sanctity (such is not the human condition!), but because their depth and intensity made them more likely to have the militant (in the best sense) approach that makes for the founders, heroes, and zealots. Naturally, this proverbial two-edged sword also gives those with these temperaments the potential for a lengthy drop if they should fall!
The choleric's strength is zeal, his weakness anger. How he channels his great personal conviction and power will be key to his spiritual life. The choleric approach is never in half measure, and what he embraces as most important in his life can make him the greatest of saints or the most picturesque of sinners. (By contrast, if the sanguine and phlegmatic lack passion, their "falls" are likely to be small.)
The choleric well may be the leader of an army (religious Order, diocese, pontificate), and the ideals he champions will be based on a recognition of higher goals than some others can understand. Indeed, such excesses in religious practise as the Middle Ages had to offer, such as the burning of heretics, often showed choleric zeal. Those who championed such approaches would have seen heresy as what condemned a man to eternal fire - a crime greater, therefore, than depriving a man of any earthly good (even life in this world.) Without denying that others involved in such affairs had political goals at heart (this, again, characteristic of the powerful choleric), and certainly without condoning their actions, one can admit that the sincere inquisitor, whose mind was focused on eternity and who saw the threat of persecution as likely to prompt the sinner to repentance and to eliminate the teaching of falsehood that would lead many other than the preacher to the error that was a path to hell, would have seen his actions as just and charitable.
Then as now, the choleric are likely to be what we today would term "achievers." However, this does not apply only in the limited sense of "success" that is common in this century, because those in the Middle Ages had an awareness of God and their own eternal destinies that seldom enters the modern mind. The choleric whose focus is religious will base his actions on supporting divine revelation, virtue, the power of the Church, and the like, not merely on personal gain. (It is unfortunate that his prudence may not equal his dedication.) Those involved in the political or military arenas (and recall that, during the medieval period, these were equally Church concerns) will have concepts of "God and country" that are enduring and profound. Many a choleric has earned glory, but personal acclaim is never his sole concern.
Nor is the influence of the choleric confined to the battlefield and senate! I believe that Francis of Assisi, gentleman and pacifist, was clearly a choleric. No one sought glory less, in fact, he thought himself a worm. But his dedication was total, and, once he realised what the divine call was for his life and that of his friars, nothing could cause him to deviate from that goal. Thus, we must not view the choleric merely as the "general." The same saint who was capable of enormous tenderness, and who'd bathe the wounds of the poor leper, was inclined towards tart reproaches to anyone who compromised the friars' form of life or the truths of the faith.
If a choleric "goes astray", it will be from bitterness and anger, though his principles generally remain unshaken. He is apt to lose patience with those who lack his depth, and to judge as "lukewarm" the adaptable (and often peripheral) possessors of other temperamental inclinations. Whatever he is and believes is totally genuine, however it may be distorted by misplaced zeal at times. His bitterness would be born of seeing manoeuvring and manipulation that, as it were, answers to no higher authority.
Trust in divine providence is critical for the choleric - and, as with the melancholic, difficult to develop. He also can find that he is as likely to intimidate others as he is to inspire them. The choleric's puzzlement at others' lack of depth can grow to disgust, and, too often, he who is most likely to champion the causes from which others will benefit can find himself quite alone.
I once heard the melancholic described as the temperament that longs for heaven so that life on this earth always will be a disappointment, and I believe that tag is apt. The depth and dedication of the melancholic will meet or exceed that of the choleric, but his natural caution and slowness to embrace new courses of action can leave him with a sense of having no way to channel his profound ideals.
The melancholic will base his action on concepts often so lofty that those of other temperaments will be beyond comprehending the motivation. His relationship with God will have the intensity and devotion of a love affair, but his reactions themselves, not only his ideals, will be of such duration that he will lack resilience when his extremely deep feelings meet with great resistance. The idealism of the melancholic, so centred in an awareness of divine power, makes him the likely target for the devious. However great his intelligence, the melancholic can be prey because if, for example, he encounters deceit when he himself is focused on truth and honesty, it will not occur to him that others do not have similar ideals.
Our melancholic friends who walk the spiritual path will have a recognition of love for God and neighbour that will be equally enlightening and frustrating. It is likely to be based on a strong idea of divine perfection - and a difficulty in accepting that no human efforts (however assisted by divine grace) can match that standard.
The melancholic who is devout will be inclined to seek a high degree of virtue, because union with God will be an overwhelming focus, and it will indeed be God alone that he seeks to please. Even his frequent devotion to the service of others will be focused on ultimately pleasing the God towards whom his devotion is passionate. But those he serves will have an ability to hurt him to a degree perhaps surpassing those other temperamental types will experience.
The melancholic will not understand an approach to human interaction that is either peripheral or expedient. He will naturally assume that all human behaviour is based on his own consideration of lofty concepts. It may take years for a melancholic to develop any sort of closeness with those he meets, but, that done, he will be your most devoted friend or your worst enemy, and either will be "forever." Once harmed personally, exposed to grave injustice, or even seeing that, for example, those in authority have personal gain rather than the welfare of those they rule as their goals, his disillusionment will be strong and usually unshaken.
Contrary to what may appear at first glance, the melancholic actually has little use for rules, because he will see, soon enough, that they have little basis in concern for others in many cases. The structure he may have in his own life is as a means to a greater end that he perceives. The melancholic who founded a religious Order, for example, may well have composed a lengthy and detailed Rule of Life, that those whose focus is "pure and simple" obedience may fail to grasp is based on his concern that certain practises will be essential for the higher goal of spiritual growth.
Our profound choleric and melancholic friends, much as their temperaments may be respectively fire and ice, are likely to "leave their mark" to quite an extraordinary extent when presented with the opportunity. But if the choleric can find his downfall in anger, the melancholic's Achilles heel is despair.
The melancholic is hardly out of touch with reality, to borrow an all too commonly used term today. Rather, he is "so with it that he's beyond it." His reality is a blend of that of the world and, if you will, that of heaven. He knows that the union for which he longs cannot be fully attained in this life. Thus, this temperament can both inflame the mystic and, if trust and prudence are not developed with God's help, reduce the idealist to ash.
The greatest error, today, is to believe that those of one temperament should seek to develop the characteristics of another. The true challenge is to accept the beauty of one's own nature, and rely on divine providence to assist one in emphasizing one's unique inclinations towards virtue and keep one from the dangers towards which one's weaknesses would make one inclined. Divine power (and generosity) is boundless - and our free will (Skinner aside!) can respond if we have but the humility (truth) to ask for His assistance.
...And, of course, if the awareness of temperament keeps those of one temperament from total irritation with those of another, that, too, has its uses!