Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Four Temperaments

The  following is the introductory chapter to the book The Four Temperaments by Fr. Conrad Hock. This is a jewel of a book, which I highly recommend if you want to gain a better and deeper knowledge of yourself. This book will be a great practical help in the spiritual life, and in your general psychological problems in general. For those of you who may be wondering, my own personal temperament is the melancholic, which Fr. Hock will briefly address in the following passage. Eventually, I hope to put up some more posts which more specifically address the temperaments, particularly my own temperament, the melancholic.

Socrates, one of the most renowned of the Greek sages, used and taught as an axiom to his hearers: “Know yourself.”

One of the most reliable means of learning to know oneself is the study of the temperaments. For if a man is fully cognizant of his temperament, he can learn easily to direct and control himself. If he is able to discern the temperament of others, he can better understand and help them.

If we consider the reaction of various persons to the same experience, we will find that it is different in every one of them; it may be quick and lasting, or slow but lasting; or it may be quick but of short duration, or slow and of short duration. This manner of reaction, or the different degrees of excitability, is what we call “temperament.” There are four temperaments: the choleric, the melancholic, the sanguine, and the phlegmatic.

The sanguine temperament is marked by quick but shallow, superficial excitability; the choleric by quick but strong and lasting; the melancholic temperament by slow but deep; the phlegmatic by slow but shallow excitability. The first two are also called extroverts, outgoing; the last two are introverts or reserved.

Temperament, then, is a fundamental disposition of the soul, which manifests itself whenever an impression is made upon the mind, be that impression caused by thought – by thinking about something or by representation through the imagination – or by external stimuli. Knowledge of the temperament of any person supplies the answer to the questions: How does this person deport himself? How does he feel moved to action whenever something impresses him strongly? For instance, how docs he react, when he is praised or rebuked, when he is offended, when he feels sympathy for or aversion against somebody? Or, to use another example, how does he act if in a storm, or in a dark forest, or on a dark night the thought of imminent danger comes to him?

On such occasions one may ask the following questions:

1. Is the person under the influence of such impressions, thoughts, or facts, quickly and vehemently excited, or only slowly and superficially?

2. Does the person under such influences feel inclined to act at once, quickly, in order to oppose the impression; or does he feel more inclined to remain calm and to wait?

3. Does the excitement of the soul last for a long time or only for a moment? Does the impression continue, so that at the recollection of such impression the excitement is renewed? Or does he conquer such excitement speedily and easily, so that the remembrance of it does not produce a new excitement?

The replies to these questions direct us to the four temperaments and furnish the key for the understanding of the temperament of each individual.

The choleric person is quickly and vehemently excited by any impression made; he tends to react immediately, and the impression lasts a long time and easily induces new excitement.

The person of sanguine temperament, like the choleric, is quickly and strongly excited by the slightest impression, and tends to react immediately, but the impression does not last; it soon fades away.

The melancholic individual is at first only slightly excited by any impression received; a reaction does not set in at all or only after some time. But the impression remains deeply rooted, especially if new impressions of the same kind are repeated.

The phlegmatic person is only slightly excited by any impression made upon him; he has scarcely any inclination to react, and the impression vanishes quickly.

The choleric and sanguine temperaments are active, the melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments are passive. The choleric and sanguine show a strong tendency to action; the melancholic and phlegmatic, on the contrary, are inclined to slow movement.

The choleric and melancholic temperaments are of a passionate nature; they shake the very soul and act like an earthquake. The sanguine and phlegmatic are passionless temperaments; they do not lead to great and lasting mental excitement.

In order to determine one’s temperament, it is not wise to study the bright or dark sides of each temperament and to apply them to oneself; one should first and foremost attempt to answer the three questions mentioned above.

1. Do I react immediately and vehemently or slowly and superficially to a strong impression made upon me?

2. Am I inclined to act at once or to remain calm and to wait?

3. Does the excitement last for a long time or only for a short while?

Another very practical way to determine one’s temperament consists in considering one’s reactions to offenses, by asking these questions: Can I forgive when offended? Do I bear grudges and resent insults? If one must answer: usually I cannot forget insults, I brood over them; to think of them excites me anew; I can bear a grudge a long time, several days, nay, weeks if somebody has offended me; I try to evade those who have offended me, refuse to speak to them, etc., then, one is either of choleric or melancholic temperament.

If on the contrary the answer is: I do not harbor ill will; I cannot be angry with anybody for a long time; I forget even actual insults very soon; sometimes I decide to show anger, but I cannot do so, at least not for a long time, at most an hour or two – if such is the answer, then one is either sanguine or phlegmatic.

After having recognized that one is of the choleric or melancholic temperament the following questions should be answered: Am I quickly excited at offenses? do I manifest my resentment by words or action? Do I feel inclined to oppose an insult immediately and retaliate? Or, do I at offenses received remain calm outwardly in spite of internal excitement? Am I frightened by offenses, disturbed, despondent, so that I do not find the right words nor the courage for a reply, and therefore, remain silent? Does it happen repeatedly that I hardly feel the offense at the moment when I receive it, but a few hours later, or even the following day, feel it so much more keenly? In the first case, the person is choleric; in the second, melancholic.

Upon ascertaining that one’s temperament is either sanguine or phlegmatic one must inquire further: Am I suddenly inflamed with anger at offenses received; do I feel inclined to flare up and to act rashly? Or, do I remain quiet? Indifferent? Am I not easily swayed by my feelings? In the first case we are sanguine, in the second, phlegmatic.

It is very important, and indeed necessary to determine, first of all, one’s basic temperament by answering these questions, to be able to refer the various symptoms of the different temperaments to their proper source. Only then can self-knowledge be deepened to a full realization of how far the various light and dark sides of one’s temperament are developed, and of the modifications and variations one’s predominant temperament may have undergone by mixing with another temperament.

It is usually considered very difficult to recognize one’s own temperament or that of another person. Experience, however, teaches that with proper guidance, even persons of moderate education can quite easily learn to know their own temperament, and that of associates and subordinates.

Greater difficulties, however, arise in discovering the temperament in the following instances:

1. A person is habitually given to sin. In such cases the sinful passion influences man more than the temperament; for instance, a sanguine person, who by nature is very much inclined to live in peace and harmony with others can become very annoying and cause great trouble by giving way to envy and anger.

2. A person has progressed very far on the path of perfection. In such cases the dark sides of the temperament, as they manifest themselves, usually, in ordinary persons, can hardly be noticed at all. Thus, St. Ignatius Loyola, who by nature was passionately choleric, had conquered his passion to such an extent, that externally he appeared to be a man without passions and was often looked upon as a pure phlegmatic. In the sanguine but saintly Francis de Sales, the heat of momentary, irate excitement, proper to his sanguine temperament, was completely subdued, but only at the cost of continual combat for years against his natural disposition.

Saintly people of melancholic temperament never allow their naturally sad, morose, discouraging temperament to show itself, but by a look upon their crucified Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, conquer quickly these unpleasant moods.

3. A person possesses only slight knowledge of himself. He neither recognizes his good or evil disposition, nor does he understand the intensity of his own evil inclinations and the degree of his excitability; consequently he will not have a clear idea of his temperament. If anyone tries to assist him to know himself by questioning him, he gives false answers, not intentionally, but simply because he does not know himself. If such persons begin to devote themselves to a more spiritual life, they can usually acquire a fairly reliable diagnosis of their temperament only after they have practiced meditation and examination of conscience for some length of time.

4. A person is very nervous. With such persons the signs of nervousness, as restlessness, irritability, inconstancy of humor and resolution, the inclination to melancholy and discouragement, manifest themselves so forcibly that the symptoms of temperament are more or less obscured. It is especially difficult to discern the temperament of hysterical persons, if the so-called hysterical character is already fully developed.

5. A person has a so-called mixed temperament. Mixed temperaments are those in which one temperament predominates while another temperament also manifests itself. It will be a great help in such cases to know the temperaments of the parents of such person. If father and mother are of the same temperament, the children will probably inherit the temperament of the parents. If father and mother are of a choleric temperament, the children will also be choleric. If, however, the father and mother are of different temperaments, the children will inherit the different temperaments. If, for instance, the father is of a choleric temperament and the mother melancholic, the children will be either choleric with a melancholic mixture, or melancholic with a choleric tendency, according to the degree of influence of either of the two parents. In order to learn the predominant temperament, it is absolutely necessary to follow closely the above-mentioned questions concerning the temperaments. But it also happens, although not so often as many believe, that in one person two temperaments are so mixed that both are equally strong.

In this case it is naturally very hard to judge with which temperament the respective person is to be classified. It is probable, however, that in the course of time, e.g. on occasion of ordeals or difficulties one of the temperaments will manifest itself predominantly.

A very valuable help for the discernment of the mixed, and especially of the pure, temperaments is the expression of the eye and more or less the manner in which a person walks. The eye of the choleric is resolute, firm, energetic, fiery; the eye of the sanguine is cheerful, friendly, and careless; the eye of the melancholic looks more or less sad and troubled; the eye of the phlegmatic is faint, devoid of expression.

The choleric steps up firmly, resolutely, is more or less always in a hurry; the sanguine is light-footed and quick, his walking is often like dancing; the gait of the melancholic is slow and heavy; that of the phlegmatic is lazy and sluggish.

The expression of the eye rather quickly reveals the choleric temperament (the well-known type of Napoleon, Bismark) and the temperament of the melancholic (perhaps the Cure of Ars). If, from the expression of the eye neither the resoluteness and energy of the choleric nor the gloom of the melancholic can be discerned, it is safe to conclude that a person is either sanguine or phlegmatic. After a little experience, one quite easily determines a person’s temperament, even at the first meeting, or even after a casual observation on the street. Physical symptoms of different temperaments, however, such as the shape of the head, complexion, color of the hair, size of the neck, etc., are worthless despite the insistence on such like characteristics frequently found in popular writings.

It may be difficult in many cases to decide upon the temperament of any particular person; still we should not permit ourselves to be discouraged in the attempt to understand our own temperament and that of those persons with whom we live or with whom we come often into contact, for the advantages of such insight are very great. To know the temperaments of our fellow men helps us to understand them better, treat them more correctly, bear with them more patiently. These are evidently advantages for social life which can hardly be appreciated enough.

A choleric person is won by quiet explanation of reasons and motives; whereas by harsh commands he is embittered, hardened, driven to strong-headed resistance. A melancholic person is made suspicious and reticent by a rude word or an unfriendly mien; by continuous kind treatment, on the contrary, he is made pliable, trusting, affectionate. The choleric person can be relied upon, but with a sanguine person we can hardly count even upon his apparently serious promises. Without a knowledge of the temperaments of our fellow men we will treat them often wrongly, to their and to our own disadvantage.

With a knowledge of the temperaments, one bears with fellow men more patiently. If one knows that their defects are the consequence of their temperament, he excuses them more readily and will not so easily be excited or angered by them. He remains quiet, for instance, even if a choleric is severe, sharp-edged, impetuous, or obstinate. And if a melancholic person is slow, hesitating, undecided; if he does not speak much and even if he says awkwardly the little he has to say; or if a sanguine person is very talkative, light-minded, and frivolous; if a phlegmatic cannot be aroused from his usual indifference, he does not become irritated.

It is of the greatest benefit furthermore to recognize fully one’s own temperament. Only if one knows it, can he judge correctly himself, his moods, his peculiarities, his past life. An elderly gentleman, of wide experience in the spiritual life, who happened to read the following treatise on temperaments said: “I have never learned to know myself so well, as I find myself depicted in these lines, because nobody dared to tell me the truth so plainly as these lines have done.”

If one knows one’s own temperament, he can work out his own perfection with greater assurance, because finally the whole effort toward self-perfection consists in the perfection of the good and in the combating of the evil dispositions. Thus the choleric will have to conquer, in the first place, his obstinacy, his anger, his pride; the melancholic, his lack of courage and his dread of suffering; the sanguine, his talkativeness, his inconsistency; the phlegmatic, his sloth, his lack of energy. The person who knows himself will become more humble, realizing that many good traits which he considered to be virtues are merely good dispositions and the natural result of his temperament, rather than acquired virtues. Consequently the choleric will judge more humbly of his strong will, his energy, and his fearlessness; the sanguine of his cheerfulness, of his facility to get along well with difficult persons; the melancholic will judge more humbly about his sympathy for others, about his love for solitude and prayer; the phlegmatic about his good nature and his repose of mind.

The temperament is innate in each person, therefore it cannot be exchanged for another temperament. But man can and must cultivate and perfect the good elements of his temperament and combat and eradicate the evil ones. Every temperament is in itself good and with each one man can do good and work out his salvation. It is, therefore, imprudent and ungrateful to wish to have another temperament. “All the spirits shall praise the Lord” (Ps. 150,6).

All of man’s inclinations and peculiarities should be used for the service of the Lord and contribute to His honor and to man’s welfare. Persons of various temperaments who live together should learn not to oppose but to support and supplement one another.

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