Updated: May 1
During the Middle Ages, scholars and doctors referred to something called "the humors" to classify four tendencies they could see in people. These tendencies expressed themselves physiologically, symptomatically, and even psychologically. In other words, these four humors left a sort of overall signature on a person. It was acknowledged that a person had all four humors, but that one typically expressed itself most prominently. They felt it was important, however, to strive toward a balance of the four humors, because each one brought certain gifts and certain challenges. Rudolf Steiner revived this notion by referring to it the humors as temperaments. He likewise brought a new understanding to how these temperaments can be used and developed in our educational pursuits, both for the teachers and for the students.
Where do we see aspects of life divided into four? Where is there "four- ness"? There are the four elements of classical learning (earth, air, fire, water). There are the four seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall). There are the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). We have four primary organs in the torso (heart, liver, kidneys, lungs). There are four stages of life (child, youth, adult, elder). There are four classical kingdoms of life (mineral, plant, animal, human). There are four chambers of the heart.
While such a fourfold view is admittedly simplistic and we would never dream of abandoning the modern scientific classification of life, for example, we can use this simplistic view to see certain trends. The ability to see the details as well as the bigger picture keeps us flexible. We can see the individual trees and we can see the forest.
So let us add another lens, the four human temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic.
The Sanguine Temperament
The sanguine temperament is spring; it is air; it is the easterly direction of the rising sun. The sanguine temperament is seen in those children and people who are excited to wake up, to do new things, to meet new people, to go new places, to start a new project, to introduce one group of friends to another group of friends. Sanguines are light and gay. They are social butterflies. They easily adapt and move on from one thing to the next. Sanguines order new things every time they return to a restaurant because they want to taste it all! When the French used the expression "joie de vivre" (joy of life), they were speaking of the sanguine temperament expressed in people. Physically, these people are often slender and long (think fairy or elf) and light on their feet. Some often walk on their toes or with a noticeable bounce.
Temperaments can--and should--mature. Part of the maturation process is natural and part of it, as with almost all things in our lives, must be taken on consciously and further developed through our wills. The immature sanguine temperament is all the things described above and this comes with some challenges.
Sanguines will start new projects, but rarely finish any of them. They love to meet new people, but they don't naturally develop deep friendships, because they are always moving on. They love to explore, but they rarely have the grounded stability that comes with "sending down roots" and being integral in a group or community. They love making plans, but often fail to follow through with them because they prefer "being spontaneous" and "living in the moment". They are joyous and excited and thus they sometimes ignore deeper or more difficult emotions--within themselves and within others. If left in this state, the adult with strong sanguine tendencies can be seen as "air-headed", lacking substance, and even superficial. They are fun to be around for a bit, but not really trusted, not really someone you can depend on. Long term commitments in relationship can be especially difficult, again for self and for others.
When the sanguine temperament is balanced by the other temperaments, though, this person is a ray of light and hope. They bring positivity and new outlooks. They bring folks together. They find common ground. They see connections where others see differences. They are enthusiastic and attractive. Their can-do energy creates a current that sweeps others along. They can be the types of leaders that see the good in others, that see each person's unique gifts and finds ways to optimize these for the good of all.
So, the question must arise: How do we consciously mature an immature temperament? It is a big question. The simplest answer is this: by understanding each temperament, we can hold the overall view of a four- fold balance. Each temperament brings gifts and challenges. When we can not just know these intellectually but also experientially because we recognize our own tendencies, then we can consciously call upon and develop the balancing aspects in our everyday lives. This will become more obvious as we look at other temperaments.
The Melancholic Temperament
The melancholic is winter; it is earth; it is mineral. Where sanguine is light and airy, melancholic is heavy, deep, cooler, more reserved. The melancholic temperament does not jump into action, it observes and considers; it contemplates. They rarely speak, but when they do their words reveal a profound consciousness (in the mature melancholic). This temperament will not create the great leader of action, or the social balm, or even the steady-as-she-goes reliable worker. This is the temperament of the sage, those who often retreat from the world to work on something in private. If this temperament does make any friends, it is only with one or two people and those friendships are deep and all-important. Worst case scenario, these friendships are entanglements of codependent behaviors and emotions.
When the melancholic temperament remains immature, it has the tendency to fall into morose depression and victimhood. It feels, deeply, the difficulties of life on earth. It notes the hardships and the pain. It sees every imperfection and mourns it. While immature, the melancholic falls into a pit of self-pity and inactivity. "Why do anything when everything is so difficult and imperfect and we are just going to die anyway?" Unfortunately, this is how the melancholic temperament is epitomized. It is too easy to stereotype the immature version.
The mature version is so important to understand and achieve however. Rudolf Steiner said that it is the most important temperament for the parent and for the teacher to cultivate and mature, because when it is mature, it turns from self-pity to compassion for others. Yes, it understands the difficulties and pains of living, and so it can relate to others who are struggling--and we ask children/students to struggle a lot. Or, we should be doing so. Learning is often a struggle. If we remain in our comfort zones, we learn very little. So, learning and growing is often difficult. It can bring one to the point of giving up. The mature melancholic parent/teacher can understand this and help that individual work through it with compassion. When mature and balanced with other temperaments, the melancholic is not the hermit who retreats from society, rarely willing to share its wisdom, it is instead the wise counselor, it is the healer. It brings its gifts for deep considerations and shares them with others who often need a new perspective and/or understanding.
It is easy to see how the sanguine needs the melancholic for balance and how the melancholic needs the sanguine. Without each other, each becomes a parody of extreme stereotypical actions, and the gifts of each would be lost or minimized.
The Choleric Temperament
With a fiery will, the choleric temperament wants to take charge of situations and to lead groups toward a goal--that "goal" being the choleric's vision or solution. The choleric has little time to debate. It does not need to hear everyone else's ideas. It does not need to spend time away from the world in contemplation. It is aimed at action and once it has seen a goal, whether it is a tug-of-war game or to summit Denali, it sets all its efforts an achieving it and will doggedly adhere to this goal, persevering through great hardships if needed. After all, such challenges only reveal the great power and virtue of such a being. The choleric temperament will speak its mind, sometimes with painful and unsympathetic candor. It will not even consider backing down from confrontations, and sometimes seeks them with relish. The choleric finishes every task, usually as fast as possible. Was it beautifully done? The choleric does not need it to be beautiful; it just needs to complete the task. Was it the wisest course of action? The choleric does not take the time to consider this for there are now other tasks and the choleric struggles when idle. It feels that time is lost, that one is only worth what one does, that the sense of self and purpose is only found in action. The choleric will often work harder not smarter.
Much of this picture above is a caricature. The stereotypical bully or stubborn leader comes to mind. The self-righteous brute might even arise in our minds. This is the immature version, of course. We can usually spot this in people around us and, if we are honest, it can arise within our own souls if not in our actual behaviors.
The mature choleric is a true leader, balanced by the influences and tendencies of all the temperaments. It sees the vision, and even allows for input and buy-in from the group. It allows time for contemplation so that we work "smarter not harder", but it does not allow for contemplations to lead to inactivity. It does not allow for the group process to supersede the need to actually accomplish the goals at hand. The choleric can pull others along and indeed blaze the path. It never sees obstacles, only the next challenge. It relishes the idea that there are things to be overcome. It sees that when we face obstacles together, we not only become stronger individually, but as a community. The choleric, fully matured, puts all of its fiery power and will into service, balanced between self and others. This is the one who always makes it to your birthday dinner. This is the one who would not let you give up on some dream. This is the one who volunteers at the community soup kitchen. This is the one who never lets the weather ruin a good camping trip. When in service, the choleric does not want to burn through those who have different ideas; they want to light the fire of inspiration so that we can all accomplish something together.
The world needs mature choleric temperaments. But what can balance the immature choleric?
The Phlegmatic Temperament
Allow me to repeat that each one of us has all four temperaments. For myriad reasons, we have a certain tendency to exhibit the temperaments in different proportions. Lee, for example, might exhibit behaviors and personality traits that could be attributed in percentages as follows:
Example: Lee's temperamental percentages 50% sanguine 25% choleric 20 % phlegmatic 5% melancholic
Lee's parents and teachers will see this and, hopefully, have two concurrent goals. They want to help each temperament come into its more mature form. As with anything in life, the first expressions are almost always immature versions, full of potential, but needing care and guidance to realize that potential. They also want to help bring these expressed temperaments into a healthier balance. We need to have each temperament's mature gifts and benefits. Lee, as you can see, has hardly any melancholic tendencies. That would be unfortunate if left as-is, because each temperament--Yes! even the melancholic--has wonderful gifts for the self and others. Lee may not have any of that self-pity--which is a "good thing" in some ways--but Lee will likely have little sympathy for and/or a deeper connection with others. As much as those sanguine traits will help Lee connect with lots of people, those connections will likely be shallow and fleeting if left alone. And of course, while maturing later in life, Lee will need to take an active role in maturing and balancing the
temperaments as well. In other words, this need to take an active role applies to all of us.
Now, let's take a look at the fourth temperament, the phlegmatic temperament.
The phlegmatic temperament is the expression of water. (Sanguine-air, choleric-fire, melancholic-earth, phlegmatic-water). When we see liquid water in nature, it is either flowing or pooling. In either situation, water will often express patterns. Waves at the shore of the great pooling ocean come in patterns, one after the other, over and over. When a river flows across the land, even across a relatively flat plain, it has a tendency to meander back and forth, back and forth. Even on the still pond, a single stone creates a repeating pattern of expanding concentric ripples. Or, we can see the expanding waves of V-shaped wake of a swimming swan over the surface of a peaceful lake. Once it is in motion, water's momentum is strong. Once it is has collected in a pool, its immobility can be difficult to change. Try to stir a swimming pool; it seems to want to return to rest. Try to stop a river; beavers are extremely industrious workers.
The human being with a strong tendency for the phlegmatic is like this. These are the people to love patterns, rhythms, and habits. They like for life to be predictable. They find great joy in the day-after-day repetitions. The strong phlegmatic finds a nice restaurant and likes to go there every time. They like to sit at the same table and--please, please let it be!--have the same server each visit. And that server hardly needs to ask what the phlegmatic wants to order, because she orders the same thing every single time. Creature comforts are very important to these people as well. A warm, cozy house with things organized just so is a delight. These people may not be very social, but they are warm and pleasant. They may not be inspiring leaders, but they are steady and consistent workers. They may not be the deepest thinkers, but they understand consistency. You can count on them because they are the embodiments of pattern and habit.
Of course, the phlegmatic is not in love with the idea of being thrown a surprise birthday party. This person will not take the news very well that their annual fishing trip to that favorite lake has been cancelled. In fact, serious anxiety can arise. Meeting new people in a new setting? That cozy heater is on the brink? The universe seems to be unraveling! Disturb the phlegmatic's need for rhythm, consistency, and comfort at your own peril. For a while, things may seem to be okay. But eventually, that watery nature will boil. It is that pot that you watch and watch and then, as if waiting for you to look away, it boils over with surprising rapidity.
This temperament balances, and is balanced by, the choleric. Fire and water. The consistency and even-keeled nature of the phlegmatic helps temper the fire of the choleric. The steady reliability ensures that the choleric will not simply "git 'er dun!", but will do so with the phlegmatic's steady hand and attention to the finer details and creature comforts. The choleric's drive and need to find new challenges brings the phlegmatic out of simple repetition. The choleric's willingness and need to be in charge helps the phlegmatic to be more than just a cog in the machine.
Let me end this little temperament journey with a consideration of the characters in the "Winnie the Pooh" books. While these images were adapted to cartoon forms, they of course originated in the books by A.A. Milne about Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and the other animal friends. It is very interesting to me to note that the characters were based the author's son's stuffed animals. The reason this is interesting to me is that the author attributed characteristics to some of the animals that align with these temperaments.
So... Are you that comfort-seeking, honey-loving Pooh (phlegmatic)?
Are you that bouncy and buoyant Tigger (sanguine)? Are you that sorrowful, moping Eeyore (immature melancholic)?
Are you that contemplative, wise Owl (mature melancholic)?
Are you that hurried and determined Rabbit (choleric)?
It's fun to look at ourselves, our children, and even our friends with these considerations. However, we must resist the temptation to categorize ourselves or others.
Use the understanding of temperaments as a lens, not a box, not a label. We have all four of these temperaments and we want to mature and balance all four. People are always growing and changing, so this is a dynamic balancing process. No one needs to be stuck and we certainly should avoid getting people stuck in our souls by thinking our temperamental analysis of them has captured their personality. Each day is a new day. With students, this is especially important because they need our help to grow and balance.