The Four Temperaments and the Spiritual Life

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Know Thyself, and thy faults, and thus live.        – St. Augustine

My mother had me pegged at a very young age.  I remember walking into her bedroom as she put down the book Transformed Temperaments by Tim LaHaye and smiled at twelve-year-old me.  “You,” she said with certainty, “are a melancholic.”  It didn’t mean much then–although I remember it clearly–but years later I would come to learn and appreciate the four temperaments. Sure enough, even as a child, melancholic me was more likely to be writing poetry than playing sports or crying over a poignant novel than hanging out with friends.

It didn’t define me, but it certainly helped me understand myself.  And as I grow, or try to grow, in virtue and in prayer and in union with the Father who made me that way, it is still a valuable tool for identifying predominant faults, much-needed virtues, and strengths to build upon.  All the graces we are given, through prayer and sacraments and the generous outpouring of a loving God, act upon the raw material of our nature.  Understanding that nature allows us to be more supple to the work of God as He perfects it and more loving towards those around us who are also works in progress. 

Primarily as a parent, I have found the understanding of the temperaments to be invaluable as I cooperate with God in raising young children -and some of them not so young anymore-who seem to respond to me, to the world, and to the work of God within it in vastly different ways.  So, I’d like to take a closer look at the temperaments – their definition and origin, the intricacies of each with all of their positive and negative traits, and their usefulness as tools in the sculpting of our spiritual selves and in the counseling and loving of others.  It’s fascinating, really!

Where did they come from?  And what is a Temperament?

The theory of the temperaments predates Christianity; Hippocrates (c.640-c. 370 BC) described the four temperaments, or humors, as personality types then believed to be associated with a predominance of one or another bodily fluid.  This theory has survived through the centuries in its ancient form, which is the classification of four types: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic. Now, however, it is accepted as a psychological reality rather than a biological one.   And some prominent spiritual theologians, such as Fr. Jordan Aumann, point out that the study of this reality is helpful in that beautiful, mysterious process–the sanctification of the human soul.

Our temperament is not our entire personality but is an important aspect of it.  Fr. Aumann explains in Spiritual Theologythat the temperament is “the pattern of inclinations and reactions that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual”.  Primarily it explains how the human person tends to react to stimuli.  Meaning, how easily are you motivated or triggered?  How long do you stay fired up?  There are all sorts of traits that seem to be connected to this part of our personality.

The Four Temperaments

Although no one has one temperament in a pure, exclusive form, it is widely believed and easy to observe that each human person has a predominant temperament.  Most often two seem to dominate the personality; usually one will be greater and one lesser.  Two describe more extroverted personality types: sanguine and choleric are generally more outgoing, while the phlegmatic and melancholic tend to be more reserved and introverted.

The reactions of the sanguine person are quick and short-lived.  He is easily aroused and quick to forget.  He enjoys experiences and the company of others and is a favorite at parties for his warm and vivacious personality.  He will have many friends, at least on the surface level, and be interested in many things, but may not have the attention span to master them.  One of his greatest strengths in the spiritual life is that he finds obedience easier than some of the other temperament types, being affable and willing to ‘go along’ with others.  This, of course, could also be his downfall, and coupled with impulsivity, could make him prone to sins against chastity and temperance.  He will have to work hard to master himself but if he does, can be a great contributor to the Kingdom, evangelizing his many friends and drawing them into the greatest adventure to be had.

St. Peter seemed to have many traits of the sanguine.  Spontaneous and impulsive, he was ready to drop nets, put up tents or cut off ears at the spur of the moment. Before the Holy Spirit had transformed him, he proved to be inconstant when questioned about his friendship with Jesus during the Passion.  However, he was willing to follow, even if he didn’t understand:  “To whom shall we go?”    

The choleric is decisive.  Therefore, his reactions will be quick and long-lasting.  This is the quintessential leader temperament: competitive, confident, and direct.  The choleric will tend to be goal-oriented.  He will see the big picture but perhaps not the people he may need to help him accomplish it, if he’ll let them – for he tends to like to do things himself.  After all, he figures, he can do it the best!  Not surprising, this person will struggle with pride more than the others.

Relationships can be difficult with him; a tendency to insensitivity will be a challenge to true intimacy and vulnerability.   But the Spirit-led choleric will enthusiastically have the vision and stamina to found and reform orders and institutions and lead holy armies of saints in the spiritual battlefield.  They can be the greatest of saints, such as the tireless and zealous St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Church needs them and their magnanimity.    

The melancholic person is not stimulated quickly, but once she is, will “not forget easily,” as Fr. Aumann points out.  Melancholics are prone to solitude, reflection, and introspection.  They can be negative and skeptical, and find it hard to ‘look on the bright side.’  This can paralyze them in the face of a difficult task: where the sanguine doesn’t think ahead, and the choleric is ready to tackle difficulties head-on, the melancholic tends to procrastinate as she mulls pessimistically over everything that might go wrong. They have great attention to detail but in the spiritual realm, this can make scrupulosity a real danger.  However, the melancholic will have the easiest time of the four temperaments establishing a prayer life.  Intimacy with God will come very naturally to one so reflective and thoughtful, and melancholics may make the greatest mystics.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was almost certainly a melancholic.  Always serious, studious, and lost in books, she was teased by her family as a child for being herself “a book sealed with seven seals.”  She also demonstrated another positive trait of the virtuous melancholic: long-suffering.  Able to withstand their personal crosses with incredible fortitude, melancholics will seldom complain, just as this saint faced with serenity years of discrimination and hostility for being a woman in the academic world, for being a Catholic in a Jewish family, and finally for being a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland.  She would die, as she swore to do, carrying the cross “for her people.”

Perhaps I love this saint so very much because I see myself in her.  If I can overcome my own sins of excessive introspection and procrastination in the face of difficult tasks, and if I can put down the books and the daydreams in greater service of the people around me, then I will grow closer to her ideal of sanctity.

Finally, the phlegmatic.  A phlegmatic is aroused with difficulty and only weakly.  When he is, it is of short duration.  They tend to be patient, orderly, measured, and without strong emotions.  They are peaceful and slow-moving, loyal and committed.  But these tranquil people often have an iron will hidden beneath their calm exterior.  This stable personality can be a tremendous blessing, and Art and Laraine Bennett, in their book “The Temperament God Gave You,” point out that they make good firefighters, police officers, and military strategists and officers for their ability to remain cool under pressure.   Introverted like the melancholic, leadership may not come naturally to them and they may prefer to follow, and they will be the most loyal and devoted of followers.  The phlegmatic will be likely to accept Church teaching without question, for example, but may need extra encouragement to take an active role in evangelization and mission.

It may be that St. Thomas Aquinas, who, while brilliant, was slow, methodical, and simple, was a phlegmatic – proving that they too can be the greatest of saints once they put their “dormant powers to good use,” in the words of Fr. Aumann.

Why Study the Temperaments?

Why spend the time and effort to understand ourselves?  Is this time wasted when it could be spent for God and for others?  Maybe, if one is a melancholic who will dwell on it excessively!  But otherwise, these categories can be helpful in the spiritual life – our own, primarily, but also in those we mentor, guide, lead, and teach.  The reason, Fr. Aumann says, is that “no two souls will follow the same path to perfection.”  “Grace,” he reminds us, “does not destroy or replace nature; it works through and perfects nature.  Consequently, the body-soul composite of the individual person can be a help or a hindrance to the operation of the virtues infused with sanctifying grace.  It is therefore necessary, especially for spiritual directors,  to understand the ways in which the psychosomatic structure can affect the work of sanctification” (emphasis mine).

The goal in understanding our temperament is to gain self-knowledge in order to grow in humility and ultimately, to perfect our nature through grace.  Each of the four, like it or not, has certain strengths and certain weaknesses.  While weaknesses are not sins, they make certain virtues harder to acquire.  The first step is understanding where the struggle lies so that we may send in spiritual reinforcements to that front, avoid particular near occasions of sin, and seek out necessary help in overcoming sin and imperfections.

For example, the Bennetts explain in their book that a sanguine will need a strict rule of life and perhaps accountability in order to grow in control, consistency, and perseverance.  They will need solid formation and direction in order to not be led astray by false teachers.

A choleric may need to spend more time praying for humility, but find in his prayer that he is distracted by the many projects he has taken on.  Even small practical steps can make a big difference in our spiritual life:  the Bennetts suggest keeping a notepad nearby while praying to capture these random thoughts so as to better remain recollected.   

Melancholics will need to surrender control and the desire for perfection even as they seek it out.  Their high expectations can only be met by Christ – and laying down their impossible ideals at his feet may be an important step in growing in sanctity.

Phlegmatic temperaments are naturally peaceful – but they may need to be challenged on that.  Are they peaceful because of Christ or because they are uncomfortable with conflict?  There is a time and a place for confronting evil, and one’s temperament cannot be an excuse for avoiding taking action.

God is Greater than our Classifications

Ultimately, the four temperaments are categories constructed by human beings in order to better understand themselves  – but personalities are as varied as the people on the planet.  God is not limited by our boxes, as nice and neat as we’d like to make them, and it’s important to remember that when we may be tempted to slap a label on a person or behavior.  Yet all of nature is full of patterns and rhythms and so too is human nature. We can embrace and use this understanding of the temperaments while always remaining aware that God is greater than our classifications.

The Goal?  Transformation in Christ

The beautiful thing is this:  that all the temperaments and other aspects of one’s personality have the ability to be restored, redeemed, and transformed in Christ.  A choleric will always be a choleric but be so softened by grace that his gentleness may not immediately reveal the drive underneath.  A melancholic, fully converted, will be so full of joy and hope that it may not be apparent at first which temperament is his.  The goal is transformation in Christ, who had no particular temperament but rather was the best of all of them in his perfect nature.  We will always remain ourselves but must seek to become more and more like Him.  In one of the beautiful paradoxes of our faith, it is only this way we will become fully  – us.

Heaven will certainly be a delightful mix of perfected personalities!  The more we can seek to understand our own, to use our strengths and overcome our weaknesses, the more likely we are to be welcomed by the beautiful variety of saints waiting there. 

And that is a goal this melancholic will chase to the end.

Which temperament best describes you??

 

Listen here to listen to Divine Intimacy Radio to learn more about how your temperament affects your spiritual life, and here to learn more about how it might affect your marriage.  See also “The Temperament God Gave You” by Art and Laraine Bennett.
Photos by Frank Busch, Pablo Varela, Alexander Solodukhin, and Autumn Goodman on Unsplash.

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