Four Temperaments

Four Temperaments


I haven’t posted anything for some time and I was reminded of something I use to reference years ago.  I found it helpful when I was trying to discern some things in my life.  I wanted to post it here for reference.  It comes from J. I. Packer’s book Rediscovering Holiness.

Holiness Has to Do with My Temperment.


By temperment I mean the factors that make specific ways of reacting and behaving natural to me. To use psychologists’ jargon, it is my temperment that inclines me to transact with my enviornment (situations, things, and people) in the way I usually do.

Drawing on the full resources of this jargon, psychologist Gordon Allport defines temperament as “the characteristic phenomena of an individual’s nature, including his susceptibility to emotional stimulation, his customary strength and speed of response, the quality of his prevailing mood, and all the peculiarities of fluctuation and intensity of mood, these being regarded as dependent on constituational make-up, and therefore largely hereditary in origin.” Allport’s statement is cumbersome but clear. Temperament, we might say, is marterial out of which character is formed. Character is what we do with our temperament. Personality is the final product, the distinct individuality that results.

Temperaments are classified in various ways: positive and negative, easy and difficult, introverted and extroverted, outgoing and withdrawn, active and passive, giving and taking, sociable and forthcoming as distinct from manipulative and self-absorbed, shy and uninhibited, quick and slow to warm up, stiffly defiant as contrasted with flexibly acquiescent, and so on.

While these classifications are useful in their place, perhaps the most useful of all, certainly to the pastoral leader, is the oldest one which Greek physicians had already worked out before the time of Christ. It distinguishes four human tempermants:
The sanguine (warm, jolly, outgoing, relaxed, optimistic);
The phlegmatic (cool, low-key, detached, unemotional, apathetic);
The choleric (quick active, bustling, impatient, with a relatively short fuse);
The melancholic (somber, pessimistic, inward-looking, inclined to cynicism and depression).

It then acknowledges the reality of mixed types, such as the phlegmatic-melancholic and the sanguine-choleric, when features of two of the temperaments are found in the same person. In this way it covers everybody. The ancient beliefs about body fluids that supported this classification are nowadays dispelled, but the classification itself remains pastorally helpful. People do observably fall into these categories and recognizing them helps one to understand the temper and reactions of the person with whom one is dealing.

The assertion that I now make, and must myself face, is that I am not to become (or remain) a victim of my tempearment. Each temperament has its own strengths and also its weaknesses. Sanguine people tend to live thoughtlessly and at random. Phlegmatic people tend to be remote and unfeeling, sluggish and unsympathetic. Choleric people tend to be quarrelsome, bad tempered, and poor team players. Melancholic people tend to see everything as bad and wrong and to deny that anything is ever really good and right. Yielding to my temperamental weaknesses is, of course, the most natural thing for me to do, and is therefore the hardest sort of sin for me to deal with and detect. But holy humanity, as I see it in Jesus Christ, combines in itself the strengths of all four temperaments without any of the weaknesses. Therefore, I must try to be like Him in this, and not indulge the particular behavioural flaws to which my temperament tempts me.

Holiness for a person of sanguine temperament, then, will involve learning to look before one leaps, to think things through responsiibly, and to speak wisely rather than wildly. (These were among the lessons Peter liearned with the Spirit’s help after Pentecost.) Holiness for a person of phlegmatic temperament will involve a willingness to be open with people, to feel with them and for them, to be forthcoming in relationships, and to become vulnerable, in the sense of risking being hurt. Holiness for a choleric person will involve practicing patience and self-control. It will mean redirecting one’s anger and hostility toward Satan and sin, rather thatn toward fellow human beings who are obstructing what one regards as the way forward. (These were among the lessons Paul learned from the Lord after his conversion.) Finally, holiness for the melancholic person will involve learning to rejoice in God, to give up self-pity and proud pessimism, and to believe, with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, that through sovereign divine grace, “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” /What are my temperamental weaknesses? If I am to be holy, as I am called to be, I must identify them (that is the hard part) and ask my Lord to enable me to form habits of rising above them.

[Redicovering Holiness by J. I. Packer] pp24-26