Lesson #35 About the Temperaments – An Introduction

Philosophy Notes

Mary’s School of Sanctity

Lesson #34  About the Temperaments – An Introduction

There are many things one can say about the subject of temperaments.  In the next series of lessons, we will be investigating this topic.  We will set about probing the following questions:

1.    What is the definition of temperament?

2.    What is the definition of character?


3.    What is the definition of personality?

4.    Why do we bother learning about temperaments?

a.    Because we can know ourselves better by knowing our own temperament.

b.    Because the knowledge of temperaments can help us understand others    better and, thus, improve our relationships with other people.

5.    Can knowing one’s own temperament help a person with the work he must do for his salvation?


a.    Yes, because one can see the typical strengths and weaknesses of his temperament and thus, he can see how to foster the strengths of his temperament in order to overcome his weaknesses.

b.    Yes, because a person’s temperament will incline him to view spirituality in a particular way.


6.    Can understanding the temperaments help parents and others in positions of authority guide those in their care?

a.    Yes, understanding the temperaments can help superiors see the best way to deal with those in their care.

b.    Yes, superiors can teach those in their care about the temperaments and help them to understand how to use strengths to overcome weaknesses.

7.    Can understanding the temperaments help spouses live more harmoniously together?

a.    Yes, the couple can get along better by knowing how the particular temperaments interact with each other.

b.    Yes, the couple can also strategize better in the raising of their children by observing and studying the temperaments of their children.

8.    Can understanding the temperaments help a young adult find a more compatible spouse?

a.    Yes, because the young adult will be able to find out what temperament might best suit his/her own.

b.    Yes, knowing the temperaments will help the young adult see how crucial it is to find a compatible spouse and one who is working with the strengths of his/her temperament to overcome the weaknesses of that temperament. 

Getting started – 1) What is the definition of temperament?

We learn in our catechism that man is composed of body and soul.  The body is made of matter and the soul is spiritual.  Each human souls are created like every other one, although each soul is a separate creation of God.  At conception, when the parts of matter are united, God creates the soul which informs that particular matter.  Therefore, souls are individualized by the matter in which they are placed.  Each person has a separate soul in separate matter.

With this information in mind, we can begin our investigation of the matter which distinguishes persons[1] and determines a person’s temperament.  This matter is genetic and so our temperaments are derived from the genetic code which we inherit from our parents.  Each temperament has a typical set of traits. 

The word temperament comes from the Latin word temperamentum, meaning “a mixing in due proportion” and this word in turn comes from the Latin word tempare, meaning “to combine or mingle in due proportion.”  Temperament refers to “the peculiar physical and mental character of an individual, as the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric (or bilious), or melancholic temperament, denoted types formerly believed to be due the preponderance of one or the other of these humors; Frame of mind or type of mental reactions characteristic of an individual”.[2]  

The humors referred to here are “In old physiology, a fluid or juice, especially one of the four fluids—blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile)—conceived as disposition or state of mind; mood.”[3]

Hence, it is with reference to these four bodily humors that there springs the idea of the four basic temperaments listed below:

Sanguine –very generous, giving all [characterized by having an abundant circulation of blood; warm; ardent; disposed to be hopeful; anticipating the best.

Melancholic [melas-anos, black + chole, gall, bile] a thick, dark, acrid bile formerly imagined to be a secretion of the kidneys or spleen, and the cause of gloominess, irascibility, or mental dejection, later, extreme depression of spirits, painful delusions, or brooding [Sadness].

Choleric [characterized by choler or bile] hot-tempered, easily angered or irritated, also angry.

Phlegmatic [one of the four “humors” of early physiology.] It was supposed to be cold and moist, and to cause sluggishness.  Sluggishness of temperament; apathy; calmness, equanimity.[4]

There are various schools of thought of how these humors actually influence our bodies and determine what temperament we each have.  Nevertheless, these humors can be thought of as follows:

Fourfold classification seems fairly to represent certain markedly contrasted types of disposition, though they leave room for subdivision and intermediate forms. Moreover, though scientists are still far from being agreed as to the precise elements in the organism on which the temperament depends, the fact that different forms of temperament have an organic basis seems certain.  The transmission from parent to offspring of hereditary dispositions, therefore, involves no conflict with the doctrine of the creation of each human soul.[5]

2) What is the definition of character?

The Catholic Encyclopedia discusses character as follows:

Although our original temperament is thus given to us independently of our will, we ourselves play an important part in the molding of our character, and we thus become responsible for certain ethical qualities in it.  Character has been defined as “a completely fashioned will.”  It would be more accurate to say that character is “natural temperament completely fashioned by our will.”  It is in fact, a resultant of the combination of our acquired habits with our original disposition [temperament] ….

Among the acquired elements to which the building up of character may be distinguished are those pertaining to cognition, whether sensuous or intellectual, and those belonging to the emotional and volitional activities of the soul.  Exercise strengthens the power and widens the range of each faculty, creating, not uncommonly, a craving for further exercise in the same direction.  The regular use of the intellect, the reflection, contributes to the formation of habits of mind more or less thoughtful and refined. The frequent indulgence in particular forms of emotion, such as anger, envy, sympathy, melancholy, fear, and the like fosters tendencies towards these sentiments which give a subconscious bent to a large part of man’s behavior.  But finally, the exercise of the will plays the predominant part in molding the type of character which is being formed.   The manner and degree in which currents of thought and waves of emotion are initiated, guided, and controlled by the will, or allowed to follow the course of spontaneous impulse, has not less effect in determining the resultant type of character than the quality of the thoughts or emotions themselves.  The life of the lower animal is entirely ruled by instinct within, and by accidental circumstances from without.   It is therefore incapable of acquiring a character.  Man, through the awakening of reason and the growth of reflection, by the exercise of deliberate choice against the movements of impulse, gradually develops self-control; and it is by the exercise of this power that moral character is especially formed.  Character is in fact the outcome of a series of volitions, and it is for this reason we are responsible for our characters, as we are for the individual habits which go to constitute them [viz., characters].[6]

3) What is the definition of personality?

Personality is: 1) Quality or state of being personal, or of being a person; personal existence or identity. 2) Quality of referring directly to an individual. 3) Distinction or excellence of personal and social traits.[7]

Personality also applies to the aggregate of qualities which distinguish an individual, but the term differs from character in that it implies his [the individual’s] being distinguished as a person rather than as a moral being.   In general, personality may be said to be revealed in unconscious as well as in conscious acts or movements, in physical and emotional as well as in mental and moral behavior, and especially, in a person’s relations to others; thus, one may know very little about the character of an acquaintance, yet have a very definite idea of his personality.   Therefore, personality is qualified as not as good, bad, or the like, but by an adjective implying the extent to which it pleases, displeases, or otherwise impresses the observer.  …Hence, personality often distinctively means personal magnetism or charm.[8] 

Now that we have made the necessary distinctions concerning these three words, that is, temperament, character, and personality, let us briefly consider our 4th question from above.

4) Why do we bother learning about temperaments?

    a) Because we can know ourselves better by knowing our own temperament.

     b) Because the knowledge of temperaments can help us understand others    better and thus improve our relationships with our neighbors.

With our fallen human nature, we are not inclined to want to know ourselves better. We have a kind of fear to see our defects, but self-knowledge has been spoken of by the saints repeatedly as being a very crucial part of our salvation and sanctification.  Acquiring self-knowledge is worth all the efforts one can make—especially because it helps us obtain humility.  Self-knowledge of the inclinations found in our temperament and knowledge of the tendencies of other people help us to avoid misjudging others.  In addition to this favorable result, we can make more allowances for others and also be more forgiving of others. 

So, let’s set about getting to know ourselves.

We have given the classes or types of temperaments that are most commonly spoken of.  Of course, there have been many who have studied the temperaments and have tried to classify them into more subdivisions with different names.  Each of us has a primary temperament and a secondary one.  In other words, we are usually a combination of two temperaments with one of them being predominant in us and the other one a clear second. What percentage is our predominant temperament?  We will need to study all four temperaments in order to discover our combination.

In upcoming Lessons concerning temperaments:

We will be discussing each of the four historically accepted temperaments incorporating the list of queries noted above.  We will likewise endeavor to give the spiritual difficulties that each temperament has as well as its positive spiritual traits. We will discuss the typical combinations found of the four types of temperaments.  In this way we can improve our interactions with others, discover our own temperament if we do not already know it, and assist ourselves in our life’s work, namely, the salvation or our souls.  After treating each of the four temperaments we will supply a couple of comparative charts so all the temperaments can be viewed side by side for analysis and a better understanding of how they interact.


[1]           St. Thomas defines a person as an individual substance of an intellectual nature.  Therefore, only humans and angels can properly be called persons.  The Divine Persons have a different definition unique to the Essence of the Trinity, and these Persons are not being discussed here.

[2]           This definition is taken from the Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1949.

[3]           All four of these definitions are taken from the Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1949.

[4]           These definitions are taken from the Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1949.


[5]           Taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition, under the article entitled Character.

[6]           Taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition, from the article entitled Character, (bold added for emphasis; bracketed words added for clarity).

[7]           These definitions are taken from the Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary copyright 1949.

[8]           This quote is taken from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms copyright 1951, found under disposition.