The four temperaments . . . The Temperament God Gave You . . . wonder if I match up with a specific temperament . . . wonder if it’s something spiritual sound and applicable to Catholic life? . . .
For whatever reason, the topic of the four classically understood temperaments or “humors” (choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic) had been waltzing through my mind over the past few weeks; sort of vaguely nudging me, not letting me forget about its presence. I should probably buy that book I’ve seen everywhere. A traditional Catholic homeschooling mother and blogger I follow had recently mentioned her own temperament and the temperaments of her family members, and how discovering everyone’s temperaments had benefited her greatly, both in self-knowledge and in understanding her family members (understanding leading to charity). My interest was getting piqued (in other words, I was feeling increasingly impulsive and ready to dive in, discover my temperament, and change my life. Ahem.).
Only . . . I didn’t really want to spend money, and I’d already purchased a $6 used copy of The Wife Desired off Amazon and so I wondered, in my halfway penny-pinching fashion, if I could just find some reliable free internet resources on this whole temperament topic and see if I could learn more. I kept hearing of it (and thinking about it) in the context of self-knowledge and growth in holiness. Which is never a bad thing . . .
And so first, I went to Fish Eaters. (Surprise). I found pages of most likely very useful information (which I skimmed through, because I impulsively just wanted to get to “the good stuff” . . .) and eventually discovered the very thorough temperament test. I took it, hesitating over many of the questions, not sure exactly how to view them or answer them, and arrived at a (in my mind) gloomy-looking page which pronounced in bold letters I was a Melancholic. I gaped.
From Fish Eaters (quoting Fr. Conrad Hock):
- Is self-conscious, easily embarrassed, timid, bashful.
- Avoids talking before a group; when obliged to he finds it difficult.
- Prefers to work and play alone. Good in details; careful.
- Is deliberative; slow in making decisions; perhaps overcautious even in minor matters.
- Is lacking in self-confidence and initiative; compliant and yielding.
- Tends to detachment from environment; reserved and distant except to intimate friends.
- Tends to depression; frequently moody or gloomy; very sensitive; easily hurt.
- Does not form acquaintances readily; prefers narrow range of friends; tends to exclude others.
- Worries over possible misfortune; crosses bridges before coming to them.
- Is secretive; seclusive; shut in; not inclined to speak unless spoken to.
- Is slow in movement; deliberative or perhaps indecisive; moods frequent and constant.
- Is often represents himself at a disadvantage; modest and unassuming.
Say what? Even the people who have never met me in real life, but who have simply glanced over my article on Tutoring Younger Siblings, can probably guess that I am not a Melancholic! Surely I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere . . . probably question #38 . . . or was it #53 . . .
So I wrinkled my face and threw out my net to fish a little more.
It was at this point I came across the full The Four Temperaments and the Spiritual Life: “Know Yourself” by Fr. Conrad Hock from 1934. This was where clarity started to pour upon my feverish mind, so desperate to easily discover my temperament.
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.
I. THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS IN GENERAL
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 does 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?
It’s a fairly long page, so again I began scrolling down, intent on finding phrases and attributes which I thought would describe me fairly well.
Eventually I came across an instruction that prefaced a long questionnaire.
Be completely honest in answering the questions. They refer to your natural inclinations rather than your present practice, acquired by effort and self control.
Ah . . . that made more sense. Back at Fish Eaters, I realized in retrospect, I had been attempting to combine what I thought were my natural inclinations with my usual ability to just simply do things I knew to be right.
Lo and behold, there is a difference.
With this in mind, I began reading his work more slowly . . . and soon enough, I stumbled across my dominant (though not pure) temperament in all its glory (and lack thereof): sanguine. (And yes, I had to look up how to pronounce it. That’s what comes from reading a word a million times yet never listening to an audiobook.)
I began reading the inclinations of the sanguine, divorced from the daily fight and discipline of my “present practice,” and immediately was nailed to the wall. It was incredibly humbling. Because the sanguine traits are so true of me in almost all aspects.
I. CHARACTER OF THE SANGUINE TEMPERAMENT
The sanguine person is quickly aroused and vehemently excited by whatever influences him. The reaction follows immediately, but the impression lasts but a short time. Consequently the remembrance of the impression does not easily cause new excitement.
II. FUNDAMENTAL DISPOSITION
1. Superficiality. The sanguine person does not penetrate the depth, the essence of things; he does not embrace the whole, but is satisfied with the superficial and with a part of the whole. Before he has mastered one subject, his interest relaxes because new impressions have already captured his attention. He loves light work which attracts attention, where there is no need of deep thought, or great effort. To be sure, it is hard to convince a sanguine person that he is superficial; on the contrary, he imagines that he has grasped the subject wholly and perfectly.
These first paragraphs showed me, glaringly, much of who I am naturally inclined to be: not, of course, what I can be if I pray for grace and try to do better. But I realized instantly how frequently my interest can naturally wax, wane and vary. Hence the thirty stories from my teen years that I started and never finished. Hence how passionately excited about taking black-and-white photography one month, and then am convinced I would love to design planners the next. I am inclined to make instant wholehearted resolutions (whether it’s to sew a skirt, to exercise every weekday, or whatever), but then find great difficulty to keep up the zeal in carrying them out. I can’t deny it. And it’s humbling to admit. It is so natural for me to initially feel that, after I’ve read an article or a book on a given topic, that I’ve achieved expert status. The sanguine person is satisfied with the superficial and the part of the whole. I naturally am excited by things so quickly . . . and it’s not that I grow discontented or am constantly looking for something new and exciting in order to make my life memorable. But my excitement for things usually does not last for a long time. (The Latin Mass, my vocation, my family, friends and children excepted 🙂 ) While fortunately blogging, article writing and the like are still ongoing and are proving to be a cemented fixture in my normal life . . . they are still technically sporadic things. I don’t have deadlines. And some days I am just not excited about them.
So yes. Moving on from that confession, and straight into another.
Vanity and self-complacency. The pride of the sanguine person does not manifest itself as inordinate ambition or obstinacy, as it does in the choleric, nor as fear of humiliation, as in the melancholic, but as a strong inclination to vanity and self-complacency. The sanguine person finds a well-nigh childish joy and satisfaction in his outward appearance, in his clothes and work. He loves to behold himself in the mirror. He feels happy when praised and is therefore very susceptible to flattery . . .
Again, these are most certainly my natural inclinations, which I daily have to battle against.
3. Tendency to the external. The sanguine does not like to enter into himself, but directs his attention to the external. In this respect he is the very opposite of the melancholic person who is given to introspection, who prefers to be absorbed by deep thoughts and more or less ignores the external. This leaning to the external is shown in the keen interest which the sanguine pays to his own appearance, as well as to that of others; to a beautiful face, to fine and modern clothes, and to good manners. In the sanguine the five senses are especially active, while the choleric uses rather his reason and will and the melancholic his feelings. The sanguine sees everything, hears everything, talks about everything. He is noted for his facility and vivacity of speech, his inexhaustible variety of topics and flow of words which often make him disagreeable to others. The sanguine person in consequence of his vivacity has an eye for details, an advantageous disposition which is more or less lacking in choleric and melancholic persons.
To read this tendency was to be given an explanation for why it is I always feel so conscious of my appearance. Whether my hair is parted over enough. Whether my clothes are hanging all right. Whether I look too tired. Whether I might have gained a pound or two. Why I naturally talk so excitedly. Why I care so much about my blog having the perfect color palate. Why my photos must always be cropped to the perfect ratio. Why I have been habitually intent on writing introspective characters, since regular introspection (which doesn’t turn into writing) is, for me, foreign (and therefore a fascinating topic for me to be impulsively interested in).
4. Optimism. The sanguine looks at everything from the bright side. He is optimistic, overlooks difficulties, and is always sure of success. If he fails, he does not worry about it too long but consoles himself easily. His vivacity explains his inclination to poke fun at others, to tease them and to play tricks on them. He takes it for granted that others are willing to take such things in good humor and he is very much surprised if they are vexed…
Oh, heavens . . . this is so very me. Although fortunately I am now usually able to sense (through practice) when it’s not the right time to make a joke.
The life of prayer of the sanguine suffers from three obstacles: 1) He finds great difficulty in the so-called interior prayer for which a quiet, prolonged reflection is necessary; likewise in meditation, spiritual reading, and examination of conscience. 2) He is easily distracted on account of his ever active senses and his uncontrolled imagination and is thereby prevented from attaining a deep and lasting recollection in God. 3) At prayer a sanguine lays too much stress upon emotion and sensible consolation, and in consequence becomes easily disgusted during spiritual aridity.
While I have been given graces to not lay so much stress upon emotion in prayer and the spiritual life, and to see instead the necessity of free will and good resolution, this paragraph enlightened me as to why it is I seem to have such difficulty in “entering into myself” and in making what I feel is a thorough examination of conscience: something I’ve been reflecting on frequently over the past year. (I make an effort to go to Confession between every one and three weeks, which is probably ideal for my temperament-related difficulties, as a matter of fact . . .) My imagination is naturally very active and I can’t think of a single prayer during the day when I’m not unwittingly distracted by something my mind conjures up at least two or three times. Meditation is similarly difficult, though of course not impossible. It’s just . . . not natural for me. (Which probably means I’m not meant for the convent, I suppose . . .)
Anyway . . . that’s probably more than enough about the natural struggles and negative tendencies of the sanguine temperament for one blog post. They were greatly enlightening to me . . . but it was nice to read about some of the positive qualities as well 🙂
1. The sanguine person has many qualities on account of which he fares well with his fellow men and endears himself to them. a) The sanguine is an extrovert; he readily makes acquaintance with other people, is very communicative, loquacious, and associates easily with strangers. b) He is friendly in speech and behavior and can pleasantly entertain his fellow men by his interesting narratives and witticisms. c) He is very pleasant and willing to oblige. He dispenses his acts of kindness not so coldly as a choleric, not so warmly and touchingly as the melancholic, but at least in such a jovial and pleasant way that they are graciously received. d) He is compassionate whenever a mishap befalls his neighbor and is always ready to cheer him by a friendly remark. . . . The sanguine person has many qualities by which he wins the affection of his superiors. . . . He is pliable and docile. The virtue of obedience, which is generally considered as difficult, is easy for him . . .
However, most helpful of all for me was this:
V. METHOD OF SELF-TRAINING FOR THE SANGUINE
1. A sanguine person must give himself to reflection on spiritual as well as temporal affairs. It is especially necessary for him to cultivate those exercises of prayer in which meditation prevails; for instance, morning meditation, spiritual reading, general and particular examination of conscience, meditation on the mysteries of the rosary, and the presence of God. Superficiality is the misfortune, reflection the salvation of the sanguine. In regard to temporal affairs the sanguine person must continually bear in mind that he cannot do too much thinking about them: he must consider every point; anticipate all possible difficulties; he must not be overconfident, over-optimistic. 2. He must daily practice mortification of the senses: the eyes, ears, tongue, the sense of touch, and guard the palate against overindulging in exquisite foods and drinks. 3. He must absolutely see to it that he be influenced by the good and not by the bad; that he accept counsel and direction. A practical aid against distraction is a strictly regulated life, and in a community the faithful observance of the Rules. 4. Prolonged spiritual aridity is a very salutary trial for him, because his unhealthy sentimentality is thereby cured or purified. 5. He must cultivate his good traits: as charity, obedience, candor, cheerfulness, and sanctify these natural good qualities by supernatural motives. He must continually struggle against those faults to which he is so much inclined by his natural disposition, such as, vanity and self complacency; love of particular friendships; sentimentality; sensuality; jealousy; levity; superficiality; instability.
So yes. There’s a peek into Mary Donellan’s natural temperament. I have begun to scratch the surface of knowing myself and therefore (hopefully) growing more purposefully in virtue and self-control. I highly recommend reading through Fr. Hock’s explanations of the four temperaments and his exhortations to deeper self-knowledge so that we may grow in holiness and imitation of Christ.