The ancient humoural system


Diagram from Noga Arikha’s Passions and Tempers. Read about the four humours.

In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis wrote, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.” This systematizing impulse was made possible, I submit, because the medieval man had discovered the writings of Aristotle, arguably the first thinker in the West who possessed what Lewis calls an “intense love of system.”

On the Myers & Briggs Type Indicator, the “fourth preference pair describes how you like to live your outer life – what are the behaviors others tend to see? Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)?” I test as a “P”, which means that I am not constitutionally disposed to systematizing like a “J.” Perceivers are like jazz artists, insofar as we improvise based on a score rather than adhere rigidly to it. It would be mistake to think that perceivers are disinterested in systems. For example, I am fascinated by the ancient system of four humours, and continually trying to learn more about this typology and to discern its fittingness within Christian living. These two books come highly recommended:

  • Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the HumoursThis is “the first book ever to recount the full history in the West of the system of the four humours – blood, phlegm, choler, melancholy – fluids within the organism that, for 2500 years, were deemed to determine health and illness, mood and temperament. It takes the reader from ancient Greece to today`s world, via the middle ages, the Renaissance, the era of scientific revolutions, the period of the Enlightenment, and the beginning of neuroscience in the 19th century. The humoural system theoretically disappeared with the advent of modern medicine, but Passions and Tempers describes the surprising and fascinating guises it takes in our day.” The author is “a historian of ideas, particularly interested in the relation between mind and body, and in helping to bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities.” (See website for book).
  • Art and Laraine Bennett, The Temperament God Gave You. “All of us are born with distinct personality traits. Some of us live for crowds and parties; others seek solitude and time for quiet reflection. Some of us are naturally pushy, while others are content just to get along. We don’t pick and choose these traits; they’re just part of the way we’re made. For in the womb God doesn’t merely mold our body; He also gives us the temperament that, all our days, colors our understanding, guides our choices, and serves as the foundation of our moral and spiritual life. Ancient philosophers identified four basic temperaments, and over the centuries, countless wise souls have used these four to understand human nature. Now comes The Temperament God Gave You, the first Catholic book on the subject in 70 years. Here veteran Catholic counselor Art Bennett and his wife Laraine provide an accessible synthesis of classical wisdom, modern counseling science, and Catholic spirituality: a rich understanding of the temperaments and what they mean for you and for your family. Drawing on decades of study, prayer, and practical experience, Art and Laraine show you how to identify your own temperament and use it to become what God is calling you to be: a loving spouse, an effective parent, and a good friend. Best of all, they give you a Catholic understanding of the four temperaments that will bring you closer to God and help you discover the path to holiness that’s right for you.” (See the temperament indicator from book).

I took the Temperament Quiz based on Art & Laraine Bennett’s book and my results were surprising. I always thought of myself as a sanguine-choleric but on this particular test I come up as a melancholic-phlegmatic, which may indicate that there is a gap between my self-perception and reality or, alternatively, my temperament has undergone some transformation over the years. The unexpected outcome may also indicate that systems have limited value, and no human being, in his or her full-orbed complexity, can or should be pigeonholed. Take the quiz and share your results with me through the above website.

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2 thoughts on “The ancient humoural system

    • Were you surprised by my results? Or, once you read over the description of the melancholic-phlegmatic, does it make sense?

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