Some Thoughts on Temperament

It is difficult to understand the idea of Temperament out of a modern world view. The problem is that we have generally been infected with the idea that everything is based on substance and can be explained from a material standpoint. Along with this is the tendency to consider Temperament as being a sort of classification of “psychological” types. Both can be very misleading.

Consider the following. If someone asked you why a plant is green, what would you answer? Would you say that it is green because it contains tiny cells filled with a green substance called chlorophyll? This would be in accord with modern thinking. But this doesn’t answer the question. For all we are saying is that the green plant (chlorophyll is Greek for green plant) makes the green plant green.

A natural philosopher would answer this question quite differently. He would say the plant is green because it is alive. Its “greenness” tells us this. Green is an expression of “essence”. If a plant has died it turns brown and black, it looses its greenness. We can say that plants have one “Temperament” — green.

There are four Temperaments associated with the human being, each of which finds an expression in one of the humours (in German the word “Säfte”, sap is also used, which is very suggestive). These are phlegmatic – from phlegm (from the Greek phlegein, to burn), melancholic – from melancholia or black bile, sanguine – from sanguis or blood and choleric – from choler or yellow bile.

If we keep in mind that the Temperaments are an expression of the four qualities of warm, cold, moist and dry and if we keep in mind the above discussion about “green” it should be possible to come to an understanding about what was meant when speaking about the Temperaments. It would be to complicated here to go into detail, as this is a theme that requires volumes, but just to give an example of how differentiated the understanding of Temperament was here is a passage out of “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton which describes the underlying humours:*

“• Humours— A humour is a liquid or fluent part of the body, comprehended in it, for the preservation of it; and is either innate or born with us, or adventitious and acquisite. The radical or innate, is daily supplied by nourishment, which some call cambium, and make those secondary humours of ros and gluten to maintain it: or acquisite, to maintain these four first primary humours, coming and proceeding from the first concoction in the liver, by which means chylus is excluded. Some divide them into profitable and excrementitious. But [954]Crato out of Hippocrates will have all four to be juice, and not excrements, without which no living creature can be sustained: which four, though they be comprehended in the mass of blood, yet they have their several affections, by which they are distinguished from one another, and from those adventitious, peccant, or [955]diseased humours, as Melancthon calls them.

• Blood — Blood is a hot, sweet, temperate, red humour, prepared in the mesaraic veins, and made of the most temperate parts of the chylus in the liver, whose office is to nourish the whole body, to give it strength and colour, being dispersed by the veins through every part of it. And from it spirits are first begotten in the heart, which afterwards by the arteries are communicated to the other parts.

• Pituita — or phlegm, is a cold and moist humour, begotten of the colder part of the chylus (or white juice coming out of the meat digested in the stomach,) in the liver; his office is to nourish and moisten the members of the body, which as the tongue are moved, that they be not over dry.

• Choler— is hot and dry, bitter, begotten of the hotter parts of the chylus, and gathered to the gall: it helps the natural heat and senses, and serves to the expelling of excrements.

• Melancholy — Melancholy, cold and dry, thick, black, and sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen, is a bridle to the other two hot humours, blood and choler, preserving them in the blood, and nourishing the bones.

These four humours have some analogy
with the four elements, and to the four ages in man.”

a free e-book of this text is available at:

* It should be noted that this text stands at the transition to the modern period and so it is more “substantial” in its view. Even so it demonstrates that the idea of Temperament was imbedded in a whole world view and in order to approach it we have to capture the sense of the meaning. Trying to understand alchemical “terminology” is not unlike this. If we think that an alchemical author is talking about table salt when he speaks of salt is to be very much deceived.

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