Some Thoughts on Temperament: Phlegma and the Phlegmatic

It is thought that every human being when healthy has a balance of all four Humours. Each Temperament is a slight constitutional emphasis of one particular Humour.

One of the best ways to deepen ones understanding of the Temperaments is to find an example where one of the Humours is expressed in an extreme form and where this is also a healthy state. The human being, regardless of temperamental disposition, has a balance of the Humours. The best place to look is in the animal realm where it is possible for one of the Humours to be emphasised.

Consider the following table:

It gives a schematic overview of the Humours with their element, qualities and central organ with which they are associated.

We will use this table as the starting point of our investigation of the Temperaments.
What kind of creature is a visible representation of phlegm? First it must be cold and moist, secondly it must have an affinity to water, thirdly an excess of phlegm or mucus must integral to its healthy state and last of all is brain-like?

A good candidate is the garden snail. Snails thrive in a cold and moist environment, the garden snail is the humble cousin of a large family that prefers the sea. Mucus is part of their nature, so much so that they use it to walk on. Mucus is also used to protect themselves from being injured by hard and sharp objects as well as potential enemies, hard and aggressive creatures (ants). They protect their soft and moist bodies with a shell made of calcium – not unlike the brain being protected by a hard skull. Snails are nocturnal, usually searching for food during the cooler and moister night. They are also a creatures of habit, quite often returning in the morning to the exact place where they rested the day before. They are also able to adapt their “foot” to the exact form of the surface they are resting on so that a suction effect is produced, making them more difficult to remove. The snails slowness is proverbial.

If we take these characteristics and lift them up to a human level and applied to the phlegmatic Temperament we could speak of the following factors:

• slowness
• vulnerability, protection through either a shell or a layer of mucus
• habit
• tenacity

Robert Burton describes the phlegmatic as, “slothful, dull, heavy, &c.” The above characteristics can easily be integrated.

The Temperaments are also used to describe the four ages of man. The phlegmatic Temperament is that of old age. If you observe someone who is over eighty some of these qualities are quite pronounced. Slowness of movement is obvious. But there is also the need to withdraw into one’s house. The day of the very old is ruled by habit and it is rare to find an aged person who is not convinced that his or her opinions are absolutely right!

We can of course continue our exploration of phlegma by looking at other molluscs. I would like to do this by looking at the octopus and the clam. Each can give a further attribute or show certain phlegmatic processes.


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