The origins of the four temperaments of personality is the work attributed to Hippocrates from Ancient Greece. However, his inspiration came from much earlier civilizations. While they credit Hippocrates for devising this theory, he drew his ideas from the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures. Hippocrates did first put pen to paper to record his insights and to develop these ideas into a medical theory.
This was well before the study of psychology became a recognized practice. During the time of Hippocrates, 460-370 BC, it was the popular belief that human behavior was connected to the spirit world; therefore, it was thought that evil spirits caused mental health or behavioral problems.
Hippocrates was a physician and held the view that problems with the mind had a physical cause. He taught that personality disorders reflected a state of imbalance of body fluids, and he named them accordingly.
The four temperaments and the associated bodily fluids are named:
• Sanguine – blood
• Melancholic – black bile
• Choleric – yellow bile
• Phlegmatic – phlegm
The fluids are called ‘humors,’ and so the theory became known as humoralism, and studies related to these as humoral theories. Those who taught these ideas became known as humoralists.
Of course, modern psychology does not agree that the secretions of the body determine our personalities. However, a lot can still be gleaned from understanding the different types Hippocrates described. Many modern authors still draw and expand on these early ideas, and they remain very popular to this day.
Only Four Temperaments – How Are We Unique?
Given that there are only four types in this humoral theory, how can there exist the many variations of personality that we observe? Simply put, no one person is one pure type. In other words, individuality comes from the almost innumerable combinations of these types.
While we all have a mixture of types, there is one or often two that will be dominant. Basically, the theory states that each individual is a combination of these four temperaments, with one or two being more dominant.
While the four temperaments of personality would be the oldest theory of its kind, it’s possibly still the most commonly recognized, despite there being modern personality theories developed in more recent years. Since the acceptance of Psychology as a science, new theories have emerged that include many more nuanced types of personality.
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Personality Types and Traits are Not the Same
Don’t confuse a personality type with a personality trait. Traits typified the work of Freud, who spoke of the id (innate desires), ego, and superego. This methodology is often referred to as Trait Theory. A certain personality type may exhibit certain traits or characteristics. Other psychologists have developed further the ideas around Trait Theory, such as those referred to as Cardinal, Central, and Secondary traits.
The psychological makeup of humankind and Hippocrates’ theories have found new life in more recent years. Popular Christian and secular authors have expounded upon these four temperaments of personality, connecting them to religious thought and character types.
Despite the history behind the four-temperament theory, there remains a great deal of interest in its current-day application. They certainly seem to provide a source of help to those seeking to understand themselves better as well as their relationships and other people.