"Now it is possible for some of the powers of the soul to be stronger in one individual than in another, because of their different bodily temperaments." –St. Thomas Aquinas ("Summa Theologica" I-II.84.4)


For thousands of years the West's wisest minds have used the four classical temperaments, or humors, to understand an individual's basic tendencies of mood or state of mind. The Greek doctor, Hippocrates, who is generally acknowledged as the ‘Father of Medicine,’ first observed these tendencies, associating them with the four "humors," or fluid substances, in the body: phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, and Roman doctor, Galen, adopted them as the basis of personality as the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Christian thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, and William Shakespeare, adopted them as the basis for a person's emotional responses and dispositions, calling the temperaments choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. These basic tendencies are so pervasive, in fact, that respected personality type indicators–such as the Myers-Briggs Test–use the temperaments as the principle foundation for their entire account of the personality types and differences. The temperaments are not the ultimate key to self-knowledge, but they are a helpful starting point. Knowing your own or another’s temperament, especially those of your students, gives a teacher a quick insight as to how they might respond to certain situations, how to help them master their emotions, and how to motivate them to virtuous action.

A Note on Use

There are other great tests to discover your primary and secondary temperaments. We offer four sections on each temperament: a definition and explanation; examples from Western and American history, literature, and art; advice on specific virtues to seek and vices to avoid; and an examination of temperament. The definitions are based on the speed, intensity, and duration of the person's reaction, and from those three factors the explanation describes common attributes of that temperament. The examples from history, literature, and art include both heroic and tragic figures. Tragic figures were overcome by their unmastered temperaments, whereas the heroic figures mastered their temperaments. Because each temperament inclines individuals toward certain virtues and away from others, or toward certain vices and away from others, we identify what virtues and vices each temperament inclines toward for your own self-knowledge and plan for personal growth. Lastly, the examination of temperament, also based on the speed, intensity, and duration of the emotional reaction, seeks to increase an individual’s temperamental self-knowledge, and help one to master one's temperament.

Study Materials

Quotations on the Nature of the Temperaments

“Health consists in a certain balance of humors ordered to the nature of the animal, which is called healthy” –Thomas Aquinas (On the Cardinal Virtues 3.reply)

"Antony: Forsooth, Cousin, I suppose many of them are in this case. The devil, as I said before, seeketh his occasions; for as Saint Peter saith, Ad­versarius vester diabolus quasi leo rugiens circuit quaerens quemdevoret (“Your adversary the devil as a roaring lion goeth about, seeking whom he may devour”). He marketh well therefore the state and condition that every man standeth in, not only concerning these outward things—lands, possessions, goods, authority, fame, favor, or hatred of the world—but also men’s complexions within them: health or sickness, good humors or bad, by which they be lighthearted or lumpish, strong-hearted or faint and feeble of spirit, bold and hardy or timorous and fearful of courage. And after, as these things minister him matter of temptation, so useth he himself in the manner of his temptation." –Thomas More (Dialogue of Comfort Book 2, Chapter 16- The Essential Works of Thomas More)