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 Theologiae I-II q. 82, a. 4)

What Are the Temperaments?

For thousands of years great thinkers in the Western tradition have used the four classical temperaments to understand an individual’s basic tendencies of mood or state of mind. The Greek doctor, Hippocrates, 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. Both the Roman philosopher, Seneca, and the Roman doctor, Galen, adopted them as the basis of personality and associated them with the four elements of ancient physics: earth, air, fire, and water. Later thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, William Shakespeare, and many others, considered them a significant source for understanding a person’s emotional responses and dispositions, calling the temperaments choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. The temperaments are by no means the ultimate key to self-knowledge, but they are a helpful starting point. Knowing your own or another’s temperament gives one helpful insight into how someone might respond to certain situations, how to help them master their emotions, and how to motivate them to virtuous action. There are other great resources to help you discover your primary and secondary temperaments. 


Cholerics' natural reactions are quick, strong, and enduring.


Sanguines' natural reactions are quick and strong but short-lived.


Melancholics' natural reactions are slow but strong and enduring.


Phlegmatics' natural reactions are slow, weak, and short-lived.

A Note on Use

We offer three sections on each temperament: a definition and explanation; examples from Western history and literature; and advice on specific virtues to seek and vices to avoid. 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 each 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 were able to master 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 one’s temperamental self-knowledge, and help one to master one’s temperament. 

Quotations on the Temperaments