Finding the humour in your temperament

In medieval times temperament was believed to be a combination of the four humours (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic) that make up your disposition. Although the science has changed we still use these words and the concepts they were built around to describe our moods.

Medieval science in Europe was grounded in ancient Greek science that was compatible with the beliefs of the Christian church. The science of temperament came from Hippocrates (born c. 460 BC), his son-in-law Polybus (c 400 BC) , and later Galen (c. 129-200 AD). It was based on their observation that blood separates into four parts: the clear red part, a yellow liquid that rises to the top, a dark liquid that settles to the bottom, and a whitish fluid.

Everything has a mix of these four elementals which they called humours. With people the relative proportion of each determines our disposition. The word temperament was taken from Latin temperamentum which means a proper mixture, or a mixing in due proportion, from the Latin root temperare to mix.

Sanguine the humour of the blood

The hot and moist element, is the humour of the blood. It is associated with the liver and with air. Where blood dominates a person is said to be sanguine from the Latin sanguis for blood. Being sanguine gives a person a cheerful, hopeful, confident disposition.

Choleric and the humour of yellow bile

The hot and dry element is the humour of yellow bile. It is associated with the spleen and with fire. Where yellow bile dominates a person is said to be choleric from the Greek khole for bile (khole is the basis for cholera a disease originally blamed on choler or bile and for the more modern word, cholesterol, based on chole for bile and steros for solid).

Being choleric gives a person an extremely irritable or easily angered nature. We still describe someone has hot tempered.

Melancholic and the humour of black bile

The cold and dry element is the humour of black bile. It is associated with the gall bladder and with earth. Where black bile dominates a person is said to be melancholic from the Greek melas for black and khole for bile. Being melancholic is having a gloomy state of mind or being depressed.

Phlegmatic and the humour of phlegm

The cold and moist element is the humour of phlegm. It is associated with the lungs and brain and with water. Where phlegm dominates a person is said to be phlegmatic from the Greek phlegmatikos meaning abounding in phlegm. A phlegmatic person is not easily excited to action or to displays of emotion. In the extreme this can be apathy and sluggishness. They are usually self-possessed, calm, and composed.