The Four Temperaments

These 4 temperaments help explain "why did you do that?"

Do you ever wonder why people do what they do? Does it surprise you that you and your friend react so differently to the same situation? And isn't it amazing that children with the same parents can be so different? Each person sees and responds to the world in a unique way. Philosophers, poets, and psychologists have spent hundreds of years trying to understand the most complex riddle imaginable — the human being.

The Four Temperaments

One way of understanding human beings has stood the test of time: the Four Temperaments. The sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic temperament types provide a key to solving the riddle. While humans have categorized themselves by assigning letters, numbers, colors, motivations and moods into as many as 36 divisions and personality types, the Four Temperaments remain the most simple and effective system. The model was created by Hippocrates around 350 BC. Studying the under and over-abundance of bodily fluids, he was able to discern differences between four types of people.

The Temperaments in Education
Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, revived this temperament model and introduced it to the first Waldorf teachers in 1919. He taught them that children would respond actively when each lesson offered something for each temperament type. The Four Temperaments model offers understanding of the:
  • fiery and determined Choleric temperament
  • moody and sympathetic Melancholic temperament
  • steadfast and contented Phlegmatic temperament
  • delightful and lively Sanguine temperament
Do You Recognize Yourself Yet?

While no one is completely one temperament, we all have an in-born tendency. You can think of the 7 billion people on earth as nuanced shades of the four primary "colors." Life experiences, parents, teachers, and environment bring endless variations to the four basic temperaments.

Knowing that there is no one right temperament, read on and begin to discover your primary temperament and keep in mind that each temperament has its virtues and its challenges. As adults, we strive to have a balance of each temperament so that we can adapt to any situation. Children, on the other hand, are encouraged to "live into" their temperament and experience it fully, learning to work with the strengths and challenges.

A Short Story to Illuminate the Temperaments

Imagine children playing in a park on a bright spring day when a puppy arrives on the scene: The Sanguine child may be climbing a tree or swinging on the swings, her lithe limbs strong and coordinated, her hair flying in a bright halo around her head. She has likely tried out every slide, swing, merry go round and climbing bar, all the while delighting in having her friends nearby. She loves and constantly seeks variety and rarely completes any task. When the puppy arrives, she runs over and squeals with delight, patting it and rubbing its ears. Then she spies a butterfly and she is off to give chase. The sanguine may be seen as "flighty" and "fickle" yet she has her finger on the social pulse of her class and community and genuinely cares for all.

Sitting under a newly leafing maple tree, is the Phlegmatic child. Rather round of tummy, he is content to sit comfortably watching the other children romp. He is wishing they had brought a picnic basket to the park as he fondly recalls last night's dinner. Perhaps there might be a bit of last night's pasta for lunch today? When the puppy comes over to sniff, the phlegmatic pulls him onto his lap for a comfortable cuddle enjoying his presence yet is completely unperturbed when the puppy decides to move on.

The Melancholic child isn't very happy about having to be outside today. She'd much rather be back home in her quiet room reading a book. She is sure today won't be very fun, certainly not nearly as much fun as the time they went to the park last fall and the leaves were blowing around on the ground. She is preoccupied with the knee that she skinned on the way to school yesterday and makes sure that her friends know that she took a fall. She is worried that the puppy has run away from home and thinks how sad its family must be.

At the top of the slide, the Choleric child is pretending to be captain of an ocean-going sailing ship. He revels in directing his crew members, dreaming of lands to be conquered and treasure to be found. He remains happy as long as the crew does what he says. He becomes bossy, rude and indignant when they have ideas of their own. His stocky body and ruddy cheeks can barely contain his focused energy and strength. When the puppy yelps in pain, the choleric immediately directs a playmate to hold the puppy as he examines the foot and then calmly pulls out the thorn that is lodged there.

When the puppy's owners arrive, the children realize it is getting late and head for home — the sanguine skipping and tripping along, the melancholic with drooping shoulders and dragging feet, the steady phlegmatic spurred on by the idea of an afternoon snack, and the choleric, who makes sure to splash in every puddle along the way with heavy footsteps.

Which child would you have been on that playground? Often, our primary temperament becomes clearer when we are able to recall what we were like as children, especially between ages 5 and 15. The choleric and sanguine are inherently extroverted, while the phlegmatic and melancholic are introverted. Based on those two qualities alone, you can imagine the differences of opinion that might arise in any gathering of more than one person.

Understanding how to motivate each temperament (such as challenging the choleric and offering several choices to a sanguine) and how others perceive us leads to deeper self-knowledge and promotes harmony at home, in the classroom and the workplace.

It has been said that every conflict is a conflict of temperament. Knowing more about ourselves and each other deepens understanding and strengthens relationships.

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