Friday, September 7, 2012

Cholerics in Charge

For about thirty years now, I’ve been interested in the theory of temperaments that categorizes people as either sanguine, choleric, melancholy, or phlegmatic. The theory traces these temperaments back to four humours (i.e. bodily fluids): respectively blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Most sources – both reputable, printed sources and virtually every internet source except the one you’re reading now – say that the theory goes back to Galen. But I’ve read Galen, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not there. He makes similar divisions of people, the most interesting based on whether you live on the north, west, south, or east side of the hill, but he says nothing about the four temperaments I’m looking for. The earliest mention I know of comes in Elyot’s Castel of Helthe from 1541. Also of very dubious worth, by the way, are the charts you can find on the internet aligning these four temperaments with everything from David Keirsey’s personality scheme to Hogwarts houses. I know I’m melancholy, and I know I’m a Ravenclaw, but most charts don't line up those two.

The best, quickest way to display the difference between these four humour-based temperaments is to describe each group’s typical approach to a serious problem. The sanguine person tends to laugh off the problem and look at the bright side. The choleric quickly draws up a plan for addressing the problem. The melancholy person broods about it, perhaps ending up with a plan but equally likely ending up with a poem or a picture that expresses his anguish. The phlegmatic stays calm and comforts herself with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has earned my fascination and attention over the last two weeks, and one train of thought has me locating Weber’s capitalists in the scheme of four humour-based temperaments. I thought Protestant Ethic was one of those books that all educated people knew about but none had read. But so far, none of my friends I’ve talked to about it have even heard of it. His thesis is rather simple, if surprising. Weber says that while all periods of history and all corners of the earth have known people who seek a profit, only the recent West has produced entrepreneurs looking to establish profitability. The new capitalism, he says, involves the dispassionate organization of labor and the reinvestment of profit in profit-making assets, but the real difference lies in the ethos, the thought that one ought to make as much money as one can; Weber first sees the familiar formula in Ben Franklin’s “Time is money” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.” The surprising part of the proposition is that Weber traces this ethic back to a network of doctrines held by Calvinists and Calvinistic Pietists teaching that material blessings are signs of God’s gracious election. The Pietist Richard Baxter represented the fullest expression of the Protestant work ethic when he said that one had a sacred duty to do the most with any business opportunity that came one’s way.

Without hearing any rebuttals, I’m totally convinced of the accuracy of Weber’s conclusion. But I’ve been thinking that the peculiar history of the West didn’t really produce any new kind of personality but simply put the cholerics firmly in charge of politics for a while and in charge of business for a long time. Cholerics can make decisions and plans based on reason without the distraction of feelings, and if the goal at hand is to make money, cholerics will find the way to make the most money. Cholerics aren’t necessarily evil; the world needs people who can do the right thing, the hard thing, even when feelings tell us to stop. Think of the surgeon who could saw off a gangrenous arm with no anaesthetic to give his patient other than whiskey, and you’re thinking of a choleric person.

But rationally pursuing monetary gain without thought for the pain of the laborers is a big problem. Reason tells the people running businesses to increase profits by lowering piecework wages. It tells them to consider the cost of safety measures according to an actuarial table of healthcare costs or lawsuit costs raised by injured workers. It tells them to call us during dinner to try to sell us cruise tickets!!! Wow, I’d like to see the power shift to someone besides the cholerics.

By the way, didn’t the description of cholerics make it sound as if the Sorting Hat would put them all into Slytherin? That connection seems obvious, but two of the sites I just looked up align Slytherin with the sanguine temperament. How do people come up with this nonsense?! I think I’ll write a poem about it.


  1. I would have thought sanguine for Gryffindor, choleric for Slytherin, phlegmatic for Hufflepuff, and melancholic for Ravenclaw. I know I'm phlegmatic. What would you peg Brad as?

  2. I didn't really make it clear in the post that I think that the charts that align various theories of temperaments err not just in detail but in conception. Maybe the four winds, the four humours, and the four Hogwarts houses divide humanity along totally different lines. I know Keirsey's four main types don't align with the four humours. But if the humours and Hogwarts line up at all, I would definitely agree with your scheme. I would say my son is primarily choleric and secondarily melancholy.

  3. Honestly, sanguine and Slytherin? You're right, utter nonsense. I'll bet, though, that the person who came up with that is choleric!