My friends often talk about personality types. They take various quizzes and tests and they talk about the results. Often they post these results and discussions to their various websites. These tests and quizzes can be anything from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Keirsey Temperament Sorter to zodiac signs to What Harry Potter Character Are You?

For a sampling of some of these tests and quizzes, see the Personality Project, Quizilla, and the Geek Code.

I am interested in our apparent need to categorize and classify ourselves. It is not a new task. Unsurprisingly to those that know me, I am most interested in the early generations of these sorts of systems— those you will find appropriately categorized under philosophy. When wisdom itself had not yet become overly rationalized and categorized to the point that it becomes exceedingly difficult to talk about meaningfully. In many instances this difficulty is directly attributable to the very methods of discussion. Talk has become too complex. Expertise and mastery has become conflated with pedantry, recapitulation and recrimination.

Maybe this is why I am fond of the theory of the four humours.

The four humours referred to four fluids found in the body. Upon examining fresh blood, the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, observed four portions. He declared the red portion the blood humor. The white portion mixed with blood was phlegm. The yellowish froth was choler or “yellow bile”. The heavy part that settled to the bottom of a specimen was black bile.

Early Greek thinkers believed health was associated with a balance of humours—Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle all wrote on the subject. Imbalance in the humours was the direct cause of all diseases and ailments. The qualities of the humours, in turn, influenced the nature of the diseases they caused.

Later physicians further emphasized the importance of the qualities. The term “temperament” originally meant to refer to bodily dispositions: a person’s susceptibility to particular diseases. It came to refer more to psychological dispositions: behavioral and emotional inclinations. An ideal temperament involved a balanced mixture of the four qualities. Four temperaments became identified with the humours with which they were associated—that is, sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic.

The sanguine personality is an extrovert, a talker, an optimist. He makes friends easily and has a good sense of humor. He lives in the present, with a malleable disposition: an almost childlike outlook, and sincere at heart. He hates to be alone and needs to be the center of attention. Easily distracted and undisciplined he often bases his decisions on feelings.

The phlegmatic personality is an introvert, a watcher, an analyst. A phlegmatic person is calm and unemotional. Quiet yet witty, he keeps his feelings hidden. He is not easily upset and can take the good with the bad. Endowed with compassion and concern, he is a good mediator—inoffensive. He resists change, fearful and worried about what might transpire. He lacks internal motivation and resents external application of encouragement to compensate. Selfish and aloof, he will seek to avoid responsibility.

The choleric personality is also an extrovert and an executor. Independent and self-sufficient he exudes confidence. He seeks practical solutions to problems and stimulates activity in others—a leader. He excels in emergencies, is usually right and has little need for friends. He is unsympathetic; he dislikes tears and emotions. He is easily angered, quick-tempered. He is impatient of poor production and can dominate others, deciding for them what is best.

The melancholic personality is an introvert, a thinker, a pessimist. A person who is melancholic is thoughtful, analytical and emotionally labile. He makes friends cautiously and avoids causing attention. He has a deep concern for other people—sensitive, conscientious, poetic. He is plagued with aversion, despondency, guilt, irritability, and restlessness.

Why have I spent all this time talking about this theory of personality? — Perhaps I am using it as an illustration of my own demeanor. I am unsure. I wanted to write about it, and so I did.

There is something simple about it: something true. I remember first reading the descriptions and trying to determine the best personality to have. Is it better to be sanguine than choleric? Is the phlegmatic a better person than the melancholic? But the truth of the inquiry was there from the beginning. I had overlooked it. Each of these personalities is an imperfection. The ideal personality is the one that combines all of the strengths, and consequently counters each of the four’s weaknesses.

If only it were that simple.

I wonder if these depictions help us in our day-to-day lives. I wonder if these depictions help us in our day-to-day interactions with other people. I wonder if the pressure to accept other people as they are has not promoted the fetishization of personality typing. If I know what class of person you are, I can at least accept that you are that class of person, and relieve myself of the burden of knowing you, yourself. After all, I know what kind of person you are and people like you always act like this.

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