Around 500 years before the birth of our Savior, the spirit of science began
to be applied to the practice of medicine. Where before the ancients
looked to "the gods" to explain the workings of the natural world, Hippocrates
(b. ca. 460 B.C.) urged that sine qua non of science: observation.
In the course of the studies that merited his becoming known as "the Father
of Medicine," he noticed that blood removed from the body separates into
four parts: the clear red, a yellowish liquid that rises to the top, the
dark liquid that settles to the bottom, and whitish fluid. He and his students,
especially his son-in-law, Polybus, took these observations and developed
a theory of medicine that was to hold sway in the West and in the Islamic
world for thousands of years -- a theory further expounded upon by Galen:
that physical and mental health are a matter of a good balance of four liquids
("humors"), all believed to be produced in the liver, but which are found
in the veins and are associated with various organs of the body.
This theory of bodily humors 1 -- called
"humorism " or "humoralism" -- holds that each person produces all of these
humors, but that the preponderance of one relative to the others -- a condition
called "dyscrasia" -- brings on illness. Each of these humors was believed
to be associated with one of the four elements which, when combined in various
proportions, make up all things:
The humor of Blood,
associated with the liver and with Air, which is the hot and moist element.
A person in whom blood predominates is said to be "sanguine," from the Latin
The humor of Yellow
Bile, associated with the spleen and with Fire, which is the hot and dry
element. A person in whom yellow bile predominates is said to be "choleric,"
from the Greek "khole" (bile).
The humor of Black
Bile, associated with the gall bladder and with Earth, which is the cold
and dry element. A person in whom black bile predominates is said to be
"melancholic," from the Greek "melas" (black) and "khole" (bile).
The humor of Phlegm,
associated with the lungs and brain and with Water, which is the cold and
moist element. A person in whom phlegm predominates is said to be "phlegmatic,"
from the Greek "phlegmatikos" (abounding in phlegm) .
The following excerpt
from the 11th c. Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, attributed to John
of Milano, give the basic run-down as to the effects of too much of one humor
humour do too much abound,
These signes will be thereof appearing cheefe,
The face will swell, the cheeks grow red and round,
With staring eies, the pulse beate soft and breefe,
The veynes exceed, the belly will be bound,
The temples, and the forehead full of griefe,
Unquiet sleeps, that so strange dreames will make
To cause one blush to tell when he doth wake:
Besides the moysture of the mouth and spittle,
Will taste too sweet, and seeme the throat to tickle.
do exceed, as may sometime,
Your eares will ring, and make you to be wakefull,
Your tongue will seeme all rough, and oftentimes
Cause vomits, unaccustomed and hatefull,
Great thirst, your excrements are full of slime,
The stomacke squeamish, sustenance ungratefull,
Your appetite will seeme in nought delighting,
Your heart still greeued with continuall byting,
The pulse beate hard and swift, all hot, extreame,
Your spittle soure, of fire-worke oft you dreame.
||If Flegme abundance
haue due limits past,
These signes are here set downe will plainly shew,
The mouth will seeme to you quite out of taste,
And apt with moisture still to overflow,
Your sides will seeme all sore downe to the waist,
Your meat wax loathsome, your digestion slow,
Your head and stomacke both in so ill taking,
One seeming euer griping tother aking:
With empty veynes, the pulse beat slow and soft,
In sleepe, of seas and ryuers dreaming oft.
|But if that
dangerous humour ouer-raigne,
Of Melancholy, sometime making mad,
These tokens then will be appearing plaine,
The pulse beat hard, the colour darke and bad:
The water thin, a weake fantasticke braine,
False-grounded ioy, or else perpetuall sad,
Affrighted oftentimes with dreames like visions,
Presenting to the thought ill apparitions,
Of bitter belches from the stomacke comming,
His eare (the left especiall) euer humming.
Note in the above that the humors are said to affect even dreams. Chaucer
alludes to this in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" when the rooster, Chanticleer,
had a dream in which he was being pursued by a yellowish-red hound-like creature.
He wonders if the dream is prophetic, so his wife, Pertelote, reassures him
by telling him:
Certes this dream,
which ye have mette tonight,
Cometh of the great supefluity
Of youre rede cholera, pardie,
Which causeth folk to dreaden in their dreams
Of arrows, and of fire with redde beams,
Of redde beastes, that they will them bite,
Of conteke [contention], and of whelpes great and lite [little];
as the humour of melancholy
Causeth full many a man in sleep to cry,
For fear of bulles, or of beares blake,
Or elles that black devils will them take,
Of other humours could I tell also,
That worke many a man in sleep much woe;
That I will pass as lightly as I can.
goes on to prescribe herbs for her husband to use to avoid such dreams in
the future. According to humorist theory, not only herbs, but stages of life,
colors, various activities, the zodiac, and even geographic location affect
the production of these humors, and finding the right herb, activity, etc.,
and doing things at the right time, should bring about "eucrasia," or a state
of balance. Most obviously and importantly, foods could also affect the balance,
with some foods being hot, and others cold; some being moist, and others
dry. The common cold, for example, was believed to have been caused by a
production of too much phlegm, so fish, which is a cold and moist food, should
be avoided by such a patient lest he add to the production of the out-of-balance
humor; instead, he should partake of hot and dry foods, such as pepper, to
counteract the cold and moist phlegmatic influence.
The seasons, too, play a role in balancing or unbalancing the humors, as
St. John Damascene (b. ca. 676) tells us in his "Exposition of the Orthodox
The course which
the Creator appointed for them [the planets] to run is unceasing and remaineth
fixed as He established them. For the divine David says, The moon and the
stars which Thou establishedst, and by the word 'establishedst,' he referred
to the fixity and unchangeableness of the order and series granted to them
by God. For He appointed them for seasons, and signs, and days and years.
It is through the Sun that the four seasons are brought about.
And the first of these is spring: for in it God created all things, and even
down to the present time its presence is evidenced by the bursting of the
flowers into bud, and this is the equinoctial period, since day and night
each consist of twelve hours. It is caused by the sun rising in the middle,
and is mild and increases the blood, and is warm and moist, and holds a position
midway between winter and summer, being warmer and drier than winter, but
colder and moister than summer. This season lasts from March 21st till June
Next, when the rising of the sun moves towards more northerly parts, the
season of summer succeeds, which has a place midway between spring and autumn,
combining the warmth of spring with the dryness of autumn: for it is dry
and warm, and increases the yellow bile. In it falls the longest day, which
has fifteen hours, and the shortest night of all, having only nine hours.
This season lasts from June 24th till September 25th.
Then when the sun again returns to the middle, autumn takes the place of
summer. It has a medium amount of cold and heat, dryness and moisture, and
holds a place midway between summer and winter, combining the dryness of
summer with the cold of winter. For it is cold and dry, and increases the
black bile. This season, again, is equinoctial, both day and night consisting
of twelve hours, and it lasts from September 25th till December 25th.
And when the rising of the sun sinks to its smallest and lowest point, i.e.
the south, winter is reached, with its cold and moisture. It occupies a place
midway between autumn and spring, combining the cold of autumn and the moisture
of spring. In it falls the shortest day, which has only nine hours, and the
longest night, which has fifteen: and it lasts from December 25th till March
21st. For the Creator made this wise provision that we should not pass from
the extreme of cold, or heat, or dryness, or moisture, to the opposite extreme,
and thus incur grievous maladies. For reason itself teaches us the danger
of sudden changes.
the various seasons, such as we do during Ember
Days, helps bring the humors into balance. The Golden Legend, written
by Blessed Jacopo de Voragine (A.D. 1230-1298), Archbishop of Genoa, gives
the following as one of eight reasons for our Ember Day fasts:
The fifth reason,
as saith John Damascenus: in March and in printemps the blood groweth and
augmenteth, and in summer coler, in September melancholy, and in winter phlegm.
Then we fast in March for to attemper and depress the blood of concupiscence
disordinate, for sanguine of his nature is full of fleshly concupiscence.
In summer we fast because that coler should be lessened and refrained, of
which cometh wrath. And then is he full naturally of ire. In harvest we fast
for to refrain melancholy. The melancholious man naturally is cold, covetous
and heavy. In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of
lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic.
the eight musical modes, or scales, of classical Western music are seen by
humorists to also affect the balance of humors, with the modes being evenly
divided into four groups, each group affecting one the bodily humors:
But what is
most interesting and most fun of all to explore is the notion
of how the humors affect the temperaments.
The Four Temperaments
We all have an
intuitive awareness that there are different "types" of people. This one's
"an outgoing fellow"; that one's "the quiet type." This one's better off
working with his hands while another excels at bookish pursuits. One sort
of person is a leader; another sort is a follower. These basic dispositions,
or manners of thinking, behaving, and reacting, are called "temperaments"
-- a word whose etymology reflects humorist theory: it derives from the Latin
temperamentum, which refers to "proper mixture." Going further back,
and keeping the aforementioned words of St. John Damascene in mind, it could
ultimately stem from the Latin tempus or tempor-, which refer
to time and seasons.
Humorism asserts that each person is born with a basic temperament as determined
by which of the four humors tends to predominate in the individual. As we
all produce each humor, there will be varying degrees of influence by each,
but the effects of one is usually more evident. In some people, the next
most influential humor might be quite strong so that such a person can be
generally described as having a combined temperament; in others, the most
abundant humor dominates the others such that there is no question at all
as to which category he falls into.
What follows is a very basic outline of the characteristics of each temperament
as classically described. For more explicit information, you'll have to take
the test linked to at the bottom of the page!
Not given to worry
Tends to follow rather than lead
Not averse to change
Tends to prefer informality
Aware of surroundings
Lacking in perseverance
Lacking in initiative
Prone to carelessness, hedonism, flightiness, and lust
Not given to worry
Rarely shows embarrassment
Tends to lead rather
Prone to hypocrisy, deceit,
pride, and anger
Likes to be alone
Often fussy and
Prone to depression, avarice, and gluttony
Slow in movement
Constant in mood
Not prone to worry
Prone to stagnation and
An exaggerated way of
understanding the four temperaments is to consider four people who see a
star fall to earth. The Sanguine talks about it animatedly to all present;
the Choleric wants to form an expedition to find it and analyze it; the
Melancholic ponders what it means and how he feels about it; and the Phlegmatic
waits for the others to decide what to do as whatever decision they make
is fine by him. It's kind of fun to analyze friends -- and characters we
see in movies, too -- in terms of these four temperaments. Consider "The
Wizard of Oz" with its Sanguine Cowardly Lion, Choleric Scarecrow, Melancholic
Tin Man, and Phlegmatic Dorothy. Or "A Streetcar Named Desire" with its Sanguine
Mitch, Choleric Stanley, Melancholic Blanche DuBois, and Phlegmatic Stella.
See the temperament test to discover your dominant
classic temperament and to learn more about your fundamental dispositions,
your bright side, your dark side, and some things you need to know in order
to make the best of who you
1 Also spelled "humours"
2 Humorism greatly affected medieval cuisine as
cooks endeavored to prepare foods in proper balance, for example, cold, moist
fish would be served with hot, dry spices or prepared with wine, which was
also considered hot and dry; game was considered to be dry, so was prepared
in moist fats; vinegar was considered cold and dry, so was tempered with
honey, which was considered hot and moist, etc. The goal in cooking for the
ill, however, wasn't "a balanced diet," but a diet that would counteract
the effects of the humor causing the illness.
Note that it isn't the actual temperature or actual liquidity of a food that
determines its classification as hot or cold, dry or moist; it is its inherent
quality and its effects on the body. The degrees of hotness/coldness and
dryness/moistness were often rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the
Humorist theory also affected cooking techniques: dry foods were boiled
instead of roasted, moist foods were baked instead of boiled, and so on.
Just for the sake
of information: The modern Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) classifies
personalities into sixteen groups by analyzing responses to a long questionnaire
and determining where a respondent fits with regard to four basic questions:
Introversion vs. Extraversion:
Outer directed (E) or inner directed (I)?
Sensing vs. Intuition: Is information
processed literally (S) or abstractly (N)?
Thinking vs. Feeling: Are decisions
made by thought (T) or feelings (F)?
Judging vs. Perceiving: Is there
a preference for order (J) or spontaneity (P)?
David Keirsey believed that those who are "Sensing" and "Judging" (SJ) fit
the classic description of the Phlegmatic. Those who are "Sensing" and
"Perceiving" (SP) are Sanguines. Those who are "Intuitive" and "Feeling"
(NF) are Melancholics, and those who are "Intuitive" and "Thinking" (NT)
are Cholerics. He gave descriptions of and new names to the classic types
-- the new names being: Artisans (Sanguine), Rationals (Cholerics), Idealists
(Melancholics), and Guardians (Phlegmatic) -- and further broke down those
groups into four sub-groups:
The Sanguine Artisans: The
Performers (ESFP); The Promoters (ESTP); The Composers (ISFP); The Crafters
The Choleric Rationals: The
Field Marshalls (ENTJ); The Inventors (ENTP); The Masterminds (INTJ); The
The Melancholic Idealists:
The Teachers (ENFJ); The Champions (ENFP); The Counselors (INFJ); The Healers
The Phlegmatic Guardians:
The Supervisors (ESTJ); The Providers (ESFJ); The Inspectors (ISTJ); The
While the classic temperaments
model labels all Extraverts as either the Sanguine or Choleric, and labels
all Introverts as Melancholics or Phlegmatics, Keirsey has Extraverts and
Introverts in each group. If you take the above test and find it doesn't
quite fit you, you might enjoy taking a test based on Kiersey's model.