When Gerard Manley Hopkins praised God for all the “dappled things” that fill the world with glorious variety, he could have included human personalities in his list. People have extremely diverse gifts, inclinations, interests and approaches to life. Common remarks highlight these distinctive qualities: “She sure is perky!” “I can’t believe how calm he is!” “How do you get so much done so quickly?” Like the colors of the rainbow, species of plants and animals, and diverse national cultures, this variety among characters renders the world more beautiful and complete.
Although each person is unique, one may reasonably seek to summarize human personalities into general “types” in order to understand them better. One method of summary is the four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Such a classifying system can be a help to understanding oneself or others. When used without care, however, it can also contribute to the danger of stereotyping or oversimplifying the temperaments. Some of the four words listed above are too often used in a derogatory way, as if they necessarily had negative connotations. I have met people who say that they hate their own temperament or wish that it were different.
If you are one of those people, be reassured: not only is your temperament not a bad thing, but it has potential for great good. Your personality is simply part of the person that God made you, along with, e.g., your blood type, your skin color, and the pitch of your voice. God created your temperament for a specific purpose in His plan for you—and, yes, for all creation. In mankind’s fallen state, each temperament has its particular risks, but when trained and used properly, each can glorify God and serve other people in a way that the others cannot.
The confusion may have arisen in part from the origin of the four words. The “humors,” or bodily fluids, were once thought to determine people’s moods. Thus, a person might be “choleric” at one time and “phlegmatic” at another, depending on whether he had more choler or phlegm in him at the moment. I do not know when the names of these physical states became designations for different temperaments, but since they did, each of these words has at least two meanings. A mood and a personality are not the same, nor is someone of a given temperament always in the corresponding mood. Moods come and go, while a personality, as has been stated, is lasting and essential.
Having said all this, let’s consider each of the four temperaments in turn, iterate and respond to some popular misconceptions about them, and ponder each one’s benefits and pitfalls. Each person is different, of course; but some broad generalizations, regarded as such, can still safely apply. In setting these forth, I do not pretend to be an expert on personalities or human psychology. I am simply speaking from my own experience. I know sweet and lovable people of each of these temperaments, and you probably do as well.