On temperaments. Part 1.

I learned about humoral temperaments from jim mcdonald, who learned about them from Christopher Hedley, who learned about them from Galen, though not directly. As with all teachings that flow from teacher to student, at each level of dissemination, these things become filtered through the mind of the interpreter, which is to say, that the following is not directly Galen’s humoral temperaments, nor is it Christopher Hedley’s or even jim’s. Though I hope it honours their teachings, this is my own interpretation. I hope it gives you enough of a primer that you can then go to Jim or Christopher and find out more, and maybe in turn make your own filtered version. My purpose here is to explain (in brief) my own perspective on temperaments, and that the information be usable. Or, in the words of Bruce Lee: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”  -Rebecca


1. On digesting the whole universe. 

Reality. The ‘real’ part of reality is something that few, if any of us ever get to experience: a mass of swirling, shifting, oozing primordial soup that takes form for a while and then shifts again. It’s likely that if any of us were simply thrust into seeing it exactly as it is, our minds would explode and we’d suffer some sort of nervous breakdown. It is outside of time, outside of form, and outside of reason. Every mystic tradition under the sun has a word for reality as it is, and the general consensus is that its something you cannot describe, cannot fathom, can’t pin down and definitely can’t communicate to your friends over tea on a Sunday afternoon. By the time it trickles into our consciousness, reality has passed through filters. Our emotions and awareness filter reality, our ability to perceive through our five senses filter it, and then our minds and personal history add a twist. While this applies to the whole, it applies to the smaller parts too, be it an apple, a rock, or a human. In order to make sense of the large amount of information we encounter when meeting, say, an apple or a rock, or a human, for the first time, we naturally start organising this information into patterns. Thus, apple, very quickly goes from being a strange round thing that may or may not be edible and may or may not taste good to ‘apple’. And the more apples you get to know, the more you can differentiate types of apple: that is a Macintosh, that a Granny Smith, and that [atrocity], a red delicious.

Humans are more difficult to differentiate because we are a lot more complex than apples. Each time we encounter a new human we rapidly start assimilating information to try and understand the person in front of us better. As a herbalist, but also as a human being who interacts with other people, it helps to have some sort of understanding of the patterns in reality that apply to the humans, to help understand them better, quicker. This is where the constitutional model comes in handy.

2. What is a constitutional model? 

A constitutional model is basically a way of slicing up reality to make it more digestible. This is easier to describe if we have a big universe pie…


Here is the pie of the mass of the universe in its entirety. See that tiny tiny little slice? It’s significant only in that it makes up a part of the whole. And also, that’s us. Human energy from the beginning of time until the end of humanity. Let’s make that slice of humanity a pie all of its own:


So here’s a human pie, made of a bunch of humans (alive. I mean, this is a theoretical pie and it’s made of live humans and we aren’t eating them because that’s gross). Each human will have certain characteristics, and eventually patterns emerge based on these characteristics: people who tend to feel the most comfortable when arguing with others, for example, often have high blood pressure. People who tend towards self pity also tend towards stagnation. These are not hard and fast rules, but patterns that emerge when you look at enough people. When looking at the universe as a whole, and the pie of humanity, there are also correspondences. Over time, a long time ago, some very clever people realised that humans and the universe as a whole aren’t really different— we humans are made up of the same forces that make up the universe, and are thus going to be subject to the same sort of laws and rules. In most systems, these forces are based on the elements that make up the natural world.

Now, back to the universe pie. That’s a pretty whole pie, and if you want to divide it up into understandable chunks, you can do so in a number of ways. You can cut it in half:


You can cut it into thirds:


You can cut it into quarters:


You can cut it into five pieces:


Each one of these ways of cutting it is going to incorporate different elements of reality— thus, the system of cutting reality pie into two (let’s say, yin and yang) will have different qualities in each slice than the system of four (earth, air, fire and water) or the system of three (pitta, vata, kapha) or that of five (earth, metal, fire, wood, water). It’s helpful, when looking at these systems, or pies, to realise that they’re just ways of slicing reality to make sense of it all. But as they make sense of the universe at large, they also make sense of human beings and human behaviour. And when looking for patterns, if someone doesn’t fit into one slice, if you know multiple systems, you can often see if they’ll fit into a different pie slicing model. Models only work if they apply to the person— never ever try to squish a person into a pie slice that doesn’t fit them.

The model that I’ve been the most fascinated with in recent years is that of the Humoral Temperaments, which is based on the four element system of earth, air, fire, and water. These elements were originally used to describe the four humours, or fluids, in the body: blood, bile, phlegm and black bile. Of course, this was done a long time ago, before dissection, before we developed the understanding of the human body that we have now, so these fluids don’t necessarily have the same properties that were described originally (and some, like black bile, don’t even exist). Each of these elements/ fluids has properties— it’s own portion of the universe pie— that apply to the world around us, personalities, behaviours, and the human body. There’s the element earth, which corresponds to the melancholic temperament, and the black bile humor. Solid, stable, loyal, slow earth. The sanguine temperament represents air, and blood. It is erratic, changeable, light, exciteable. The choleric temperament is fire and bile. It is driven, focused, angry, intense. And then there’s water: the phlegmatic temperament and phlegm. Feeling, emotional, connecting to the world around it, reflective, mutable.

This system is obviously going to be different to the ones most commonly used by herbalists: five elements and ayurvedic doshas. This is simply another way to cut the pie, so there aren’t going to be direct correspondences, however if you do use another system primarily, you’ll obviously see areas in which there will be crossover, and others where you’ll scratch your head and wonder how it fits. It doesn’t fit— at least at first, try and dispose of any constitutional preconceptions, and then after a while, you can start using whichever model fits best in each situation.

This would probably be a good time to mention that jim mcdonald

of temperament revival fame is coming to Los Angeles to teach a course on the temperaments in late January 2016. If you’re here in Southern California, I’d highly recommend signing up and coming! (And if you’re further afield, well there are already a few people flying in from out of town). 

3. Why is this important? 

Well, I think it’s easier to explain why with an example: say you have a person who needs to talk through ideas to make sense of the world, and a person who absolutely hates to be interrupted mid-thought and cannot express something before its been thought through fully. In conversation, without understanding, these two might not get along very well at all: one will think the other taciturn and secretive; the other will find his conversation mate pushy and too talkative. If the two are in a relationship, or work together, or in the same family, then there will always be these points of contention. Learning about these patterns helps us understand each other. More importantly, though, understanding these patterns help us to understand ourselves.

In this world, driven by media and productivity, we are all given the impression that we are supposed to fit a certain mould. I don’t mean physically, though that is by and large mostly true, but our personalities. We’re supposed to be outgoing, happy, talkative (but not too talkative), driven (but only if we’re male), focused, able to work quickly for hours on end. For the people who are constitutionally like this, that’s wonderful: they are model citizens who the rest of us envy. But so many of us are not like this in the slightest, and because we aren’t raised knowing and understanding constitution, we’re often under the mistaken impression that we are somehow broken. That if we could only work harder, try harder, smile more, eat less, that we’ll somehow be able to fit the mold of perfection. Learning about the patterns in humans (a constitutional model) teaches us that the mould of perfection is a societal construct: it is only prized because in our world of commerce and productivity, those people who can produce more are more valuable. But, a part of the reason that we’re so out of balance is that we’ve learned to revere this state of productivity and forward motion above all else. The other states: the erratic, idea generating state; the emotional, feeling state; the receptive, fallow state; what of these? In a balanced ecosystem, all of these states have a place. In a balanced society, all of these people are of value.

This value is, of course, never going to come from society at large. Society, and civilisation itself, is running on the program of productivity. It may pay lip service to the artists, to the dreamers, but realistically, society doesn’t care as long as it keeps churning forwards. No, the realisation of value has to come from ourselves: the artists, the dreamers, the healers, the thinkers, the silent observers. Finding a purpose that isn’t based on our productivity but on what our unique makeup has to offer the world completely changes how we feel about ourselves. Learning about constitution, both our own and others’ is to learn that who you are has a place, a reason for being, and that you aren’t a faulty model. It’s learning, for example, that you feel uncomfortable at parties because you’re a phlegmatic-melancholic who would much rather have a really in depth conversation with one person where you really open yourselves up to each other. It’s learning that you don’t work fast because you’re a melancholic-phlegmatic who carefully thinks through things before moving forwards. It’s learning that as a choleric-melancholic woman, you’re often going to be seen as a ‘bitch’ because you move forwards quickly and don’t have the same tendencies towards empathy and nurturing that women in society are told they should. Or learning that as a sanguine-melancholic you fluctuate between states of extreme extroversion and extreme introversion, and that this is your normal cycle.

The gift of learning about our own constitution is that of self-acceptance, and understanding. It broadens the perspective of what we consider to be ‘normal human behaviour’. And from there we can learn to accept and understand the behaviours of others more easily, and that, in turn, leads to better communication and understanding between all people, which is, quite honestly, the best model for peace that I’ve ever seen. So, if you want to change the world, this, my friends, is a perfect place to start.

Over the next five posts, I’ll be going into detail on each of the temperaments (plus a fifth on combinations). It is my hope that this will help provide a useful base from where you can branch out and learn more about it on your own.

  • Jenifer

    Looking forward to your next post on this topic. I really appreciate the outline for the temperaments so I can have a better understanding of how you break them down and classify.

  • Lorina

    These articles are so timely for me!! Thank you so much!! :)

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  • Tamika Adjemian

    I just found your blog, I’ve been following you on IG- this is an excellent explanatio , I’m looking forward to reading the whole series. I’m ve just started my in depth study of herbalism (through Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine). I’m eager to go deeper. Thank You!