The Temperament of Saints

“To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”

– Flannery O’Connor 

 (Photo: Wikimedia)

(Photo: Wikimedia)

By Sofia Infante

 (Photo: OpenEdition Journals)

(Photo: OpenEdition Journals)

I remember the first time I heard about the four temperaments: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine. As I read about each one and learned my own, (melancholic-phlegmatic) I was surprised at how much it revealed about myself. My strengths and my weaknesses, how I perceived and interacted with the world around me were made intelligible in a new way.

I recently came across a helpful book by Laraine and Art Bennett titled, “The Temperament God Gave You.” It is an insightful guide to dealing with “the problem of self.” It instructs the reader how to use knowledge of his or her temperament as a tool for better self-knowledge, and with God’s grace, to grow in holiness. For those of us who may be quietly wondering if anyone with our temperament has ever made it to Heaven, the answer is a reassuring yes, and Bennett’s book provides a few surprising examples.

Dominican priest, Fr. Antonio Royo Marin, has figured out the temperaments of many saints in a series of articles. Here are some of his revealing connections:

Cholerics are usually the take-charge person in a group who isn’t afraid to voice an opinion. They are efficient, reliable,and excellent problem solvers. They run the risk of coming off as insensitive and rash, steamrolling those around them. Their struggles are with a short temper and pride, so they should focus on developing patience and humility.

 (Photo: Wikimedia)

(Photo: Wikimedia)

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a strong yet charismatic soldier determined to convert souls for God. In his book, The Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Norman O’Neal writes, “While zealous to bring people to God and to help them spiritually, Ignatius still remained a person of practicality and common sense.”

Melancholics are withdrawn and contemplative, slower to take action, and generally reserved. They can be perfectionistic and self-critical and struggle with forgiveness. They are also disposed towards scrupulosity and despair. To combat their vices, they should focus on cultivating a trusting and joyful outlook on life.

St. Therese of Lisieux’s melancholic personality was apparent in her writings, especially in her childhood. Her mother’s death affected her deeply, “I became timid and shy, and so sensitive that a look was often enough to make me burst into tears. I could not bear to be noticed, or to meet strangers, and I was only at ease with my dear ones at home....” Her timidity was accompanied by an ardent desire for spiritual perfection, which she sought to attain from a young age by performing various acts of self-denial.

 (Photo: Wikimedia)

(Photo: Wikimedia)

Phlegmatics are easygoing and tolerant of others and keep their feelings to themselves. Their worst struggle is with change and self-motivation and are inclined towards slothfulness and indecision. To combat their vices, phlegmatics should focus on growing in the virtue of fortitude.

St. Thomas Aquinas was likely a phlegmatic whose sharp intellect was accompanied by a childlike simplicity. In his book about Aquinas, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, G.K. Chesterton writes: “There is not a single occasion on which he indulged in a sneer. His curiously simple character, his lucid but laborious intellect, could not be better summed up than by saying he did not know how to sneer.”                                  

Sanguines are outgoing optimists who always see the glass half-full. They easily adapt to their environment and are generally carefree. They tend toward flightiness and run the risk of not completing their tasks in a timely manner. Sanguines need to focus on developing temperance and prudence.  

St. Peter was an outgoing optimist who over-estimated his own faith. When Jesus tells Peter of his impending Passion, Peter defiantly responds that he will not allow it. Peter’s childlike distress when he learns of the Lord’s impending suffering reveals his tender love for God. At the same time, it exposes Peter’s confidence in himself. Only after he denies Jesus three times and realizes the depth of his weakness, does Peter come to trust in God absolutely.

There is no such thing as the ideal temperament; each one has vices it must overcome and virtues that will be easier to practice than others. The temperaments are not intended to predict ours and other’s actions, instead, they reveal the magnificently nuanced manner in which God created each human person, shedding light on our preferences and behaviors and helping us be mindful of our reactions to the world around us.