A Humorous Proposition

Never snort coke with a choleric. I learned that lesson during my misspent youth, which is to say my early 30s. But I came by the jargon to express it properly just yesterday, thanks to the Reverend Conrad Hook, author of The Four Temperaments, and to Diane Korzieniewski, who was nice enough to link to the piece from her Te Deum Laudamus blog.

Backed by a nihil obstat, Hook revitalizes humorism, a model for the human personality expounded by Hippocrates himself, but dating back even further. Humorism proposes that a person’s basic disposition is the product of humors, or bodily fluids, including blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Ideally, these unappetizing effluvia exist in a perfect balance, resulting in a perfectly balanced character. However, when one comes to dominate the others, it produces a distinctive temperament:

Too much blood makes a person sanguine. Sanguine people are cheery dingbats, characterized, according to Hook, by “superficiality,” “instability,” “a tendency toward the external,” “optimism,” and “a lack of deep passions.” Among famous sanguines, Hook names St. Peter. I would add Winnie-the-Pooh.

Too much yellow bile makes a person choleric. Choleric people are overbearing dipsticks, driven by a “keen intellect,” a “strong will,” “strong passions,” and “an often times unconscious desire to dominate others and make them subservient.” Hitler and Stalin, Caesar and Hannibal, were all cholerics. So is my best friend, Rick, who, as I alluded earlier, was an absolute nightmare to party with.

Too much phlegm makes a person phlegmatic. Phlegmatic people are nose-picking lumps, distinguished by “little interest in whatever goes on around [them],” and “little inclination to work.” Hook can’t think of any famous or infamous phlegmatics. That’s probably no accident.

Too much black bile makes a person melancholic. Melancholic people are skulking emos — “irresolute,” “despondent and without courage,” “slow and awkward,” “slow in…speech,” and “afraid of disgrace and humiliation.” Still, Hook reminds us:

Schubert, in his Psychology, says of the melancholic nature: ‘It has been the prevailing mental disposition of the most sublime poets, artists, of the most profound thinkers, the greatest inventors, legislators, and especially of those spiritual giants who at their time made known to their nations the entrance to a higher and blissful world of the Divine, to which they themselves were carried by an insatiable longing.’

They must have figured it beat getting out of bed.

All this might sound like so much superstitious balderdash, a hellenistic hoodoo. In fact, though nobody’s successfully traced an excess of any particular species of goop to any particular personality profile, philosophers like Kant and psychologists like Alfred Adler and Ernst Kretschmer have found the typology itself too useful to discard. By grouping people according to the dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion, Hans Eysenck discovered four personality types that corresponded very closely to Hippocrates’ temperaments. All things considered, learning a friend is sanguine should much more helpful in predicting his behavior than learning he’s a Scorpio.

Diane linked to Hook for a reason. To her way of thinking, it’s high time for everyone involved in the Catholic media — consumers and producers — to rein ourselves in, to quit being, as she puts it, so strident. Toward that end, she urges readers to identify their own temperaments and consult the section where Hook prescribes how to “moderate the bad parts, and work on magnifying the good.”

This is good and timely advice, but I think it could be much more specific. Let’s start by scrubbing sanguines and phlegmatics right out of the picture. They have no dog in this fight. Sanguines are all traipsing the wide world, having sex or eating ice cream. Phlegmatics are keeping busy blowing spit bubbles. None of them has ever had any time for us.

By “us,” I mean melancholics and cholerics. Writes Hook: “The persons canonized, with few exceptions, were choleric or melancholic.” Just how he knows this he never says, but if he’s right, his area studies of heaven must look a lot like mine of the Catholic mediasphere. Melancholics — including me — and cholerics pretty much split the place down the middle. For cholerics, the draw of blogging or YouTubing should be obvious: with a minimal investment of manpower or materiel, they can create micro-kingdoms in which they rule like Ozymandias. Look on my page views, ye mighty, and despair.

Among melancholics, the Will to Power may be a little threadbare. As Hook observes, we’re “loathe to appear in public and be praised.” What we’d much rather do is lose ourselves in the kind of reverie that makes us walk into walls and sit on our cats. “Often,” Hook writes, a melancholic’s thoughts “stir him up profoundly, particularly religious reflections or plans which he cherishes; yet he hardly permits his fierce excitement to be noticed outwardly.” Under normal circumstances, maybe not. But seeing one’s own inner world reified can be an intoxicating experience, and the Internet offers us wilting orchids a way to make it happen without facing serious stage fright.

The problem is that the two types were made for getting on each other’s last nerves. In a sense, cholerics are the easiest people in the world to get along with: do exactly what they want, and they’ll be your best friend. But what cholerics want when playing the tribune online is either a good fight or a show of rapturous concurrence. When a choleric starts hollering about vipers, he really means, “Tennis, anyone?” Melancholics, ever burdened with “a weeping of the heart,” can take no pleasure in rising to the challenge.

But, boy, can we ever hold a grudge. Because we so dread disgrace and humiliation, we “can hardly forgive offenses.” Against those who offend us, we develop a “strong aversion” that takes “months, or even years” to overcome. Your average choleric, to whom brusqueness comes as naturally as breathing, will tread on the toes of a melancholic without even thinking what passions he’s stirring. And when he gets banned from the blog, or mauled by a gang of the melancholic’s sturdier friends, he’ll feel like St. Paul facing the Sanhedrin.

Maybe the very idea of learning to get along without resorting to strident, hyper-aggressive behavior is a pipe dream. If we did succeed, the result could be pitiful — think of Itchy and Scratchy sharing lemonade on the porch swing. But all knowledge is power. If we’d rather not study with the goal of improving ourselves, we can at least study with the goal of learning how to get the better of the opposition. (“If your enemy has a choleric temper,” said closet melancholic Tony Soprano, quoting Sun Tzu, “irritate him.”) Besides, thanks to Diane and the Reverend Hook, all the goods are right there online. You can take my word that it’s better to gain wisdom at the cost of your eyesight than your sinuses.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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