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Virtue and Temperament

November 9, AD2017

Aristotle, who was continually interested in biological aspects of human behavior, made a distinction between “natural virtue” and “acquired virtue.” Natural virtue is related to basic biological inclinations, while virtue in the strict sense requires a rational application, often in the presence of difficulties, to develop habits of character.

Aristotle and Hippocrates

The authority regarding physiological aspects, for Aristotle, was Hippocrates, who had developed a theory connecting human diseases as well as emotions and behaviors with four bodily “humors” – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, leading to four medical/psychic “types” and “temperaments” – choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic.

Based on temperament, we might expect a choleric individual to be more naturally courageous, although perhaps tending to rashness or overreaction; and a sanguine person to be more naturally friendly, although at the extremes perhaps tending to be a gadfly. Aristotle raised the rhetorical question as to whether philosophers aren’t typical of a melancholic temperament (probably an “occupational hazard” from contemplating big questions and the state of the world).

The four-temperament theory, revised and updated by Galen in the 2nd century, prevailed medically and psychologically up to modernity. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th century found the theory relevant to his research in philosophical anthropology, and psychologists up to the 20th century developed variations.

Germans, interested in developing more accurate categories, came up with alternative theories. Freud’s three-tiered division of the psyche into “id,” “ego,” and “super-ego” led to some typologies: for example, someone in whom the id predominated would be ruled by the pleasure- principle, even at times ignoring the dictates of the ego, the reality-principle.

Carl Jung and The Myers-Briggs Test

Freud’s disciple, Carl Jung, developed the most successful and widely applied modern theory of temperament – a two-tiered division into introversion and extraversion, coordinated with eight basic orientations – sensing, intuition, thinking, feeling, judging, and perceiving. Jung’s typology has been incorporated into the Myers-Briggs test of personality types, widely used not only in colleges but in corporations and the military, as a means to determine basic aptitudes. The National War College in Washington, DC, is said to prefer the introvert-sensing-thinking-judging type of candidate (a sort that would presumably be less likely to start wars unnecessarily).

I frequently taught ethical theory to juniors and seniors at Marquette University. I discovered that the psychological testing service there not only utilized the “long form” of the Myers-Briggs test to help students (and counselors) determine aptitudes and career strengths but also had a short form, which they obligingly allowed me to administer to classes. As students took the test and calculated their scores, I asked them to situate themselves in various parts of the classroom. The largest segment in the corner of the room, as I recall, often consisted of extroverts of the sensing type. I took the test with the students and ended up in a corner with one or two students who were introverts of the thinking type.

I also gave the test to my youngest daughter when she was in high school, and she seemed to benefit from insights about the results. She is now a practicing psychiatrist. (Possible causal effect?)

William Sheldon-Body Types and Temperament

The most elaborate attempt in the 20th century to establish a relationship between body types and temperament was by the Harvard psychologist, William Sheldon, who utilized teams of psychologists interviewing easily available students to write The Varieties of Human Physique (1940) and The Varieties of Temperament (1942).

Sheldon defines temperament as “the level of personality just above physiological function and below acquired attitudes and beliefs. It is the level where basic patterns of motivation manifest themselves.” So if we want to understand temperament, we have to visualize a kind of middle-ground in the human psyche where basic orientations just begin to have an influence on conscious attitudes and decisions.

Sheldon’s theory was based on the fact that the embryonic egg consists of three layers – the ectoderm, which develops into the brain and nervous system; the mesoderm, from which muscles and the circulatory system emerge; and the endoderm, giving rise to the stomach and other internal organs. According to Sheldon, one or the other of these layers may predominate as the child develops into an adult, leading to three extreme body types – ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs. Numerous depictions of these body types can be Googled on the internet – ectomorphs appearing rather thin and gangly, mesomorphs having prominent musculature, endomorphs tending toward plumpness. His analysis has been used in pediatrics for differentiation of infants’ body types and tendencies for future development.

Using statistical methods, Sheldon and his collaborators tried to establish correlations between the three body types — ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph, and three corresponding temperament types – reflective “cerebrotonia”, active and energetic “somatotonia”, and contented and easygoing “viscerotonia”, respectively.

Sheldon’s alleged +.8 correlation between body types and temperament is the most disputed factor in his theory. But Sheldon’s discussion of temperament types, related to 20 investigative questionnaires or tests for each temperament, seems very relevant to the issue of the existence of what Aristotle called “natural virtues.” For example, test #18, the “alcohol test” was applied to the student volunteers, and it was discovered that viscerotonics typically became more effusive and talkative under the influence of alcohol, somatotonics more aggressive, and cerebrotonics largely uncomfortable and withdrawn. #19, the “difficulty test” indicated that under difficulty viscerotonics tended to turn to social support, somatotonics to quick decision-making, and cerebrotonics to reflection and calculation, trying to figure out the best approach. Tests regarding sexuality indicated that viscerotonic males are slow but relaxed in relation to women, somatotonics tend towards overconfidence and sometimes aggression, and cerebrotonics tend towards initial shyness and awkwardness in dealing with the opposite sex.

Sheldon and his team also did extensive research to determine if there was any sex-related component (“gynandrotrophy”) in temperament but abandoned this endeavor because parents of female college students kept withdrawing their daughters in the middle of experiments.


Immanuel Kant, known as an extreme moralist, maintained that there was little or no moral value in doing good things that we are inclined to do. But Aristotle seems to be on the right track: Engaged rational choice in making moral decisions is of the essence for inculcating virtuous habits – whether or not inclinations offer us a welcome “tailwind.” The secret is to take advantage of the natural virtues we happen to have and do our best to imitate the virtues of courage, or temperance, or prudence, that others seem to have and we don’t.

When it comes to discussions of “merit” in theology, scarcely any attention is given to temperament. But when a timid and self-conscious person starts shows signs of unusual courage and leadership potential; or when a reputed “firebrand” begins listening and showing patience and deliberation; or when a sensuous high-liver becomes temperate and abstemious – we all take notice, and mentally assign extra “points” to the changed characteristics. And God may do so, also.

If we had our druthers, what would be the best temperament to have? Sheldon says it would obviously be a “4-4-4” – the highest possible “score” in each of the categories of cerebrotonia, somatotonia, and viscerotonia. He observes that the Catechism describes God as a 7-7-7, omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving and that each of the temperament types offers partial reflections of these divine “personality characteristics.”

Guest Contributor: Howard Kainz

 Dr. Howard P. Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent books include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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