Elements and Humors, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things,
15th century, France, Le Mans
by Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum ©2002
As working astrologers, we are always looking for ways to understand and help our clients better. As teachers, we want to give our students tools to enable them to become better astrologers. When we look at a chart, most of us try first to “get a handle” on the basic theme of the chart, to find the underlying gestalt. We want to see what makes our clients tick, where they’re coming from, and how they might react to the experiences they encounter. In my experience, one of the best ways to discover this information is through an analysis of temperament in the chart. The concept of temperament has been used for thousands of years by ancient and classical astrologers, but it has been largely ignored by modern astrology. I’d like to take this opportunity to bring it out into the light again.
In my research on the history of astrology and classical techniques, temperament has gradually come to stand out as a vital component of chart interpretation. I have found through my studies that knowing someone’s temperament becomes a great help in understanding them and their reactions. Traditional astrologers had a number of means for discovering temperament in the birthchart, and I have worked on refining these methods to find a way for modern astrologers to incorporate this technique in their work.
What is temperament?
Some of you may be asking, quite rightly, what it is that I mean by “temperament.” Am I talking about personality, or character? Not exactly. Personality can incorporate parts of someone’s temperament in its expression, but it is not the same as temperament. Personality is shaped by both internal and external factors, whereas temperament is entirely innate. Character, too, is partly innate, but it has more of a connection with the moral nature of a person, at least in modern connotation (where we speak of someone’s “good” or “bad” character). The original meaning of the word “character” is stamp, which also implies an impression on the person, coming from without (parental or societal) rather than within.
Temperament, by contrast, is inherent, and able to be seen from birth. As any parent knows, babies show their own temperamental styles almost from the time they exit the womb. And usually these styles do not change very much, but only become more pronounced with age. This is what I mean by temperament, and this is what I will be exploring in this article, and in my talk in January.
Origins and Principles of Temperament
The idea of temperament, as a component of body and soul, was realized by the Greek philosophers and physicians, and applied by Greek astrologers at least from the time of Ptolemy. Temperament as a concept is based on the four qualities, hot, cold, wet and dry; the four elements, fire, earth, air and water; and the four humors, choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic. All people are composed of a mixture of these qualities, elements and humors, and the mixture is called the “temperament.” In fact, the word temperamentum in Latin means “mixture,” as does its Greek equivalent, krasis.
In some people, one or another of the humors is predominant, and we can easily see that such a person is, for example, “melancholic;” we observe such a person as being “cold and dry” (to bring in the qualities) and perhaps introverted, analytical, pessimistic. A sanguine, by contrast, would be seen as friendly, outgoing, and social: “hot and wet.” Phlegmatics, “cold and wet,” might very well be reserved and even somewhat lethargic. Cholerics, on the other hand, rush in and take charge, even recklessly: they are “hot and dry.” It’s easy to see from these descriptions how the humors relate to the elements: cholerics are associated, with fire, sanguines with air, phlegmatics with water, and melancholics with earth. Seasons, too, are also associated with qualities/humors: spring is hot and wet, and sanguine; summer is hot and dry, and choleric; fall is cold and dry, and melancholic; and winter is cold and wet, and phlegmatic.
Now, it would be easy to figure out temperament if everyone were predominantly one humor. The problem (well, it’s really the glorious diversity of human beings) is that many people are not predominantly one, but a mixture of two or even more humors. (And to compound things further, the “ideal” is actually a balance of the four humors. It’s when they are imbalanced that problems arise, both in medicine and in psychology.) So our task as astrologers becomes to figure out, by using the birthchart, the predominant temperament as well as whatever other temperamental influences there are. Some people will indeed lean strongly in the direction of one particular temperament, but others will seem to have a sub-temperament as well, and still others will actually be fairly well-balanced.
Finding the Temperament
So how do we go about finding the temperament? Astrologers have, over the millennia, devised some very elaborate ways of determining it. On the other hand, non-astrologers, such as Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner, have used observation to ascertain the temperament. Jung developed his well-known models of psychological types – introvert/extravert, feeling/thinking/sensation/intuition – by studying earlier temperament models; and Steiner, adhering much more closely to the astrological model, made observation of temperament a key component in how to teach children. In my study of this concept, which has incorporated both a history of temperament and a study of temperament in Steiner’s Waldorf Schools, I have developed a technique that seems, anecdotally at least, to be fairly accurate at determining temperament from the birthchart. Key parts of the chart which seem to be involved with finding temperament include both the Ascendant and the Moon, and, interestingly enough, the season of birth. This method is explored in depth in my book, Temperament and Astrology in Theory, History and Practice.
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Last Updated 5 March 2003