Is your Facebook timeline as cluttered with Buzzfeed quizzes as mine is? I have to admit a certain weakness for them- I just can’t resist the temptation to know which 90’s Heroine or Broad City character I am (answers: Ty from “Clueless” and Abbi). These quizzes are just another iteration of the very human desire to want to understand our own personality, to define who we are with some kind of term. Though modern science has many systems that are used to define a person’s personality traits, they all take something from the earliest personality scale: the four humors.
What are the four humors?
The idea of the humors goes back to ancient Greece and the famed physician Hippocrates. Those who followed in his medical traditions believed the body to be made up of four fluids- blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Yellow bile came from the liver, and black was thought to originate in the kidneys and spleen. These substances, called the four humors, needed to be in balance in order to promote good health. When one became predominant over the others, sickness and weakness would occur (Bos 2009).
The first writings we have of the four humors is Hippocrates’ book On The Nature of Man from the 5th century BC. In this writing, the four humors are arranged on a spectrum of hot/cold and wet/dry. Each of the humors falls somewhere on this spectrum; blood is hot and wet, black bile is cold and dry, yellow bile is hot and dry, and phlegm is cold and wet. While these associations may sound rather arbitrary and unimportant, they formed the basis of a system of understanding mental and physical health that continued for over a thousand years.
The Roman physician Galen was second only to Hippocrates in his influence on medicine, particularly during the Middle Ages. Galen took the theory of the four humors and applied it not only to physical health, but also to the personality and temperament of his patients. Those who were not perfectly balanced could be said to be of sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric or melancholic disposition (Stelmak and Stalikas 1990).
Melancholic people, who suffered from an excess of black bile, were the most easily diagnosed based on their disposition. You may have already guessed that these patients would present with depression or anxiety, given that we still used the term “melancholy” to describe such a state. This is an example of how deeply entrenched the humoral philosophy is, even centuries removed from its height.
The treatments prescribed for those suffering from an excess of humors is what I find most fascinating. Rather than prescribing some kind of potion or attempting a rudimentary surgical procedure, food was usually used to help restore balance to the body. A patient who needed more phlegm might be given mushrooms, unripe apples or lamb to eat. Conversely, bitter almonds and garlic could be eaten if someone suffered from excess phlegm (Grant 1999). Using food to balance personality spread across Europe and continued until Galen’s theories fell out of favor (see this video for a glimpse at what it would actually be like to have to eat some of the more obscure combinations prescribed by humoral theory).
Similar theories of illness, both mental and physical, have been found around the world, surviving until the modern day in rural areas of South America and China. These systems classify both illnesses and food items on the hot/cold scale and use them accordingly as treatment. For example, someone with a fever in Tzintzuntzan, Mexico would be bathed in water that had been boiled with cooling ingredients, such as oranges and roses (Foster 1986). In China, indigestion was often diagnosed as being caused by an excess of “hot” spicy or fried foods. This could be treated by eating strictly “cold” foods, which were usually eaten raw and were green or white in color (Andersen 1987).
Why should we care?
While the four humors fell out of favor beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the fact humoral theory survived for so long, and they have been followed by innumerable systems of personality classification, speaks to a deeper aspect of human nature. We have always searched for ways to figure ourselves out and understand the relationship between our body and our mind. Whether you prefer to understand your personality in terms of the Myers-Briggs, an excess of phlegm or yet another Buzzfeed quiz, you are taking part in a long, rich tradition of the human race trying to define themselves.
E.N. Anderson (1987) Why is Humoral Medicine So Popular? Soc Sci Med 25(4):331-337
J. Bos (2009) The rise and decline of character: humoral psychology in ancient and early modern medical theory. History of the Human Sciences 22: 29
G.M. Foster (1988) The Validating Role of Humoral Theory in Traditional Spanish-American Therapeutics. American Ethnologist 15(1):120-135
M. Grant (1999) Steiner and the Humors: The Survival of Ancient Greek Science. British Journal of Educational Studies 47(1):56-70
R.M. Stelmack and A. Stalikas (1991) Galen and the Humor Theory of Temperment. Person. Indic. Diff. 12(3):255-263