Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Natureby Jerome Kagan
Featured in an Atlantic cover story, this book by the world-renowned author of The Nature of the Child shows how inborn temperamental tendencies influence human development throughout the life span.
- Free Association Books Limited
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Genio y hechura hasta sepultura.
("Natures and features last to the grave.")
Every age has a preferred explanation of the obvious differences among people that are always a focus of curiosity and a topic for gossip. The most persuasive accounts attribute most of the human variation to one causal mechanism, for the mind likes single-process explanations over those that involve multiple forces; the latter are difficult to grasp and therefore less pleasing.
The most fundamental division among the diverse explanations contrasts inherent qualities, present at birth and operating throughout life, with a history of experiences. The arguments that emphasize inherent processes assume that humans are basically different and usually attribute the differences to physiologyin ancient times to bodily fluids and, since the turn of the century, to genes. The arguments for experience, which assume that humans begin life fundamentally similar, award potency to air, water, diet, andover the past three hundred yearsto social encounters. This division between internal and external influences is linked to the ancient split in Western thought between material and mental processesbody versus soul.
It is not surprising that the reigning philosophy of a society favors one or the other of these views, for a preference for one of these frames has political implications. In societies that practice slaveryancient Rome, for examplecitizens are tempted to believe that they are fundamentally dissimilar to those they command. If one's position as citizen or slave could have beenthe result of the vicissitudes of life, exploiting another person could become ethically uncomfortable. A belief in inherent differences mutes the occasional guilt that might rise in the slave holder. Therefore, one might expect that the interpretation of psychological variation held by these societies would favor endogenous differences.
Galen, an extraordinarily perceptive second-century physician born in Asia Minor, elaborated these Hippocratic ideas by positing nine temperamental types that were derived from the four humors. (The word temperament comes from the Latin verb temperare, "to mix.") In the ideal personality, the complementary characteristics of warm-cool and dry-moist were exquisitely balanced. In four less ideal types, one of the four qualities was dominant. In the remaining four types, one pair of qualities dominated the complementary pair; for example, warm and moist dominated cool and dry. These latter four were the temperamental categories Galen called melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic. Each was the result of an excess of one of the bodily humors that produced, in turn, the imbalance in paired qualities. The melancholic was cool and dry because of an excess of black bile; the sanguine was warm and moist because of an excess of blood; the choleric was warm and dry because of an excess of yellow bile, and the phlegmatic was cool and moist because of an excess of phlegm.
Although the concentrations of the four humors and the relative dominance of the derived qualities were inherent in each individual's physiology, nonetheless they were somewhat susceptible to the influence of external events, especially climate and diet. The body naturally became warmer and more moist in the spring; hence, people became more sanguine. When the body became cooler and drier in the fall, a melancholic mood became more prevalent. Differences in climate and the resulting differences in foods also contributed to differences in personal qualities. Hippocratesborn about 460 b.c.believed that Asians (he probably meant those living on the Indian subcontinent) were gentler than Mediterranean groups because of the more stable, gentler climate in the former area.
When the Arabs began to dominate North Africa and the Middle East in the seventh century, they translated Galen's books and adopted his precepts with little change. Ibn Ridwan, an eleventh-century Islamic physician, attributed the presumed impulsivity, inconstancy, and timidity among Egyptians to an unhealthy balance among the body humors traceable, in part, to the extremely humid and hot climate of the region of the Nile.
Meet the Author
Jerome Kagan is the Daniel and Amy Starch Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of many books, including The Nature of the Child.
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