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Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature

Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature

by Jerome Kagan

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Harvard professor Kagan supports ancient Greek physician Galen's theory that temperamental tendencies in humans are innate, and interprets their possible effects. (June)
Library Journal
Kagan, one of the world's eminent developmental psychologists, has argued for several decades that human nature is not infinitely malleable. In this book he discusses a project he has led for the past 15 years involving the study of toddlers who demonstrated two temperamental extremes: the inhibited (shy and withdrawn) and the uninhibited (placid and outgoing). Kagan's research uncovered a significant pattern of behavioral and physiological differences distinguishing these two groups from earliest infancy and found that these traits tend to persist at least into early adolescence. He includes a history of the idea of temperament and discusses the political implications of his work. This book is a vital purchase for all academic libraries supporting courses in developmental or personality psychology. Public libraries can probably make do with Kagan's earlier book, The Nature of the Child (LJ 9/15/84), which covers the research in less detail.-Mary Ann Hughes, Neill P.L., Pullman, Wash.

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Free Association Books Limited
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Read an Excerpt

The Idea of Temperament:
The Past

Genio y hechura hasta sepultura.
("Natures and features last to the grave.")
—Spanish saying

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 physiology—in 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, and—over the past three hundred years—to social encounters. This division between internal and external influences is linked to the ancient split in Western thought between material and mental processes—body 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 slavery—ancient Rome, for example—citizens 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.

The Ancient View in the West

The Greeks and Romans believed that a balance among the four humors of yellow and black bile, blood, and phlegm, present in all persons, created an opposition within each of two pairs of bodily qualities: warm versus cool and dry versus moist (see figure 1.1). These four qualities were related to the four fundamental substances in the world: fire, air, earth, and water. The Greeks assumed, without a detailed appreciation of genetics or physiology, that the balance among these qualities produced an invisible inner state that was responsible for the observed variation in rationality, emotionality, and behavior. Children and women, for example, could not help being impulsive and irrational, for they were born with an excess of the moist quality.

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. Hippocrates—born 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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