St Andrews, Catford

23rd January 2000

Galenus and the Four Humours


About eighteen hundred years ago there lived a man in the country we would nowadays call Turkey, and his name was Galenus or Galen for short.

He was what today would be called a Research Physician, though it must be said that if he were to apply for a job but in the National Health Service he would immediately be sent on an extensive refresher course to bring him up to date with modern medicine.

For instance, Galenus knew nothing about the circulation of the blood; almost nothing about antisepsis; nothing about genetics or the causes of malaria or diabetes, and a whole host of other ailments which are common knowledge nowadays.

However Galenus did make one discovery which has stood the test of time and never really been improved on. This discovery was the fact that human personalities can be broadly classified into four different types or "humours" as he called them.

The four types he called by the technical terms: the Sanguine, the Choleric, the Phlegmatic and the Melancholic, and it was his contention that, at any given time in an individual's life, one or other of these "humours" would be the predominant one, although most people would be a mixture of two or more of them

We shall look at these four Humours in more detail in a moment, but first let me answer the question which some of you may be asking yourselves: "What has all this to do with Saint Andrew's, Catford this morning?"

The answer is that the Church of God on earth resembles nothing so much as a human body, the body of Christ to be precise. As such, its health or weakness in any given place be it Catford, Canterbury, Calcutta or Cape Town will depend upon the members who go to make it up, and how well or how badly they manage to fit in with each other and with the Body of Christ as a whole.

Now since it has pleased God that his Church should be a Catholic or universal Church, that is to say that it should comprise people not only those "of all nations, languages and tongues" but also, rather more to the point, include people of all different natures (or as Galenus would have called them "humours") it’s of the utmost importance that we should be able to recognise accurately both the nature of other people and, first and foremost, what type our own nature is.

If we can’t recognise these humours, the fundamental building-blocks, so to speak, of human nature (our own as well as other people’s) then four serious consequences will follow.

Firstly we shall come to imagine that everyone is, or at least ought to be, just like ourselves; secondly we shall fail to appreciate that every type of nature has its good and bad side so far as discipleship is concerned; thirdly we shall fail to see the slightest need for allowing God to make us perfect, or indeed any different from what we are at the moment; and fourthly, if ever our own nature, or that of someone we know and love should at some stage in their life undergo a significant change (as we shall see in a moment it well may), then our lack of self-knowledge and understanding of it will leave as entirely bewildered.

And if you doubt the truth of these consequences, just look carefully at the history of any local Church be it in Corinth in the time of St Paul, Canterbury at the Reformation or Catford today, and you will see that many of its weaknesses and shortcomings have been due to just such a lack of self-understanding amongst the people who go to make it up, people like you and me which prevents us from really knowing ourselves.

So, without more ado, let's turn to the four Humours described by Galenus as: Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic and Melancholic

Sanguine people are generally placid, easy-going, outward-looking, slow to take offence, generally optimistic about life and its outcomes.

Choleric people by contrast have an altogether "shorter fuse", they are more quickly moved to anger, but also to pity; they tend to "act first and think afterwards"; they are more likely to take offence in the first instance, but less likely than people of other humours to bear the deep long-lasting resentment afterwards.

Phlegmatic people, on the contrary, are given to thinking hard before they do anything. In their own opinion of themselves they tend always to have people and situations "sized-up" and are therefore less likely to feel hurt when let down, if only because in their own mind they don't have high expectations of others; but because their expectation of others is low, they seldom manage to inspire and lead them in the way that, for instance, a more sanguine or choleric person might.

The Melancholic person is by nature a pessimist. That's not the same as saying that he's unhappy all the time, but is rather someone to tends to see life as a series of battles to be fought, won or lost as the case may be, but each conflict to be invariably followed by another one. Indeed the melancholic person would as likely as not be seriously worried if he found himself without a battle in the offing. So melancholic people tend to enjoy a challenge and are on the look out for them.

Now you might imagine that, for instance, sanguine people are somehow better or more pleasing to God than, say, choleric ones. But you would be quite wrong. Each humour has its strong and weak points and, just to take the present instance, a Church consisting of nothing but sanguine people might allow the whole building to fall into a state of total disrepair around them; whereas if there were just one or two rather more choleric people in the congregation they would say, "Look, we’ve had enough of this nonsense of the rain coming in all the time. We've got to do something and I'm not going to let anyone have any peace until we do!"

But there's another reason why, even if it were desirable (which it is not) that everyone should be of the same humour, no Church could for long entirely consist of people of the same Galenic kind: and the reason is because individuals’ natures change, not just once but several times in their lives for a whole variety of reasons..

The causes may be a biological: growing up, or having a baby, or growing old. These are just three well-known reasons for a biologically-based change of humour. On the other hand the changes of humour may be due to a change in our social circumstances: leaving home, being bereaved, retirement may all trigger a change of humour; but the most important of all for the Christian to reckon with is the fact that it may be the will of our Lord Jesus Christ for us that one side of our nature, or "humours", should at a particular time, change and develop more radically than the other three.

None of us, as Galenus pointed out, is entirely made up of one humour. It's true that at any given period of our lives one particular humour may be indeed in the ascendant within us. But that doesn't mean that, by God's help, we cannot change in the direction he requires us to, and that if this is his will for us we should co-operate with his grace in bringing this about.

And that is the wonderful thing about the grace of God. By grace we are enabled to become "that thing which by nature itself we cannot be". The whole process of discipleship (which means "learning" of course) is one which calls for each one of us to exercise sometimes his sanguine, now the choleric, now the phlegmatic, now the melancholic side of his nature, regardless of which one is prevalent at the present moment, or the particular mood he or she is in.

Well, that's been pretty much a whistle-stop tour through the intricacies of Galenic medicine, and it's time for me to stop, and for you to ask yourself "how are my humours doing today?"

But let me end by stressing one thing again. The Church of God is a Catholic Church and as such it has need for people like you and me, made up as we our of our different combination of humours, to be interacting graciously with each other every minute of our lives.