On Monday, fellow blogger and friend Leila Miller alerted me to this old post at the Women of Grace blog warning against temperament theory. I thought the writer raised enough points that a blog response was in order, even though it’s years late. Some readers have expressed similar skepticism about my promotion of the four classic temperaments.
Let me start by saying I greatly respect the author Susan Brinkmann and have read her material for years. She kindly gave my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? a positive review a few months ago. She is a warrior against the New Age. However, as I have delved more deeply into the teaches of Centering Prayer, yoga, and other New Age practices, I have found that Brinkmann sometimes goes too far in her criticisms. I think she sometimes misunderstands what the central problems of these practices are for Catholics. Her work seems too greatly influenced by Fundamentalist Protestant sources. This makes it easy to dismiss her critiques wholesale.
Brinkmann raises several points. I will deal separately with her take on The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), astrology, and the Enneagram. In each section I will contrast these “personality assessments,” as she calls them, with classic temperament theory.
In response to a reader’s question, Brinkmann writes:
“In a nutshell, beware of all types of personality and temperament assessment tests. I say this for practical reasons. This multi-million dollar industry is largely unregulated with many of these tests being administered by poorly trained and sometimes completely unqualified personnel.”
- the theory of four temperaments originated with Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, certainly an expert in his day.
- the temperament distinctions lie in innate reaction patterns, not more nebulous behaviors.
- temperament is only one part of personality, supplemented by environment and the choices we make.
- saints and theologians throughout the ages, including St. Thomas Aquinas, have upheld temperament theory.
- temperament theory is not a fad.
- classic temperaments tests do not diagnose anything and do not require “expert” administration.
The problems with the MBTI cannot thus be attributed to temperament theory en masse.
Critics of temperament theory sometimes equate it with astrology. This happened in my recent discussion on Leila’s blog Little Catholic Bubble. (If you’ve never visited the Bubble, the comments are where the action is!) Another reader contended that the choleric temperament was just a rehash of the astrological sign Leo.
I purposely have not studied much about the Signs of the Zodiac, because I don’t want to give the Devil a foothold. But I did look up the attributes of Leo, and found that there are a few similarities with the choleric temperament, but also many differences. Contrary to what my opponent said, the two are not anywhere near equivalent.
“Mankind has long flirted with the idea of the four humors or temperaments (Sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic) which are connected with astrology. While this might make for interesting reading, we must be careful not to let this information be used for spiritual direction.”
“But grace does not destroy or replace nature; it works through and perfects nature. Consequently the body-soul composite of the individual person can be a help or hindrance to the operations of the virtues infused with sanctifying grace. It is therefore necessary, especially for spiritual directors, to understand the ways in which the psychosomatic structure can affect the work of sanctification.” (Spiritual Theology, Part 2, Chapter 7)
From an article in The Catholic World Report, we learn:
“The Enneagram redefines sin, among other fundamental concepts, by simply associating faults with personality types, which is particularly tempting in a cultural climate of irresponsibility and narcissism. It encourages an unhealthy self-absorption about one’s own ‘type,’ so that the type is at fault rather than the person. This gives rise to a deterministic mindset at odds with Christian freedom.”
Brinkmann ends her post:
“This is not to suggest by any means that personality and temperament tests are all occult-based, but this field is definitely popular with New Agers who thrive on self-realization. If only as much time was spent meditating on the attributes of God rather than on ourselves!
“A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the best way to pursue the kind of self-knowledge that will get you into heaven. That, coupled with 30 minutes a day of mental prayer (start with 10 minutes and work your way up) is the best way to discover one’s weaknesses and attachments to sin – not through personality or temperament tests.”
I am not the one to argue against the importance of mental prayer! Nor that the best way to understand oneself is to pursue intimacy with God. But self-knowledge does include being aware of one’s root sins and bad habits. The Daily Examen, or other practices of examining one’s conscience, could also put too much focus on oneself, if taken out of context or used to the extreme.
We don’t learn our temperament as a substitute or excuse for not pursuing holiness. Instead, we use it to understand ourselves better so that we can tackle the tendencies that are keeping us away from intimacy with Christ.
In the last two years since I have come to understand my temperament, I have zeroed in on my main fault and the ways it is keeping me from glorifying God in my vocation. And with the help of my spiritual director, I am working to overcome this sin. I am more patient with my temperamental weaknesses and those of others. I know some things will not be completely healed by my hard work, but only by the infused work of God in contemplation. But I am determined to do what I can with ordinary grace to prepare my soul for that deeper work of God.