About the humours

 

The story of the long-lived notion of humours, recounted in Passions and Tempers, shows how we have historically represented our bodies to ourselves, and how even the capacity to see inside the body does not necessarily suffice to understand how it is functioning or failing to function.

In this book, you can read about the power of medicine and drugs to help us - of doctors, diets or lifestyle changes to cure our bodies and of psychiatrists to cure our minds - and about the relation between medical or scientific knowledge and clinical practice.

Just as the capacity to help an ailing person can depend on instinct and "folk" traditions as well as on "high" knowledge, so the division in the West between what we consider to be a mainstream, mechanistic view of the body and what we consider the "alternative", holistic and often humoural one may not be as clear as may seem.

Passions and Tempers aims to change the common view according to which our modernity - and especially our modern, mechanistic science - was born in opposition to everything that preceded it, pointing to the endurance of old ideas in contemporary culture.

 

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According to the humoural theory passed down from the Greek Hippocratics 2500 years ago and established until modern times, we harboured all four humours in the blood. (Note: the humour blood is distinct from the usual blood.)

We were born with a certain temperament that was made up of a mixture of these humours: the body`s constitution or complexion, orkrasis (in Greek), was constituted by them. Ideally all of the humours had to be balanced, according to one`s temperament. When the body was thrown off-balance, it was in a state ofdyskrasia (in Greek), and that was when one was ill, unhappy or out-of- sorts.

The proportions between the humours were thought to change over a lifetime, but also over the year, and even the day. No one was born with an equal amount of each one, and what counted as optimal balance for one person differed from what counted as optimal balance for someone else.

Still, each humour traditionally had specific characteristics. These are described on the results page if you take the humoural personality test, but they are summed up below.

 

choler, or yellow bile
predominant in those endowed with a choleric temperament

  • element: fire
  • qualities: hot and dry
  • color: yellow
  • taste: bitter
  • season: summer
  • time of day: midday
  • body organ: spleen
  • period of life: youth
  • signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
  • planet: Mars

In a balanced person, the predominance of choler ensured a reactive and quick-tempered character. A choleric was typically able to make decisions well and fast, and preferred action over contemplation. But a surplus of choler could become "burned" and eventually turn into melancholy (melan=black, choler=bile, in Greek). Character could also become acrid and negative; reactivity might then be directed at the wrong objects. This sort of choleric could get angry easily and have episodes of uncontrolled, potentially dangerous rage. As Brutus exclaimed to Cassius in Shakespeare`s Julius Caesar (IV, 3): "Must I give way and room to your rash choler? Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?"

 

melancholy, or black bile
predominant in those endowed with a melancholic temperament

  • element: earth
  • qualities: cold and dry
  • color: black
  • taste: sour
  • season: autumn
  • time of day: afternoon
  • body organ: liver
  • period of life: maturity
  • signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
  • planet: Saturn

To harbour black bile in the organism did not entail that one would be a melancholic. Those who were generally balanced could have episodes of mild melancholy, akin to the blues. Those who were less balanced might be more affected by it and develop a syndrome akin to depression. Melancholics used to be identified by their pale, sallow looks, their lack of appetite and tendency to withdraw from society. Generally, though, it was considered healthy to harbour a dose of it: it helped us temper our enthusiasms, keep our feet on the ground, practice introspection and contemplation, appreciate art, and empathize with the distress of others.

 

blood
predominant in those endowed with a sanguine temperament

  • element: air
  • qualities: hot and moist
  • color: red
  • taste: sweet
  • season: spring
  • time of day: morning
  • body organ: heart
  • period of life: childhood
  • signs: Gemini, Aquarius, Libra
  • planet: Jupiter

Blood was the "best" of all the humours. The sanguine person was typically balanced, equanimous, patient, thoughtful, active in a measured way, able to judge people and situations well, and to contain his or her own shifts of moods, as well as those of others. The presence of blood diminished the power exerted by other humours that might have been present in high doses. An excess of it, however, went along with a general insensitivity and indifference to the fate of others.

 

phlegm
predominant in those endowed with a phlegmatic temperament

  • element: water
  • qualities: cold and moist
  • color: white
  • taste: salty
  • season: winter
  • time of day: evening
  • body organ: liver
  • period of life: old age
  • signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
  • planet: Moon

Phlegm was associated with slowness, sleepiness, runny noses and lack of drive of any sort. At its best, though, and especially when it was present with a relatively high proportion of choler, phlegm was thought to ensure a sense of calm, stability and serenity, as well as a capacity for prolonged concentration and for appropriate judgements and upraisals of situations and people.

 

The four humours were first mooted in the 5th century BC, in Greece.

Each one corresponded to an element and a quality. The presocratic philosopher Empedocles established the fourfold division of the universe; and since humans are part of the universe, the division applied to us too.

 

 

The first, legendary (but probably real) doctor Hippocrates was also active in this period, and he took on board this idea.

The system endured in the West for an extraordinarily long time. Other versions of it still exist in other parts of the world. The western system specifically, on which Passions and Tempers focuses, was passed on to posterity first by the Hippocratic writings, assembled into a corpus in Alexandria, Egypt, at the height of that city`s reign, in the 3rd century BC.

It was then revised, analysed and consolidated by the Greek-speaking Roman doctor Galen of Pergamon, who lived in the 2nd century AD and wrote a prodigious number of books. Medicine remained in a sort of stasis for centuries after this - give or take a few important discoveries, especially within the Arabic-speaking world, thanks to which most of the classical knowledge, medical and otherwise, was passed on.

But variations and breaches appeared with the advent of the Renaissance, when it became possible to dissect human cadavers again, and when the original texts of antiquity arrived in Europe from Turkey. Once one could look inside the body, the old humours began their transformation. But they endured within medical practice and ordinary beliefs.

Passions and Tempers explains how and why that is - and why this story matters to us today. You can buy it from the home page.