Low-trajectory Aspirations

Recently an old acquaintance of mine enquired about modern personality tests such as Myers Briggs, Enneagram, The Big 5, etc. I cogitated on this while smoking a cigar and sipping a glass of cognac after dinner outside and was reminded of my prevailing melancholic temperament when fruit flies took advantage of my slow stagnant rumination and formed what looked like an agave tequila worm at the bottom of my glass. I relit my extinguished Cohiba, fished the drosophila colony out of my glass, and as I sipped the protein infused cognac, a verse from T.S. Eliot came to mind, “The whole earth is our hospital Endowed by the ruined millionaire." 

After the fall, we each have a predominate fault driven by physiology rather than merely psychology or external circumstances. The modern personality tests only weakly address this. They rely on the unsure and fragmented grounding in what Thomas Fleming refers to as “the so-called social so-called sciences” thereby limiting their usefulness to that of mere tools for the managerial class to use on its subjects to improve their efficiency. In this capacity, they are arguably a helpful aid for overseers who see people as means. 

As with so much managerial fodder, the effectiveness of the modern personality tests is stunted by false presuppositions, aberrant paradigms, and the influences of preposterous worldviews. For example, with Meyers Briggs, feedback is categorized only in vague positive terms; there is not any negative feedback. Enneagram is influenced by Gnosticism and its latest form came into print through new age spiritualism driving a form of occultic automatic writing.

Having endured exposure to many of these modern adaptations on the temperament management theme in graduate school and later in military and corporate leadership and team building sessions, I have come to conclude that it is hard to improve on the four basic temperaments outlined by Hippocrates and later developed within Catholic moral theology as an aid for growth in virtue: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. 

Everyone has one of these temperaments as a primary disposition and another as a secondary shaping their strengths and weaknesses.  In our striving for holiness, we must identify our flaws and work to mitigate them through prayer, ameliorating habits, and careful study. In this pilgrimage, self-awareness of our temperaments is very helpful as we all must work on our physiological flaws, weaknesses, and excesses as a basic part of the development of virtue.

A predominately choleric person can often be a great leader but may need to slow down and consider the consequences of flailing existential actions. The phlegmatic may be very supportive of a plan or goal but unable to take the initiative to lead. A sanguine may have wonderful ideas to offer but is often unable to follow through on anything. The melancholic may offer prudent guidance and even steer a team away from a plummeting over precipice through warranted caution but often at risk of over examining everything. 

Hippocrates' system baptized in Catholic moral theology is the best prescription for diagnosing and ameliorating unbalanced temperaments. Ones predominate and secondary temperaments need to be developed, directed, educated, and often harnessed rather than mere accepted or coddled. Certainly, effective premarital and marital counseling must consider the temperaments of couples to show them their combined strengths and weaknesses. Some may dismiss this as Catholic astrology, but it rings true. 

Insofar as the contemporary tests employ at least a faint echo of the four basic temperaments, they can be somewhat effective in team building for tackling military, government, or corporate projects. A balanced mix of temperaments on a team can keep a project from spinning off into a tangential dead end through excesses, blind spots, and imprudence; a team composed of a pragmatic mix of various conflicting temperaments can get things done. 

An amusing way to see the temperaments interact is simply to relax and watch or read the original, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame. The animal characters, Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad interact together manifesting the various temperaments. The extremely sanguine Toad is always in need of rescue by the others after going off on some new tangent. The melancholic Badger often saves him with the help of the choleric Ratty and phlegmatic Mole. I sense that Grahame may have had a melancholic orientation.

My melancholic temperament makes me particularly uncomfortable around those who are sanguine, but I must admit they sometimes remind me I am alive and may even offer a good idea. Catch it quickly though as they will have forgotten it and moved on to the next idea without any implementation and on it goes. I thought about writing this brief essay while retreating from a room full of sanguine folk. When the noise reaches a certain level, if the occasion allows, I will slip off to a quiet place, ideally with a cigar, cognac, and if outside, at least those pesky flies are not talking incessantly about everything and nothing.

In case it seems, I am being hard on sanguines, the answer is surely not to favor one or another temperament exclusively. It is rather in the development of one’s temperaments and in the cooperation and collaboration among those of various temperaments which at its best leads to higher essential goals subsuming and adjudicating the existential low-trajectory aspirations of much modern management.

Frank DeRienzo is a retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Gordon College and an MBA from the University of Massachusetts and is a graduate of the US Army Defense Language Institute. He currently works with eLearning technology.

Frank DeRienzo

Frank DeRienzo

11 Responses

  1. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    An interesting and valuable piece. Modern theories of the human personality are in general too spiritual. Maritain referred to the fallacy of Descartes and his many descendants as “angelism,” but we might add that there are others, most often psychiatrists and psychologists, who are afflicted with demonism. As I have described in several lectures and posts, Homer views the human individual personality as a borderland between divine impulses and influences–and dictates–and organic instincts located in specific organs or regions or pseudo-organs: the phrenes (probably diaphragm), spleen, heart, and the mysterious thymos. Sometimes the gods stir up these organs, regions, functions (such as menos, rate or battle eagerness), and sometimes they speak for themselves. As primitive and unsystematic as it is, the Homeric arrangement seems to me more comprehensive, and more finely tuned than any of the modern theories.

    Hippocrates’ humors–bodily fluids that control or influence moods and attitudes– you will all recall, were given a second life in the Renaissance, and English drama is full of them, particularly the plays of Ben Jonson, such as “Every Man in His Own Humor.” If you read an academic account of Jonsonian humours, it sounds stale and formulaic, but in my view, this is wrong. They are only formulaic to the degree that they can produce effective comedy. I remember when I first read Locke in my late teens, and I found his psychology primitive and abstract, as indeed it is. Beginning with an obviously false premise (the blank slate) that has been repeatedly disproved by modern testing of neonatal responses, Locke goes on to elaborate a system almost as mechanical as Descartes’ (which he has probably borrowed) or the Watson-Skinner behaviorism. Homwer and Jonson, to name only two, have a robust, if somewhat mythical approach that is truer to human nature than any Faucian science we are supposed to trust.

    Years ago, when I was foolish enough to read such twaddle, I spent some time on Claude Lévi-Strauss. I was even stupid enough to read his dull French prose. He did wise me up on one important point. He described the techniques of Amazonian witch doctors who treated such problems as a blocked pregnancy by telling a mythic narrative in which a river obstructed by a dam was cleared and the river was allowed to flow. He had considerable knowledge of Freudian psychology and opined that the witch doctors were able to get results that the psychiatrists could scarcely imagine, because their patients trusted them and their mythic tales. I should venture to say that if we could get the evidence, we might well discover that paleolithic man had a far deeper grasp of psychology than we can imagine. It did not rise to the level of Homer, Hippocrates, and Jonson, but it was a good deal more in tune with reality than the IQ tests.

  2. Raymond Olson says:

    It seems to me that I have known the four humors from very early childhood. Perhaps–highly likely, in fact–my mother explained them to me, and then, as was her wont, let me run with the knowledge. As with so much else I learned very early, I’ve assumed that the humors were common knowledge. I thank you, Mr. DeRienzo, for reminding me that the reason I never forgot them is because they describe something real truly.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    As a DoD civilian I had many opportunities to take the Myers-Briggs test. And I took every opportunity to answer the questions so that I had a different personality type than the previous time I took the test. I just could not make up my mind.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    There is more wisdom and understanding about the world in ancient myths than in modern scientism.

  5. Dom says:

    I suspect that excuses for melancholies are unnecessary in these parts.

  6. Frank DeRienzo says:

    Andrew, it can be a bit like a blood test – one isolated instance. What was my mood the day of the test?

  7. Frank DeRienzo says:

    Andrew, they can be a bit like blood tests – merely one isolated instance. One’s disposition the day of the test is significant.

  8. Frank DeRienzo says:

    … Unlike network latency which makes the same thought redundant.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. DeRienzo, it was actually intentionally selecting specific answers to obtain a desired outcome.

  10. Frank DeRienzo says:

    Hi Andrew, I was obviously too obtuse to catch that.

  11. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Perhaps I was too subtle.