The 4 temperaments – know thyself

Surprisingly, the secret to fulfillment comes as two simple words of wisdom written upon the wall of Apollo’s temple in Delphi: ‘Know thyself’. This instruction, when followed, has a profound result.

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you prefer hot or cold food? By finding out more about yourself and defining your temperament, you can learn to live an empowered, healthful and fulfilled life in accordance with your unique set of characteristics. Learn more about the healing science of Tibb medicine and take responsibility for your own well-being and happiness.

Tibb has a much more realistic view of the cause of disease because it sees the body as infinitely complex, not just a simple machine. Tibb considers diet, lifestyle, emotions, interaction with the environment and even spiritual factors as essential to overall wellness.


A person’s temperament is the combination of their physical characteristics and their mental, emotional and spiritual attributes. According to the ancient wisdom of the Greco-Arab thinkers, the individual qualities of a person are fixed and cannot be changed. Just as a fingerprint cannot be changed, so our fundamental temperament cannot be changed. You are the way you are.

And, we are all different. Where you may seldom get cold, someone else may always need a jersey. You may hate mornings and can stay up all night; another may love getting up at dawn. Each of us has our own likes, dislikes, interests and skills. All our characteristics and quirks make up our unique disposition, or temperament. When we know more about our temperament, we are better able to determine how to live in harmony with our individual needs.

A person’s temperament has a direct influence on their state of health and inclination toward illnesses. Understanding your temperament can help you to plan a diet that is optimum for you, and to pursue activities that promote a happy, healthy and productive lifestyle in harmony with yourself and the world around you.

There are numerous factors that determine temperament, such as:

  • Time and place of birth
  • Conditions in the uterus and the diet of the mother during pregnancy, and most importantly,
  • Hereditary factors – your parents’ temperaments and characteristics.
  • Although each person is unique and individual, we can categorise people into four main temperamental types:
  1. Sanguinous
  2. Melancholic
  3. Bilious
  4. Phlegmatic


We know that the human body has an ideal temperature of 37°C and contains between 60-70% water. From this we see the overall temperament of the human being is hot (37°C) and moist (60-70% water). Slight variations exist within this hot and moist category, which give rise to contrasting qualities of hot/cold and moist/dry.

Taking this further, we see that each temperament has specific qualities and can be positioned as follows:

  • SANGUINOUS hot & moist
  • BILIOUS hot & dry PHLEGMATIC cold & moist
  • MELANCHOLIC cold & dry

Each of us has a dominant temperament as well as a sub-dominant type. Once you have identified your dominant temperament, your sub-dominant will be either to the left or right of your dominant, as shown on the diagram above.

As it is in nature, extremes do not exist together in harmony and so you won’t find the two opposites together. For example, you cannot have a sanguinous (hot & moist) dominant with a melancholic (cold and dry) sub-dominant. What is possible, however, is to have a person with a dominant temperament of sanguinous to have a sub-dominant of either phlegmatic or bilious.


  • Each of us is a combination of all four temperaments but with a dominance of one.
  • It is quite common to feel that you could almost fit into another of the temperaments; this is your sub-dominant temperament.
  • A true reflection of physical appearance is determined by one’s appearance in the early twenties. Be aware that medication and certain drugs, such as cortisone, can cause facial swelling; others may decrease or increase appetite.
  • Do not confuse habits with tendencies or preferences. A person may be inclined to acquire certain habits because of circumstances. These can be misinterpreted as preferences. For example, because ice is almost always served with cold drinks, you may believe that you like ice, whereas on reflection cold drinks may not be your preference.
  • Personality traits should be identified when one is relaxed and away from environmental factors that can alter personality, like a stressful work environment.
  • When evaluating personality traits, consider how other people see you, especially those who know you well such as family and friends. For example, someone that usually has a calm nature might become very angry when seriously provoked. This outburst does not automatically categorise this person as having a bilious temperament (known to be short-tempered).


Temperaments can be identified by looking at the physical appearance and preferences of the individual, as well as at their mental, emotional and spiritual attributes.


What is the combination of qualities associated with the temperament of an individual, taking into account his/her dominant and sub-dominant temperament? If an individual has a dominant temperament of sanguinous (hot & moist) and a less dominant phlegmatic (cold & moist), then the resultant qualities associated with that temperament will be somewhere between hot & moist and cold & moist. This depends on the extent of the dominant temperament.

Moistness is the common quality between sanguinous and phlematic. This person’s ideal qualitative state will consist of a dominant quality of moistness, followed in turn by heat, then coldness and finally the least amount of dryness.

Any change to this ideal qualitative combination will have a negative influence on the individual’s health. As moistness is the dominant quality associated with this individual, changes in the level of moistness (and more particularly, excess of moistness) will affect this individual the most and faster than any of the other variables.

In contrast, changes in the quality of dryness (which is the least in concentration), will have the least negative effect on the individual. This is why a person with a dominant sanguinous and sub-dominant phlegmatic temperament will be least comfortable in humid weather.


Each individual is a unique combination of factors and qualities, and therefore requires a unique set of conditions for maximum harmony and health. Knowing your temperament is a window into your make-up and is a key to finding health and happiness in your life and environment.

Tibb, Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners are able to tailor lifestyle improvements to suit your individual temperament combination. Such improvements include dietary recommendations, appropriate daily and seasonal routines, exercise, music and sound, colours, medicine and even bodywork, such as specific aroma-therapeutic massage.

It’s important to know what disease the person has, but it’s more important to know the person who has the disease.

Download Temperament Diagramme

Download Temperament Diagramme 2

Download Temperament Table

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The 4 temperaments – know thyself

Professor Rashid Bhikha
About The Author
- BSc (Pharm) PhD (UWC). He qualified as a pharmacist in the late sixties. In 1997, after extensive research into Tibb medicine, he founded the Ibn Sina Institute of Tibb to promote the training and practice of Tibb in South Africa. In 2004, he completed his PhD in Education at the University of the Western Cape where he established the training of Unani-Tibb. In addition to the many papers he has presented locally and internationally he has also authored numerous books. His dedication towards social upliftment earned him the Inyathelo Lifetime Philanthropy Award in 2009.