The four classical temperaments are part of an ancient theory about human nature.
According to this ancient and false system of classification, there are four basic human types.
Each type — each "temperament" — is dominated by a particular bodily fluid,
and each is characterized by a particular bodily size and shape.
The system was dreamt up centuries ago by people who had little real knowledge of the human brain or body.
But Steiner embraced these errors and Waldorf schools generally structure their programs around them.
Here is some guidance Waldorf teacher Roy Wilkinson gave to his colleagues: how to treat students on the basis of “temperament.”
Some readers may be surprised that Waldorf schools subscribe to an outmoded system of categorizing human beings,
and some may consider the system perverse because it discriminates among innocent children for no good reason.
But this system, believe it or not, is central to the Waldorf view of human nature;
it is central to the way Waldorf teachers think about, and deal with, their students.
Waldorf teachers generally want to treat students as individuals, but sorting kids according to "temperament" means stereotyping them. Here are the stereotypes, as described by Wilkinson (who thought he was presenting truths, not hurtful falsehoods):
THE CHOLERIC CHILD: Short, stocky, bullnecked; upright posture; firm gait, digging heels into the ground; energetic, active eyes; given to short, abrupt gestures; speaks sharply, emphatically, deliberately, to the point; friendly disposition, as long as s/he can be a group leader; feels the need to jolly others along; enjoys spicy, well-prepared foods; likes to wear individual clothing that stands out from the crowd; good powers of observation, but forgetful; interested in the world, the future, and the self; aggressive, showing a commanding attitude, but ultimately can be understanding; boastful, enthusiastic, generous, intolerant, impatient, takes gambles.
THE SANGUINE CHILD: Slender, elegant, well-balanced; walks lightly, on the toes; lively, dancing eyes; makes graceful, lively gestures; speaks eloquently, with flowery language; friendly to all, but fickle, changeable; has no fixed habits; nibbles at food, but enjoys nicely prepared meals; likes new, colorful clothing; excellent powers of observation, but a memory like a sieve; interested in the immediate present; kind, understanding, sympathetic; but superficial, unreliable, impatient.
THE PHLEGMATIC CHILD: Big, fleshy, round; ambles along, rolling like a steamroller; sleepy eyes, often half-closed; makes slow, deliberate gestures; speaks ponderously, logically, clearly; friendly but reserved, impassive; has fixed habits, likes a fixed routine; eats heartily, almost any kind of food; dresses conservatively; observant and with good recall, when sufficiently awake; has a good memory for worldly things; is interested in the present but tends not to get involved; discerning, objective, faithful, stable, methodical, trustworthy, motherly, self-contented, lethargic.
THE MELANCHOLIC CHILD: Large, bony, with heavy limbs and bowed head; slow, drooping, sliding gait; tragic, mournful eyes; makes drooping gestures; speaks haltingly, hesitatingly, leaving sentences unfinished; unfriendly, but sympathetic with fellow sufferers; likes solitary occupations; finicky about food, likes sweets; picky about clothing, dresses drably; not observant but has a good memory, especially concerning himself/herself; egocentric; interested in the past; helpful, artistic, self-sacrificing with fellow sufferers, but vindictive, fearful, easily depressed, moody, tyrannical.
[THE TEMPERAMENTS IN EDUCATION (Roy Wilkinson, 1983), pp. 23-24.]*
This edition of Wilkinson's work — which is highly regarded within the Waldorf community —
was issued by the Rudolf Steiner College Press in 1997.
Obviously, some kids fit the stereotypes laid out by Wilkinson; but equally obviously, many kids do not. Wilkinson acknowledges the difficulty Waldorf teachers may have when trying to decide which kids fall into which category. Nonetheless, he insists this scheme of categorization is valid. His primarily source is, of course, Rudolf Steiner — most of what Wilkinson says is based on Steiner’s teachings.
Here are specific recommendations Wilkinson made for Waldorf teachers, along with further observations concerning the kids in the four categories.
Teachers should tell choleric children stories in which rashness is shown to become dangerous or ridiculous. These students need lots of different things to do, tasks that present challenges for the kids to work through. Teachers should be firm, strong, direct.
Sanguines should be given lively stories full of exciting descriptions, pictures, and variations. These children need many varying activities. Teachers should be friendly but firm.
Phlegmatic kids should be given indifferent stories told indifferently. Assign a specific task and provide advice on getting on with it. Teachers should show calm strength.
Melancholic students need sad stories that lead to eventual triumph. Teachers should enter into these students’ sad moods and encourage the students to assist others who are less capable. Be sympathetic.
[Ibid., pp. 24-25.]
Children with different temperaments have affinities for different mathematical processes and rules. By starting each child with the proper math activity for her/his temperament, a teacher can lead the child to learn all other parts of arithmetic. Cholerics have a feeling for division, sanguines for multiplication, phlegmatics for addition, and melancholics for subtraction.
[Ibid., pp. 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10-12.]
Cholerics are suited to percussion instruments, and when using other instruments, they want to play solo. Sanguines are adapted to brass and reed instruments, and they enjoy being part of an orchestra. Phlegmatics are drawn to the piano; they enjoy choral singing. Melancholics have an affinity from stringed instruments; they want to sing solo.
[Ibid., pp. 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12.]
Certain forms appeal to various temperaments, and they have a therapeutic effect. Drawing the appropriate forms will help children of each temperament to learn to write.
Cholerics progress from simple angular shapes to controlled, involved, rounded shapes. Sanguines make repetitive forms, rhythmic pictures. They may be led to create concentric lemniscates (figure-eights), with each lemniscate in a different color. Phlegmatic children will start with passive forms; they should be led to more active shapes. “Forms should be drawn, rubbed out, and reproduced in metamorphoses.” Melancholics should be encouraged to create shapes that require thought and observation, leading to metamorphosis and/or changes in emphasis.
[Ibid., pp. 12-16.]
PAINTING AND DRAWING
The pictures children create offer clues to temperament. Choleric kids make pictures of volcanoes, also precipices with the self overcoming obstacles; they use strong colors. Sanguine kids use bright colors, depicting movements and details. Phlegmatic children make bland, uninteresting pictures, unfinished in appearance. Melancholic kids jam too many details into their pictures; they use strong, harmonious colors.
[Ibid., pp. 22-23.]
The teacher should make sure each story has passages that will appeal to each temperament. Cholerics like boisterous action; for melancholics, there should be a note of sadness and a drop in tone; for sanguines, include descriptions of quick, changing events; and for phlegmatics, include slow passages told in an indifferent tone.
[Ibid., p. 10.]
Motivate cholerics by giving them challenges. Get sanguines to act by asking it as a personal favor. Show calm strength to phlegmatics. Be sympathetic with melancholics.
“Following the principle of ‘like cures like’, the children should be seated according to their temperaments. It will be found, for instance, that the phlegmatics get so bored with one another that they wake up; the cholerics will calm one another down since no-one [sic] will be allowed to be the leader.”
In general, phlegmatics should sit back where they can observe but not participate. Melancholics need a quiet corner. “The cholerics, best able to cope with any disturbance, should perhaps have a place near the door and the sanguines will not really mind where they. The center might be a good place for them.”
[Ibid., pp. 9-10.]
For cholerics, punishment should not come immediately. “The choleric must get the red flag removed from before his eyes before he can be reasonable.” Remind the child of the misdeed later, and discuss it with him/her.
Sanguines may not need punishment: “[A] friendly word will probably be sufficient.” Give this friendly word immediately.
Phlegmatics: “[I]f punishment is necessary, it should be immediate.”
Melancholics: Be sympathetic but firm. Immediately point out the consequences that will come later.
[Ibid., pp. 4, 5, 7, 9, and 24-25.]
Kids with different temperaments will react differently to events. Here are examples:
The child falls in the playground: A choleric will blame others and takes pride in any injuries. A sanguine cries for a moment and then forgets it. A phlegmatic is stoical; s/he continues as if nothing happened. A melancholic is plunged into unbearable misery, as if the world is ending.
A class outing is canceled: A choleric calls a protest meeting. A sanguine enjoys the change and thinks of alternative activities. A phlegmatic doesn’t care, but s/he will also not forget. A melancholic knew this would happen, and s/he thinks it was done on purpose.
The class has a new teacher: The choleric sees the new teacher as a possible rival. The sanguine enjoys the situation. The phlegmatic doesn’t notice the change for several weeks — calls the new teacher by the old teacher’s name. The melancholic suffers deeply, considering the new teacher an enemy.
A task is assigned: The choleric charges in and completes it fast. The sanguine likes it and finds it interesting, but gives up if problems arise. The phlegmatic delays, ponders, plans, and has trouble completing the assignment. The melancholic sees the assignment as another great burden to bear.
[Ibid., pp. 24-25.]
Sanguines and melancholics are opposites; so are cholerics and phlegmatics. Any child may have a predominant temperament with, perhaps, traces of the other temperaments EXCEPT for the opposite temperament. So, for instance, a sanguine may have traces of phlegm and choler, but not of melancholy.
[Ibid., p. 1.]
- Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings
* Wilkinson presents much of his material in tabular form, which makes ordinary quotation almost impossible. For this reason, on this page I have used Wilkinson’s own words as much as possible, but without inserting quotation marks except around complete sentences.
“The melancholic children are as a rule tall and slender;
the sanguine are the most normal;
those with more protruding shoulders are the phlegmatic children;
and those with a short stout build so that the head almost sinks down into the body are choleric.”
— Rudolf Steiner, DISCUSSIONS WITH TEACHERS (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 34. R.R. sketch, 2010.
"Most people who become involved with a Steiner school through their children,
are drawn into the school after a while, not only in a physical way, but also spiritually.
What happens at school is so fascinating that they want to know whether it is inspired by God of the Devil."
— Waldorf teacher Marieke Anschütz, CHILDREN AND THEIR TEMPERAMENTS (Floris Books, 2005), p. 9.
To visit other pages in the sections of Waldorf Watch
that include "Temperaments", use the underlined links, below.
◊◊◊ 14. PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER ◊◊◊
also see "Human Nature, Human Potential"