The theory of the four humours, by Hippocrates

Psychology is one of the newer sciences, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t developed over centuries, if not millennia.

In fact, some of the big questions he tries to answer began to generate theories over 2000 years ago. The theory of the four moods, linked to the different personality classes that we can find in humans, is an example. It was proposed by the Greek Hippocrates.

The origins of the theory of the four humors

In the 5th century BC, ancient Greece, which was the cradle of what would become Western civilization, was already starting to forge theories as to why we are the way we are and do what we do. In reality this kind of theoretical propositions had also appeared before in other regions of the planet, but the Greek case was of particular importance because there they united the technical progress of Asia and Egypt with philosophy and the powerful cultural and philosophical activity of the region. .

Greece was a region where knowledge was disseminated in a much freer manner than, for example, in the Persian Empire, where the teaching of writing was very centralized and used mainly for commerce and administration.

This explains why in just three centuries ancient Greece could become a reference point for the development of philosophy and science (1 its most embryonic phase). But Greek science, like what was happening in other parts of the world, was intertwined with religions and a worldview still deeply rooted in old myths. This is what explains the emergence of the theory of four humors..

What is the theory of the four humors?

Originally, the Four Humors Theory, first proposed by the Greek physician Hippocrates, was based on the assumption that the human body is made up of four basic substances (the so-called “humors”) and that the balances and imbalances in the amounts of these substances in an organism determines the health of it.

These moods corresponded to the elements air, fire, earth and water, Which a few years before had been pointed out by the philosopher Empedocles as the raw material of all that exists.

Thus, the theory of the four humours was not isolated from how reality was understood in ancient Greece, but was linked to a belief about the origin of the planet and the cosmos in general; supposedly, all of reality was a combination of different amounts of these four elements, and hence the theory of four humors. The properties of these four elements, in turn, were reflected in the characteristics of the four humours that Hippocrates said passed through the human body.

The different moods according to Hippocrates

And what were those moods? Each of them expresses specific physical characteristics, in the line of the thinkers of the time, who tried to describe reality from everyday and easily identifiable materially properties. Explained above, they were:

1. Black bile

Substance related to the earth element, The properties were cold and drought.

2. Yellow bile

Humor corresponding to the element of fire. Its qualities were heat and drought.

3. Blood

The substance bound to the element air, The properties were heat and humidity.

4. Phlegm

The water-bound substance, The properties are cold and humidity.

Moods and Personality

For Hippocrates and much of the physicians who have assimilated the theories of the former over the last centuries, the theory of the four humours provided a basis on which to work in medicine, however precarious it may be. Thus, many treatments for diseases consisted of modifying the diet of patients so that by ingesting certain foods, their mood was balanced. In some cases, bleeding has been done so that patients can lose fluid for the same purpose.

But this basis of medicine was not the only result of the theory of the four humors. Some thinkers have expanded it so that it can explain not only people’s health, but also trends in their behavior and mental lives. Among these scholars was Galen of Pergamon, a Roman physician and philosopher born in the 2nd century AD. VS.

Galen’s ideas

By Galen, imbalances in the amount of moods had an influence on the way we think, feel and act. In other words, their proportions were the basis of people’s temperaments. Naturally, each individual has mood levels which, on very rare occasions, are perfectly proportioned, and this is what explains the differences in personality.

When the humor of black bile predominates, for example, he believed that the person tended to be melancholy and prone to sadness and the expression of intense emotions, while in individuals in whom there is a proportion higher phlegm than the rest of the substances, their temperament would. be characterized by the tendency for rational analysis of situations and their ease in maintaining calm.

The personality types were as follows

As we have seen, according to this humorous vision of the human being, health was in the balance of these substances (the logic of balances between fundamental elements was very common at the time).

It was believed that certain diseases or particular situations could increase this disproportion, worsen the health of the person and / or make his temper more extreme and incompatible with the way others were.

1. Blood

It corresponded to happy and optimistic people, With a tendency to express affection for others and with confidence in themselves. It corresponded to the substance of the blood.

2. Melancholy

Temperament defined by the presence of a large amount of black bile, his associated temperament is sad, with an artistic sensibility and easy to move.


Corresponding to the humor of phlegm, people associated with this temperament would be cold and rational.

4. Choleric

Temperament linked to yellow bile, it would express itself in passionate people, easy annoyance and with a lot of energy.

The theory of the four temperaments today

The theory born with Empedocles and Hippocrates and developed by Galen was one of the pillars of medicine until the time of the Renaissance. Beyond this historic milestone, however, it served as an inspiration to some psychologists interested in studying individual and personality differences, including Hans Eysenck.

It should be noted that this classification system has no scientific value; in any case, it can serve as inspiration when developing theories and hypotheses which, over time, end up having empirical evidence in their favor.

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