A Steiner Primary School? 8: The Four Temperaments

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A Steiner Primary School?  A Creative Approach to the Rudolph Steiner Educational Impulse: 8: The Four Temperaments

Copyright Alan Whitehead & Earthschooling: No Part of this book, post, URL, or book excerpt may be shared with anyone who has not paid for these materials. Additional note by Kristie Burns of Earthschooling.

Alan speaks in a very symbolic manner in some parts of the book. Although they can be read anthroposophically, passages speaking of archangels and gods do not need to be taken literarily to be meaningful. You can choose to read his writings as symbolic or otherwise, either way the points he is making are the same.

By Alan Whitehead

The Four Temperaments express their most pure form in the life period between 7 to 14 years of age, resting as they do in the chalice of the ether body. Here is a little story which might be told to, say, 7-year-old children, as a parable of the temperaments.  

Four friends were walking along a forest path, when their progress was halted by a huge tree which had fallen, blocking their way.  The choleric, in his determined manner, tried to push it out of the way, but failed.

The sanguine attempted to climb over it, even constructing various contraptions to help, like vine ladders, vaulting poles and the like – she too tried in vain.  The phlegmatic thought to simply walk around it, but she got lost in the bush.  And the melancholic just sat down with absolute faith that someone else would come along to move it as it was so obviously out of place.

The story goes on to show how the temperament foursome, in co-operation, succeed in continuing their journey … but that’s for the children!  (See ‘4 Temperaments’ lesson in my book The People Pool.)

The small tale demonstrates how the temperaments can be either a liberating factor in our lives, or if we’re subject to their excesses, a psychic prison.  Temper means even.  This 7 – 14 period is, in broad terms, a replay of the Ancient Sun evolution. On this 2nd planetary condition, the etheric body was created, just as it is created anew, as a conscious organ, in the period of primary childhood.

So it was on Ancient Sun that the human temperaments were also formed, on the basis of the unfolding ether, or ‘life’, body. We humanity, were mere gaseous beings then, supersensible gas even.  But these air-people still manifested the nascent forces of the four temperaments.  The choleric types were like violent storms – hurricanes even. Indeed, weather forecasts are externalized pictures of the temperaments, especially in describing winds. The winds are indeed the temperaments of the earth.

‘A cyclone is threatening off the coast, with luck it will turn seaward’ might describe the air cholerics on Sun.

‘Light variable winds’ is of course a sanguine phenomenon, on Sun, in nature – and in the human being. 

‘Prevailing Sou-easters will blow onto the coast for the rest of the week’ can be seen as phlegmatic in nature. The Roaring Forties, eternally circling the globe at about 40° latitude south, are the ultimate phlegmatic air beings, unstoppable, unwavering, unperturbed. 

Finally, the melancholic ‘winds’ – where on Ancient Sun do we find these? In the same place that we find the melancholic person – sitting still. Stillness is the 4th, equally necessary, wind condition. Stillness allows convection to occur, for warm air to slowly rise, and cool to fall – for nature to stop for a breather, a hiatus of stillness on a soft, moonlit night. However, air that is stilled too long becomes bad, or stagnant. A natural pause brings health to the body of the earth, and to the soul of man. The melancholic has this role of wholesome stasis in human society.

The air element expresses the etheric body (though it often lives in the astral) – both air and ether were created on Sun;  so the winds are indeed a reflection of the temperament of the earth – with particularly pervasive winds giving a specific area its temperamental nature. For example, a region might be more subject to variable winds, this will be a sanguine area;  affecting all aspects of existence, right up to human cultural life.

Rudolf Steiner was careful to give two descriptions of the ‘dominant bodies’ determining the four temperaments.  With children (from 7 to 14) he describes it thus: cholerics have a predominating astral body; sanguines, etheric; phlegmatics, physical; and the inwardly active melancholics have a dominant ego.

He describes the change in the adult dominant body-temperament differently: the choleric has the dominant ego this time; sanguine, astral; phlegmatic, etheric; and the poor old melancholic is weighted down with the millstone, as the Doctor called it, of the physical body.

He also tells how we can determine, absolutely, which body is dominant in a person – child or adult. This can be done via the eye color. There are four basic eye colors in the human being, to service the four temperaments.  When, say, the physical body is dominant, there will be a red eye.  Red?  Well brown actually; the range of browns, from pale tawny to deep chocolate, express unequivocally physical body dominance – in phlegmatic children and melancholic adults.

The etheric body is a ‘light’ entity, expressing as yellow (Steiner used, among other terms, ‘colorless’ for this). Yellows, ranging from deep green, to hazel, to topaz and even the indeterminate color which could be kind of gray, greenish, hazel mix. This gives us the sanguine child, and the phlegmatic adult.  Both have a dominant etheric body.

Red physical, yellow etheric, and blue – so we have the astral body. Its element is of course ‘water’, and the nominal color of water is blue.

Blue eyes, according to Rudolf Steiner, indicate a dominant astral body; making adults sanguine, and children choleric. The ego, in a sense the combination of all three colors (red, yellow, blue), expresses through the earth-mineral color, gray (the hue one’s water jar turns when painting with the 3 primaries). In its most condensed form, gray becomes black. Steiner (black-eyed himself) described the coal-eyed Napoleon as the classic choleric. 

This eye-color/dominant-body concept is the golden key to identifying the four temperaments for any person on earth – child or adult (child over seven years of course). Great care has to be taken in first determining what color eyes a person actually has. This can be elusive indeed, as none of the colors are pure – in the prismatic sense. 

The eyes should be viewed in clear, bright daylight.  Both incandescent and fluorescent lights give a red and blue tincture respectively.  Even ambient greenery affects the hues and color photographs are most untrustworthy.

There are seven corollary features to eye-color temperament, these either reinforce, modify or even cancel a temperament, they are: hair color; movement; complexion; hair texture; face shape; body form. With eye color, this makes up the Seven Aspects of Temperament; relating, as the number seven always does, to the seven planets.

None of these six in isolation determine the temperament as eye color does. Indeed some poor soul with the entire seven in one aspect, say choleric, would be so unbalanced (temper means ‘even’ remember), that they would not be able to take their place in society. For example, the seven-fold choleric adult would have: gray to black eyes (the eyes are the ‘Sun’ aspect of the temperaments; flaming red hair; would stamp about heel first; with a ruddy, easily flushed complexion; curly hair; round facial features; and would be built like a brick!

This person would be so subject to the choleric temperament, with its six corollary features, she would probably be locked up. If, however, the same person was to have straight, blond hair, these two modifying elements might be enough to make life bearable for this force of nature – and those around her.

As stated, eye color is the ‘Sun’ aspect of the four temperaments, the High Ether Realm itself. It is therefore a compendium of the other six elements. Hair color however is a Moon feature, influencing the quality of thinking, from a temperamental perspective. Fiery-haired folk will express, somewhere along the line, fiery thoughts.

Movement is the Mercury element. How a person, child or adult, relates kinetically to the earth depends on one of four movement temperaments. Light athleticism for instance is sanguine movement. Complexion is the Venus contribution, influencing the quality of feelings, and how they’re affected by the temperaments. An olive skin reflects a phlegmatic feeling expression.

Hair texture is Mars, unlike the Mercury factor, with its relationship to the earth, this reflects the individual’s relationship to Man – his/her facility for personal communication. A curly-headed person will have a choleric relationship to nature. Face shape is the Jupiter temperament; this is, like Venus, a ‘quality’ – the quality of will this time. A square face hints at a melancholic will nature.

Lastly, we have the brooding Saturn factor, the body form. This is yet another ‘relationship’ planet, but this time to the individuals’ relationship to the Spirit. A nuggety body type will relate to the Spirit in a choleric manner. So there are three ‘Relationships’ — Mercury, Mars, Saturn (Earth, Man, Spirit); and three (alternating) ‘Qualities’ — Moon, Venus and Saturn (Thinking, Feeling, Will).  The true temperament, that of the eye-color/Sun, is the one which becomes evident when the person is under extreme stress, the temperaments being a release valve for behavior as they are. At such times, all other factors retire temporarily.

In assessing, for instance, a child’s seven-fold temperament, it is the unusual that one is looking for. Most features designate the child as ‘normal’, therefore those aspects being not worthy of deeper consideration. But if, for example, a blue-eyed child has magnesium-white, straight, fine hair, that stands out so much that everyone comments, then this will strongly affect his fundamental choleric temperament, with a double dose of sanguinity in this instance – there are 28 temperamental factors, of which an individual will have 7.

So in determining temperament, we establish first the eye color, and the name the temperament. Then we run down the Six List to establish both the modifying and affirming temperamental factors. It is also important to note a person’s negative temperament, the one (sometimes more) that is glaringly absent. What a person is not, tells us a lot about what s/he is.

Here is an example of the sleuthing process: A certain gray-eyed adult is a choleric. What is their hair color? It is blond. This brings a sanguine complement, making this choleric a little more agreeable. But then we look at how they move. They have a heavy step so that brings us back to choleric again, to reinforce the base temperament. Then we look at how they appear. They have a white complexion so this shows some melancholic depth. Their crinkly hair also points to melancholic tendencies. Their face shape is squarish which is also melancholic. However, their body form is angular which is of the complementary sanguine again. 

This foregoing case study shows us a picture of a pretty well-rounded individual, one not likely to be persecuted by his/her temperament. Not that there is no phlegma in the make-up – the phlegmatic being, in this case, the ‘negative temperament’. Our test subject above has a positive choleric, and a negative phlegmatic temperament. 

The 4 physical elements of each of the 7 planetary aspects follow; in the same order of choleric (fire), sanguine (air), phlegmatic (liquid), and melancholic (earth): The only one of the 7 aspects which change from child to adult is the eye color. <The chart below summarizes what I have said in previous paragraphs>.

<Note from Kristie: In my years of doing iridology (reading of the iris) in the Middle East I was able to observe hundreds of people with darker skin, hair and eye colors (including my own children) that are not represented clearly on this chart. In iridology, as well as in this definition of the temperaments I have noticed that more research and writing needs to be done in this area. Sadly, the definitions in both iridology and the physical definition of temperament by Steiner seem to be based largely on the observations of lighter skinned people. For example, in iridology, there is an entire section of study devoted to blue-eyed people. However, in some cultures, the blue-eyed individual is a rarity. I cannot offer any final conclusion. I can say, however, that research in this area has been extremely under-studied. In my short ten years of experience I was able to observe that even in the seemingly “same” color of brown there are many variations of color and texture. I propose that these are worth exploring and observing and perhaps correlating into a similar but different chart. If you do want to use this chart then I would recommend being open minded when applying it to cultures where hair, skin, and eye color variations only occur within a smaller range of browns and blacks.>

It is important to know the physical organ basis of the temperaments; Rudolf Steiner again provides the key, based on the ‘dominant body’ principle. The astral body expresses (in an organ sense only) through thenerves. Therefore the astral-dominant choleric child is firstly a ‘nerve’ being, often expressing as cleverness. With the adult, this nerve being is the fidgety blue-eyed sanguine. 

The ether body expresses rather through the glands; so the sanguine child has a glandular focus; as do yellow-eyed and hence phlegmatic adults; who are usually pretty healthy! The senses are the prime movers of the physical body, naturally; here we find the sleepy, brown-eyed phlegmatic child – and in adult life, the super-alert melancholic.

Finally we have the blood, in this remarkable organ, the ego finds its earthly home, especially in the melancholic child – and the gray-eyed choleric adult. One feels with some extreme adult cholerics, that the blood is trying to burst out of the skin when they are expressing their opinions. In general, life strikes a balance; as indicated earlier, the organ system connected to the temperament of a child is often deficient, where with the adult, it can be excessive. The choleric adult just mentioned has his ego-blood counterpart in the melancholic child, who is often pale and under-stimulated – blood-wise. In teaching children or dealing with ‘temperamental’ (note the word) and therefor child-like adults, this organ key is invaluable.  With the choleric child, we call on the dim forces of the nervous system, a cool entity,  expressing through thought. This calms his/her inner life. 

The sanguine child needs gland stimulation, in the form of a strong emotional environment – lots of love – to access the deeper source of his/her ostensibly superficial soul. The phlegmatic child requires stimulation to awaken the sleepy senses; and the pale-faced melancholic needs physical activity to make the contractive blood run more freely. 

Oddly enough, the psychological approach works with both adults and children who exhibit temperamental excesses. We allow the firey cholerics to burn themselves out; maintaining safety for bystanders of course. Later we can successfully appeal to their better, more reasonable nature. They are then usually remorseful and willing to make good any damage or hurt they may have inflicted. 

If we want to gain the cooperation of the sanguine, we smother them in affection and good humor, whilst plying them with soul-fragmenting distractions! Their complementary soul response is to yearn for a more focused ambience – this is treating like with like.

The phlegmatic is slow to come on board in any activity or adventure; here we must give lots of  notice to an impending event, so that the reality can trickle down into the souls and inflame enthusiasm. Phlegmatic children are the ones who look forward to their birthday – 11 months in advance!

Like with like again is the prescription for the melancholic child – or adult. If they’re in the sulks, don’t try to cheer them up whatever you do; rather tell of tragic happening in your own (or someone else’s especially an animal’s) life. Their deep reserves of compassion will rise to empathize, forgetting their own distress in the process. In face of another’s travail, they become quite cheerful and supportive. Such methods of helping children, family and friends over their respective ‘humors hurdles’ are wisdom-filled indeed!

After about half a year, when the children are settled into their new temperamental situation, the Class 1 teacher should assess the whole class. Firstly to determine, in a loose kind of way, no hard conclusions yet, the temperament of each child. S/he should then find the temperament of the class. This is easy, merely make four lists, based on the <chart above>, and see how many of each temperament there are in the class.

On one occasion, a Class 1 teacher was surprised to find that there were no sanguines or cholerics at all. His class consisted of mostly hard-working, earnest melancholics, and a couple of token phlegmatics. Only then was the class temperament comprehensible.

After finding the temperament of each individual; and from there ascertaining the class temperament, a School College, one that works in the spirit of cooperation that is, would be able to determine the temperament of the whole school – or the primary school at least, where temperament is the most important psychic factor. Each class teacher merely submits the temperamental profile of their class to see the collective picture. One school might have three essentially sanguine classes, one phlegmatic, with no melancholic of choleric at all. It would therefore be a sanguine-with-some-phlegma school.

Mind you, the temperaments of both class and school can change, as the constellations of individuals do;  so a reasonably regular update of both is necessary. This is not the case so much with the individual primary child, who keeps his/her temperament until puberty, when rather dramatic shifts can occur. 

Just as one thinks one has a handle on the temperaments, we discover the dispositions. These are astral in nature, not etheric like the temperaments. A disposition is a mask the child (or adult) creates to conceal the real temperament. Naturally this is only a semi-conscious response; one created to deal with the shortcomings of life and self, but it is a common one.

An intensely choleric person may come across as light-hearted, witty and personable; s/he has built up a sanguine disposition to veil the natural cholericism. The choleric person is often shunned by society, as being too intense or overbearing; hence the deception. Mind you, when the veil drops, say in times of crisis or stress, the overbearing dominance will out, regardless of disposition. 

Conversely, a hopelessly superficial sanguine type may appear profound, uttering – under scrutiny, hollow – melancholic-type observations about the meaning of life. This is a typical ‘mirror disposition’, with the airy sanguine wishing to be a solid, mineral melancholic. The content of their prognostications being picked up like bowerbirds collect baubles, a still typically sanguine characteristic.

Every temperament can pass itself off as one of 3 dispositions, that makes 9 false natures out there to confuse us. For instance, a choleric can have either a melancholic, phlegmatic or sanguine disposition. It is for this reason more than any other that there is such confusion, and rampant error, in determining a person’s temperament; evidenced by the fact that no two people can seem to agree on them. Thank the good gods for the immutable eye-color-body-chart identification factor.

Few people, as well as having little idea what the temperament of their associates-children-family are, have even less about themselves. The first exercise in self-knowledge is to understand one’s zodiacal/physical-body nature, but that’s another story. The second, however is to know one’s own temperament/ether-body situation. This is sought objectively through the 7 Aspects: then see if there’s a dispositional factor. The pictures below are of myself as a child; how this exercise dispelled a few illusions I treasured about myself!

I was gray-eyed. This means I was of the melancholic temperament. My hair color was blond which shows a sanguine and light-filled thought life. My movement was stiff which shows a melancholic relationship to the earth/body (I was hopeless at sports). My complexion was golden, which again brings in a sanguine ‘feeling’ factor. My hair texture  was fine and straight which brings a sanguine nature to human relationships. My face shape was triangular, which is sanguine again, but in ‘will’ this time. My body form was thin which shows a melancholic relationship to Spirit (I love reading).

Therefore I was surprised to discover that I was a melancholic child, with three melancholic corollaries and three sanguine. I had two negative temperaments, phlegmatic and choleric. On reflection, I created a – fairly feeble choleric disposition to counter all that melancholia and sanguinity. I could toss a tantrum if I thought I could get away with it. In the final analysis, I was singularly unphlegmatic.

I’ve also looked at my situation as an adult. I have dark gray eyes – dominant ego, hence choleric … but that’s for me to know and you to guess!  Better to find some good photos of your own childhood and/or adult situation and take an important step on the path of your own self-awareness.  You never know, you might explode a few illusions of your own!



  1. Hi Kristie,
    How do you understand this point?
    “This 7 – 14 period is, in broad terms, a replay of the Ancient Sun evolution. On this 2nd planetary condition, the etheric body was created” “So it was on Ancient Sun that the human temperaments were also formed, on the basis of the unfolding ether, or ‘life’, body.”
    Is it possible to share this story?
    “The story goes on to show how the temperament foursome, in co-operation, succeed in continuing their journey … but that’s for the children! (See ‘4 Temperaments’ lesson in my book The People Pool.)”

    Michael Brydon
    • The points he is making come from Steiner’s Anthroposophical viewpoints, and although very esoteric can simply be taken at face value. I would not spend a lot of time trying to understand each point as you read it. I have found that understanding comes from reading more and more of his materials (the understanding cumulates) and from re-reading and reflecting on some passages. So I would recommend simply marking some passages to come back to later and re-read. As for the story – it can be found in the file he indicates, which should be available on the download page for people who have access to the Golden Beetle Curriculum Guides.

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