Four Elements, Four Human Temperaments

Many of us may have taken personality tests of one kind or another. The Waldorf version of the a personality test is tied to the elements and the four human temperaments. Waldorf education was founded by Rudolf Steiner in early twentieth-century Germany, seeking a richer and more holistic way to educate children and help them become the best version of themselves. Steiner theorized about a lot of things, including the four temperaments of humans.  See if you find some familiar things in them, about yourself or your children.

If we start with an quick examination of the four elements of the world (earth, fire, water, air), we set the stage for an examination of human nature. Earth. Solid. Life-giving. Cool. Perhaps simple from afar, upon closer examination may yield myriad depth and detail. Fire. The gentle flame of a candle, the devastation of a forest fire. Both are aspects of fire. Unpredictable. Warm. Consuming. Water. Calm on the surface may hide great depths. Earth-shaping, calming, penetrating. Changeable. Mysterious. Air. Refreshing. Floating. Constantly moving. Escaping confinement.

Now let’s look at Steiner’s four temperaments. See if you feel some elements in these characteristics. They are not mutually exclusive; we may all experience each temperament from time-to-time, but we may lean more heavily toward one or two.

Melancholic (Earth)

A shy, quiet person who stays on the outskirts of his or her group, always observing. Perhaps hesitant, a bit withdrawn. Uncomfortable when attention is directed his or her way. Most comfortable finding a quiet corner to ponder the world. May surprise us with an especially astute observation showing how she is always watching. Could be overly concerned with each nick and scratch, certain doom lies ahead. Rarely in a rush, our composure can be shake when plans or rules are suddenly changed. Feels things very strongly. These characteristics are attributed by Steiner to the temperament known as melancholic, and might be likened to some of the earth attributes. But don’t forget that what we see on the surface with melancholic temperaments, like with the earth, may belie engaging depths. Melancholic temperaments may thrive as artists, musicians, inventors, philosophers, or doctors.

Possible melancholic strengths: gifted, analytical, perfectionlist, conscientious, loyal, aesthetic, idealistic, sensitive, self-sacrificing, self-disciplined
Possible melancholic weaknesses: moody, negative, critical, rigid, self-centered, touchy, vengeful, persecution-prone, unsociable, impractical

Choleric (Fire)

Next, a person who is always first to be noticed in a group. Sturdy, sometimes loud. May take a leadership role. Definitely not shy, but decisive and not to be deterred. With a strong, direct gaze, this is a person of action and involvement. A hard worker who gets the ball rolling and to motivate others, but may also have fits of temper. Self-discipline may be a challenge. Ready to take on the world. Warm-natured, ready for adventure, perhaps full of humor. These characteristics are known to be associated with Steiner’s choleric temperatment, which you may see akin to the element of fire. But like fire, a choleric can burn too bright and needs to be tempered a bit. Choleric personalities may succeed in roles as leaders, producers, or builders.

Possible choleric strengths: determined, strong-willed, independent, productive, decisive, practical, visionary, optimistic, courageous, self-confident, leader
Possible choleric weaknesses: unsympathetic, insensitive, angry, sarcastic, unforgiving, self-sufficient, domineering, opinionated, proud

Phlegmatic (Water)

What about that child that seems, well, ordinary? Average, for lack of a better word. Perhaps a bit more focused on the day-to-day tasks of life than on the big events. Easy-going and appreciative of the comforts of life, but also changeable as he ponders things one minute and chats a mile a minute the next. Usually likes to go along with the crowd, though there may be great insights and moments of genius showing through. Largely unperturbable. Down-to-earth, realistic. Loves routine, but may take the easy way when possible. Steiner associated these characteristics with the temperament he called phlegmatic, in which can be seen parallel to the water element. Still waters run deep and always keeps flowing, generally downhill. People with a phlegmatic temperament may find their role as a diplomat, accountant, teacher, or a technician.

Possible phlegmatic strengths: calm, easygoing, likable, diplomatic, efficient, organized, dependable, conservative, practical, reluctant leader, dry humor, introvert
Possible phlegmatic weaknesses: unmotivated, blase, indolent, spectator, selfish, stingy, stubborn, self-protective, indecisive, fearful

Sanguine (Air)

And lastly, that lively one, full of life. Flitting from here to there, constantly craving excitement. Very likable, generally, but can be demanding. Graceful and light-hearted, yet restless and spontaneous. Passionate about her project of the moment, but detests boredom. Dedicated to learning a skill, but less so to perfecting it. Craves constant reassurance she is loved. Speaks her mind, and may be very verbal. These are characteristics Steiner called the sanguine temperament, and one can so easily see how it’s fluttering can be associated with the air element. Sanguine personalities may find their place as actors, salespeople, or speakers.

Possible sanguine strengths: outgoing, charisma, warm, friendly, responsive, talkative, enthusiastic, carefree, compassionate, generous, extrovert
Possible sanguine weaknesses: undisciplined, weak-willed, restless, disorganized, unproductive, undependable, obnoxious, loud, egocentric, exaggerates, fearful, insecure

As noted above, a person is rarely limited to one temperament, and indeed, some share commonalities or connections. Sanguine and choleric both share an outgoing nature, both being warm, open, and direct. Phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments enjoy the social scene, energized by being with others. Choleric and melancholic personalities tend toward being thoughtful, pondering life’s weighty issues. While choleric and phlegmatic may both have a bit of a temper. Sanguine and melancholic share a penchant for great observation skills, though where they go from there may differ.

We may all exhibit different temperaments in our life seasons and daily rhythms. And seeing tendencies in our children toward one or more temperaments may help us devise ways to support them that may be unique to their blend of temperaments.


Want to learn more about the four temperaments and your child? Consider some of these resources–don’t forget to set up your Amazon Smile account to support Tacoma Waldorf!