Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Humors in Renaissance Philosophy

  • Malcolm HebronEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_930-1


The Renaissance inherited the classical doctrine of the four humours (Greek chymoi), the essential fluids of the human body. The humours were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. A healthy body was characterized by the balance between the humours. Illness was perceived as an interruption of that balance. The relative disposition of these four humours was believed to determine the physiological health and temperament of humans and animals. The humours formed part of a wider explanatory model of the natural world. They were connected to the four elements, the four temperaments, the four seasons, and the four ages of man. Each humour was governed by a particular bodily organ (Table 1).
Table 1












Warm, moist




Yellow bile



Warm, dry




Black bile



Dry, cold







Cold, moist

Old age


Brain, lungs

Through this series of connections, the humours integrated the human body into a scheme of the wider natural world: in humoural theory, man is intrinsically a part of the natural order, not separate from it. The passions of the mind and aspects of character cannot be meaningfully understood apart from the physical body. Psychological as well as physical conditions are traceable to natural causes. As a materialist approach to diagnosis, humoural theory fits well with the Aristotelian tradition; Platonic interest in the spirit, and astrological and occult explanatory models of physical and emotional states, fall largely outside the theory of humourism (Arikha 2007).

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Humoural theory can be traced back to pre-Socratic attempts to understand the fundamental nature of the universe. Detailed accounts of the humours are found in the writings of the Hippocratic corpus, ascribed to Hippocrates (c.460–c.370 BCE), such as On the Nature of Man. The theory is based on actual observation, before dissection was permitted. Under such conditions, the fluids taken in and secreted by the body were held to be of particular significance. It is possible that the notion of four humours comes from the appearance of blood clots. From Hippocratic medicine, humoural theory was transmitted through Rome, in particular in the work of Galen (129–c.200/216 CE), and Islamic medicine, into the medieval and early modern periods (Conrad et al. 1995).

The theory has important theoretical implications. It presupposes that nature is susceptible to rational investigation, and that phenomena can be explained by natural causation, without reference to supernatural causes. In this way it fell easily into the Aristotelian tradition. Astrological and divine explanations were peripheral to humoristic analysis. Observation also established the principle that each case was different and required individual treatment. The doctrine of the humours is holistic: the microcosm of the human body is attuned to the macrocosm of the world. It presents mind and body as intrinsically linked, a distinctly pre-cartesian model of human nature. The ordering of the body’s internal mechanism is held to be a matter of restoring equilibrium, linking the humours with the inherited Pythagorean schema of balances and correspondences, which make an ordered structure running through nature. An example of such correspondences is the doctrine that an imbalance should be treated with its opposite: a hot fever should be treated with a cool substance, and so on. The purpose of treatment was always to return to the default equilibrium. A patient’s rebalancing had the purpose of restoring the body’s natural heat. This restoration could be assisted by other experiences inducing internal harmony, especially music. With proper exercise, the reason could regain control over disordered emotions (Siraisi 1990; Lindemann 2010).

Of particular interest to renaissance writers was the condition of melancholy, from the Greek for “black bile.” This was closely associated with creativity and inspiration. Montaigne’s essays follow the author’s desire to control a melancholy cast of mind and regain an internal balance through anatomizing his own consciousness. The Treatise of Melancholie (1586) by physician Timothy Bright (c.1549–1615) is a useful guide to – and possible source for – the melancholic characters of Shakespeare. Later came the vast Anatomy of Melancholy (first edition 1621) by Robert Burton (1577–1640), the most compendious guide of the period not only to melancholy but also to the other humours and to the whole world of human emotion and thought, as perceived through disciplines including astronomy, astrology, and theology (Jackson 1978, 1986; Lyons 1971).

Impact and Legacy

While it underpinned orthodox medicine for centuries, the theory of the humours came under certain pressures. The Neoplatonists’ fascination with hermetic and magical writings revived an interest in occult, or hidden sources, of physical conditions. Marsilio Ficino’s De vita (1480–1489), for example, examines medicine alongside philosophy, magic, and astral influence. Ficino associates melancholy with the God Saturn and is concerned with the source of the spiritus, an idea not amenable to material diagnosis. A further problem for humoural thinking came from new diseases such as the English sweat, which did not seem to be explicable by traditional methods. Another point of tension was that between a determinist picture, according to which passions and character were a result of bodily conditions, and the Christian assertion of Free Will. Beyond medical and philosophical writings, the humours provided a valuable source of vocabulary and ideas for vernacular literature, such as the subgenre of “humours comedy,” represented by George Chapman An Humorous Day’s Mirth (1597), and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599). A serious assault on the humours, and received medical wisdom generally, was provided by Paracelsus (1493–1541), who countered, among other things, the notion that conditions should be treated by their opposites. While humoural theory has faded from Western diagnosis following the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, there are certain parallels with Indian Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. Its legacy is evident in ordinary language: “complexion” originally referred to the compound of the four humours in an individual; the terms sanguine, splenetic, choleric, melancholic, and even-tempered are still used to describe behavioral types (Porter 1997).


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  1. BBC In Our Time podcast on The Four Humours. 2007. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008h5dz. Accessed 2 Mar 2017.

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Winchester CollegeWinchesterUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Matteo Valleriani
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany