Four Elements and Humor Theory Diagram, by Robert Hatch, 1999.
The theory of the humors was the most prevalent theory during the Renaissance for understanding personality types and health conditions.
The theory of the humors can help us to understand the character of Don Quixote in a new light. Below are captions from Marsilio Ficino’s Three Books on Life (1482). This book revived the Aristotelian understanding of the relationship between genius and melancholy, or black bile (see diagram of humors). Ficino's discussion of melancholy also illustrates a link between melancholy, brilliance, and madness. Ficino's book was very influential in the Renaissance and for many later writers.
Excerpts from Three Books of Life: "In the main, three kinds of causes make learned people melancholics. The first is celestial, the second is natural, and the third is human" (89).
"The celestial: because both Mercury, who invites us to investigate doctrines, and Saturn, who makes us persevere in investigating doctrines and retain them when discovered, are said by astronomers to be somewhat cold and dry […] just like the melancholic nature, according to physicians" (89).
"The natural cause seems to be that for the pursuit of the sciences, especially the difficult ones, the soul must draw in upon itself from external things to internal as from the circumference to the center, and while it speculates, it must stay immovably at the very center (as I might say) of man" (90).
"Contemplation itself, in its turn, by a continual recollection and compression, as it were, brings on a nature similar to black bile [melancholy]" (90).
"The human cause, that which comes from ourselves, is as follows: Because frequent agitation of the mind greatly dries up the brain, therefore, when the moisture has been mostly consumed – moisture being the support of the natural heat – the heat also is extinguished; and from this chain of events, the nature of the brain becomes dry and cold, which is known as the earthy and melancholic quality" (90).
"But of all learned people, those especially are oppressed by black bile, who, being sedulously devoted to the study of philosophy, recall their mind from the body and corporeal things and apply it to incorporeal things. The cause is, first, that the more difficult the work, the greater concentration of mind it requires; and second, that the more they apply their mind to incorporeal truth, the more they are compelled to disjoin it from the body. Hence their body is often rendered as if it were half-alive and often melancholic" (90).
"This Aristotle confirms in his book of Problems, saying that all those who are renowned in whatever faculty you please have been melancholics. In this he has confirmed that Platonic notion expressed in the book De scientia, that most intelligent people are prone to excitability and madness. My author Plato in the Phaedrus seems to approve this, saying that without madness one knocks at the doors of poetry in vain. Even if he perhaps intends divine madness to be understood here, nevertheless, according to the physicians, madness of this kind is never incited in anyone else but melancholics" (91).
Is Don Quixote melancholic? If so, can he help it? Is he a genius or a visionary?
How would you be classified according to the theory of the humors? Take the quiz here.
Diagram by Dr. Robert A. Hatch, University of Florida
Citations taken from: "Learned People and Melancholy: Ficino." The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva. Ed. Jennifer Radden. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2000.