“Plato had written in The Republic of four kinds of character which clearly corresponded with the four temperaments.” – David Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, Prometheus 1998 ed., p. 23
In Please Understand Me II, David Keirsey posits that Plato had four personality types in his Republic, each corresponding to a ‘temperament’: Artisans (SP), Guardians (SJ), Idealists (NF), and Rationals (NT). Since then, this claim has found its way into countless books, videos, articles, and training pamphlets. But is it really true?
First of all, Plato’s ‘Guardians’ have nothing to do with Keirsey’s ‘SJ-temperament.’ That is a grave misreading on Keirsey’s part. The ‘Guardians’ in Plato’s Republic are Plato’s Philosopher Kings along with their Auxiliary soldiers. The Philosopher Kings are bound by Reason and the Auxiliaries are bound by θυμός (Honor or Spirit).
However, both the Philosopher Kings and the Auxiliaries are ‘Guardians.’ The ‘Guardians’ of Plato’s Republic are not a separate temperament as Keirsey claims: The ‘Guardians’ are a joint class of two temperaments (Rational and Spirited). These two temperaments are called Guardians because they are the political guardians (i.e. rulers) of the state: The Philosopher Kings rule the state and determine the policy, and the Auxiliaries enforce their will by acting as military and police. In this way, Plato’s Guardians are really two temperaments, not one. And Plato’s Guardians have very little to do with Keirsey’s SJ temperament, the way he describes it. For example, Keirsey says that the SJ-Guardians and the NT-Rationals are completely opposite to one another in his system, but in Plato’s work, the Rationals are actually part of the Guardians.
Plato thus has three main types, not four:
- Philosopher Kings (bound by reason) – part of the Guardians
- Auxiliaries (bound by spirit/honor) – part of the Guardians
- Commoners (bound by appetite) – not part of the Guardians
(The three types may be found in the quite lengthy passage that is the Republic’s Book IV, 435d-end.)
The conclusion, then, can only be that Keirsey misread or misconstrued Plato’s main thesis when he said that (1) Plato had four types, (2) these types correspond to his own four temperaments, and (3) the Guardians were a distinct type of temperament. All of these claims are false.
The nearest we can come to making sense of Keirsey’s reading of Plato is to expand the Commoner class into several distinct classes. This would be something of a stretch, because Plato is very clear in postulating three (and not four) basic types (and temperaments are basic types, after all). However, it is true that Plato expands the Commoner class in those places of the Republic where it suits his discussion. But still, Plato’s expansion of the Commoner class tends to run as follows:
- Commoners bound by appetites that are unnecessary and lawless
- Commoners bound by appetites that are unnecessary but not lawless
- Commoners bound by appetites that are necessary
So taken together with the two Guardian types (spirited and rational) that still makes five types (not four). And at any rate, Plato still makes clear that, just as the Philosopher Kings are reason-types and the Auxiliaries are honor-types, all of the Commoners are appetite-types. So there are still three basic types in Plato’s Republic, and even the most generous reading of that work can’t be brought to make sense of Keirsey’s scheme of the ‘four temperaments’ on Plato’s own terms.
The reading is so unfounded that one might feel compelled to say that Keirsey should Please Understand Plato.