I have written a bit on the Enneagram of Personality over at Wikisocion, and here I will compile my writings into a single piece.
(slightly adapted from Wikipedia)
Although mostly understood and taught as a typology (a model of personality types), the Enneagram of Personality is also taught in ways intended to develop higher states of being, essence and enlightenment. Each of the 9 personality types associated with the Enneagram represents a map of traits that highlights patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. By learning one’s type and the patterns and habits associated with that type, one can use the Enneagram system as an effective tool for self-understanding and self-development.Adherents of the theory believe that each Enneagram personality type, or style, is based on a pattern of where attention goes. They believe that by learning about what kinds of things one habitually attends to and puts energy into, one can observe oneself more accurately and develop more self-awareness, and that by enhancing one’s self awareness with the help of the Enneagram, one can exercise more choice about one’s functioning rather than engaging in patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior in an automatic, habitual, unconscious way.
Types are named "One", "Two", "Three", etc. A secondary type, or "wing" can be present and is generally supposed to be one of the two types adjacent to the base type. This allows for a manageable diversity of types (roughly 18) similar to that of socionics or the MBTI.
As you can see from the description above, a self-perfection concept is more strongly built into the Enneagram of Personality than into socionics or Myers-Briggs Typology. Along with each type, there are different levels of development that show the type at its best and its worst. Further type differentiation is possible through the application of three subtypes: self-preservation, sexual, and social.
All categories of the Enneagram are fundamentally qualitative and thus subject to divergent interpretation. The advantage of this is that the Enneagram of Personality is safe from scientific inquiry and cannot be disproven. By comparison, socionics has elements of a scientific system (concepts such as "information processing" and the claim to predict relationships to some degree) and a general prescientific bent, which makes it vulnerable to eventual debunking (or proof through scientific evidence). The Enneagram is in about the same position as the writings of Nostradamus; nothing is unequivocal, and after-the-fact interpretation provides enough intrigue to ensure the longevity of the idea system in the minds of curious inquirers.
Just to be clear, I don't intend to say that the Enneagram is worthless. On the contrary, for some people it can be very useful as a guide for self-improvement. The difficulties I mention become evident when people try to get together and discuss the Enneagram and discover that each person understands it a little bit differently, and these cumulative differences of interpretation and experience make conveying conclusions and knowledge extremely difficult. The Enneagram is far more easily applied personally than in groups of strangers.
I have read a few different sets of Enneatype descriptions, and each was different, placing more or less emphasis on different aspects of each type. Depending on which set of descriptions people resonate with more, their type identification will differ as well.
Possible correlations with socionic types
This is a hotly debated topic, and I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but here are some parallels I saw between Enneatype descriptions from Wikipedia and socionic types as I see them. If I were basing my assessment on a different set of descriptions, I might see different correlations. I'm not totally set on these, but these were my initial thoughts:
One — EII, IEITwo — ESI, EIIThree — LIE, EIE, LSE, ESEFour — ILI, IEIFive — LII, LSISix — EIE, IEI, LIE, ILISeven — IEE, ILE, ESE, EIEEight — SLE, SEE, LSI, ESINine — SEI, SLI
My own Enneatype would be "7w1." Read how I came to that conclusion here. This time, I was basing my self-typing on a different set of descriptions, but one that seems compatible with those at Wikipedia.
Historical roots of the Enneagram
This is the really interesting part. What follows is a direct quote from my post at Wikisocion:
OK, I tracked down the supposed Plato connection through the thread at metasocion.com. First observation: it's not Plato, but the neoplatonic movement of the IV century AD, and the role of the 9 passions was proposed by people who were not necessarily part of the platonic tradition — Christian hermits living in the deserts:
It was Evagrius who was to reveal that the Christian aesthetics of the Byzantine deserts had discovered that 9 passions − anger, pride, vainglory, envy, greed, incontinence, gluttony, lust and acedie, distorted human perception and consigned the human search for the divine to the banal and ordinary.
So, the link to Plato himself is extremely tenuous, or simply nonexistent.
The article is mistaken about the term "aesthetics." They mean ascetes who practiced an ascethic lifestyle of self-denial. It doesn't make sense otherwise. Here's more on ascetism and the "desert fathers" who practiced it in the IV century. So the original "9 passions" were formulated in the context of trying to purge oneself of earthly desires and unite with God through a hermit lifestyle. Each person who chose this path encountered different obstacles on his pursuit of self-denial and godliness, depending on his personal makeup. That's where the basic idea of the Enneagram came from, and the idea of transcending the weaknesses inherent to each type.
Ascetism as a philosophy was preserved for centuries in Christian monastic traditions. At some point it connected with Islam through the Sufi tradition: "Sufism evolved not as a mystical but as an ascetic movement, as even the name suggests; the word Sufi may refer to a rough woolen robe of the ascetic. " [source]. A typology such as the Enneagram of the time could be a useful tool for helping understand the challenges different disciples faced on their ascetic path.
Often, in the evolution of ideas, the form is more memorable than the content. For instance, that there are 4 elements (earth, fire, air, water) as opposed to the specific interpretation of these elements. What I find is that the form of philosophical ideas such as this is more resistant to change over time than their content. In other words, although people remember the four elements from 2 millenia ago, the meaning they attribute to them isn't necessarily the same as that of 2000 years ago. That means that, in the case of the Enneagram, what may have been passed down is simply the existence of 9 types, whereas the content and interpretation of those types has almost certainly undergone considerable evolution.
Gurdjieff himself was probably not an ascetic in the sense of the early Christians. For instance, he advocated living a normal sex life. He also did not see spiritual development as taking place through overcoming moral weaknesses. It seems that by this time the 9 types had lost much of their initial content. Today, the proponents of the Enneagram are not ascetics by any stretch of the imagination, but believe in self-perfection by transcending one's weaknesses, which is a more general philosophy than ascetism. Today's Enneatypes preserve some of the form of the original 9 ascete types, but now the main emphasis has shifted from describing and overcoming vices to describing personality. If the original emphasis had been preserved, I would expect to see type descriptions that focused mainly on the 9 passions, their influence in personality, and the route for that type to overcome its particular vice. Today, when you read "the 7's vice is gluttony" tacked on to a type description, it seems like a totally peripheral aspect of the type as opposed to the central aspect that it originally was.
So that's my assessment of the Enneagram's roots. Today's enneatypes are similar in form but different in content from the original ones, which can only be understood within the context of the Christian ascetic tradition where it was born.
Mixture of ideas in descriptions
As a result of the Enneagram's historical legacy, today's descriptions contain a mixture of esoteric-sounding tidbits and modern personality descriptions. For instance, at the end of the Sevens description at Wikipedia one finds the following morsel of wisdom:
Ego fixation: planningHoly idea: workPassion/Vice: gluttonyVirtue: sobriety
How these four vague concepts interrelate, and what their relationship to the rest of the description (which reads like a modern personality description), one can only guess. I personally relate to the description of Sevens, but not to these added four aspects.
"Gluttony" was one of the vices upon which the original typology was based, and it's pretty clear in the context of the list of vices that gluttony was meant literally: pigging out on food and getting drunk. The antidote to this is to learn the virtue of sobriety -- abstaining from pigging out and drunkenness. Planning and work have no obvious connection to this and sound like a much later addition ("Ego fixations" is certainly a very modern concept). The main description itself now has nothing to do at all with gluttony.
So, we see that the types have clearly undergone considerable evolution and are not the same as they used to be. Yet, tradition and the elusive link to antiquity dictates that these esoteric atavisms remain and continue to feed the imagination.
How to restore clarity to the Enneagram
I see today's Enneagram as a hodgepodge of modern popular perspectives on personality and some old ideas that have lost their central role. Many popular ideas about the types seem mutually exclusive or at best totally unrelated to each other. To restore clarity and consistency to the Enneagram, I would return the vices to their central position in the understanding of each type. This would probably entail a retyping of most people, since today people are basing their typings on type descriptions that have strayed far from the original nine vices.
So, in order to restore clarity to the Enneagram, the following formulation, or one much like it, would have to be accepted as the basis for the system:
Enneatypes describe the most difficult challenges, or "vices," that a person encounters on his path to self-perfection.
So, Enneatypes would no longer be about personality in its entirety, but about a certain specific aspect thereof. Going down the list of vices, I would no longer be a Seven ("gluttony" is certainly not my problem), but perhaps a Two ("pride" is the vice).
Under this understanding, the descriptions should then describe the vice, the difficulties it creates, and how to overcome it. That is probably what the original system was about.