Apr 1, 2009

Commentary on the Enneagram of Personality

I have written a bit on the Enneagram of Personality over at Wikisocion, and here I will compile my writings into a single piece. 

Enneagram basics

(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. 

Scientific criticism

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, IEI
Two — ESI, EII
Three — LIE, EIE, LSE, ESE
Four — ILI, IEI
Five — LII, LSI
Seven — IEE, ILE, ESE, EIE
Eight — SLE, SEE, LSI, ESI
Nine — 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: planning
Holy idea: work
Passion/Vice: gluttony
Virtue: 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. 


tcaudilllg said...

Why pride?

tcaudilllg said...

I'd like to make the point that NT rationals are probably the least likely to believe the modern conception of enneagram, simply because its trait ascriptions don't really fit a pattern. Sure there are elements of a variety of traits, but none of those traits are necessarily correlated. Something that may interest you (or not) are character design profiles which were professionally prepared for a videogame a while back. I could link you to them if you are interested. They "use" the enneagram although the interpretation is not particularly in line with anything I've seen.

aestrivex said...

I disagree with basically every assumption you've made about the enneagram in an attempt to analyze it. This deserves a much longer response than I'm prepared to give here, but in my opinion there is virtually no relationship between what you've commented about and the nature of the mechanisms that the enneagram tries to describe.

Rick said...

>>Why pride?
Because I can't see any of the others being much of an obstacle to me. If there were other options to choose from, I would probably find a more fitting vice.

Rick said...


If you ever write a longer response or related discourse, send me the link. I would like to continue the discussion.

If I really am way off in my assumptions about the enneagram, then that probably means one of two things: either I'm simply not the kind of person the system is able to 'reach', or the information available at Wikipedia and the enneagram institute is woefully inadequate.

What is clear to me is that the modern-day Enneagram of personality has little or nothing to do with its pre 20th century roots and that the modern content of the types is almost completely the product of late 20th century thinkers (presumably Ichazo and Naranjo). However, for reasons that I've speculated on in my article, they've chosen to hang on to traditions such as the "vices" and "virtues" that no longer make any sense alongside current descriptions, unless you make a great stretch of imagination.

It's true that I personally am unable to get into the Enneagram. The reason is that there is no clear overarching idea to the system. "Vices & virtues" is an overarching idea that could work, but it is not pursued. "Ego fixations" is also viable, but it is not developed adequately. What we have is a hodgepodge of different ideas contributing to the type descriptions that don't form a coherent whole.

For some of the descriptions at Wikipedia, getting rid of the list of vices/ego fixations, etc. at the end of the description would be enough to clearly convey a single main idea or emphasis. For others, there is enough lack of clarity in the main description that that would not be enough.

wrencis said...


I'm having a hard time reconciling a self-typing of IEE in socionics with a 7 in enneagram.

7's are "Head" Center types. See Center descriptions:

It just doesn't seem to match IEE. Perhaps Delta quadra, more broadly.
http://tinyurl.com/cnm8s8 (russian)

I offer 3 possible solutions:
1. Perhaps IEE isn't a good fit - EII might be a consideration based on Head Center, Delta quadra, and type 7.

2. Perhaps type 7 isn't a good fit.
Types 3, 6, and 9 are the base types:

The others (1,2,4,5,7,and 8) are modifications of those. If IEE is correct (http://tinyurl.com/c6jc2z), then of the 3 Centers, Heart seems the best fit, making 2 or 3 or 4 most likely.

3. Enneagram is incomplete. If you look at the symbol of the enneagram, you'll see that there is an open space at the bottom of the drawing. Might "head, heart, and body" map to Logic, Ethics, and Sensing? In which case, the open space might be filled with Intuition.

I feel most confident in #3.

Intuitive types regularly score "oddly" on enneagram tests. The reason you connected with types all over the board (http://tinyurl.com/cjv2t8) is because everyone uses all information elements (to varying degrees). Therefore, I would assert that the fact that something essential still seemed missing or "off" is because there is no intuitive type represented in the enneagram.

Anyone up for creating a more complete enneagram?


Rick said...


Based on those Heart, Head, and Gut descriptions, I would still be a "Head" type. Many IEEs I know would, too. Some IEEs are more "Heart" types. Being "mental" correlates positively with intuition as much or more as with logic, in my opinion.

One of the problems I have with the Enneagram is that the types are described from different angles that often have little, if nothing to do with each other. Someone who is a natural psychologist may well ask, "why do these two traits have to go together?"

For instance, take the first two links you gave me. By superimposing the two categorizations given, we learn that all Heart Center types "rate themselves according to how others rate them," Head Center types are "preoccupied with fear," and "anger is the predominant motive in the lives of" Gut Center types (which is psychologically impossible).

Then, if you go to actual type descriptions, the above characteristics are given little attention. For instance, the Sevens description at Wikipedia makes no mention of preoccupation with fear. Instead, those descriptions focus on what the attention of each type goes to.

Then, if you look at the "Ego fixations," "passions/vices", and "virtues," those have almost nothing to do with "what the attention goes to" or what is discussed in the first 2 links you gave me.

In other words, 3 different sources provide 3 angles of approach to each types that are almost entirely unrelated. One set of authors defines enneatypes in terms of "what their attention is directed at," another set -- to "holy ideas", "ego fixations", etc., and another set -- at "the three main strategies."

As a rational thinker, I would have to conclude that either the Enneagram itself is messed up, or the Enneagram community is messed up.

Now, of course, none of those problems are present in socionics (haha).

My approach to restoring clarity to the Enneagram would be to choose one of these "angles" as the basis of the type and suspend the rest. What we have now is, in effect, competition by different groups of adherents to try to redefine the Enneatypes in at least three different ways. Chaos results. Because there is no empiricity in the field, no one group has any advantage, and the stalemate continues.

Personally, I like the division of Head, Heart, and Gut. It's intuitive and often obviously appropriate for describing many people. I also like the idea of "deadly vices," but I think two different foundations implies two different typologies that don't match up in a one-to-one correspondence.

Just some thoughts.

Rick said...

Here's yet another angle that has no relation to the previous ones mentioned:


For instance,

"Seven is a manifestation of the Joyful aspect of God"

-- what does that have to do with preoccupation with fear, being a Head Center person, or the vice of gluttony?

Stormy said...

"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."- Rick

It's explained in more detail here: