I’ve taken the title for this article from a song of Bob Dylan’s; and the inspiration to cover the topic in the way that I’ve chosen to came from a couple of the song’s lines: ‘Conceit is a disease that the doctors got no cure; they’ve done a lot of research on it but what it is, they’re still not sure’. As Bob himself might say, ‘Sump’ns up; ain’t a lot clear though.’
I confess that I’m rather a stickler for words and their origins; so let’s first unravel what’s intimated by this word ‘conceit’. Within the context of the song, it’s shorthand for ‘self-conceit’; and as The Oxford English Dictionary has it, it’s ‘excessive pride in oneself.’ The original sense is of a ‘quaintly decorative article’, as well as ‘something formed in the mind’.
Still, we can see why the medics are struggling to cure this fanciful product of thinking. How does ‘excessive pride’ come to be ingrained within what is taken to be substantively real – the ‘me’ of ‘my’ being – and not remain as ‘something formed in the mind’? The pride is more than a judgement about ‘me’; it’s effectively regarded as what I am.
The answer is that the conceit which issues as excessive pride is self-referenced; it’s taken to be an integral aspect of a substantively real ‘self’. In this way, the notion formed in the mind becomes integrated within a narrative construct of selfhood. This narrative is synonymous with what I think I am as an enduring agent for, and subject of, all experience.
Put simply, we’re fictionalising our life and being, as a result of which process we become a ‘quaintly decorative article’. As this fiction is internal to the mind, it accesses cognitive capacities and so knows itself – it’s egoically aware. The self-narrative then embeds as belief; it’s taken as the self of ‘me’ and from which perspective it reflectively admires itself.
This is the disease of conceit; and it’s caused by mechanisms which remain opaque precisely because of this circular, self-reflective cognising. It’s largely a closed system which, to the extent that it’s monitored at all, is no more than two mirrors reflecting each the other. It comprehends itself only within its own very partial design parameters.
Whenever uncomfortable feelings arise and which affect the ‘quaintly decorative article’, this same entity attempts to modify its own construct. It builds upon its own foundation various justifications, validations and affirmations. It protects its own existence at all costs, taking any measure necessary to do so. It never considers its own destruction as a remedy.
And yet why should this be so; how could it possibly affect matters if ‘something formed in the mind’ ceased to exist? After all, the mind, together with all of its connections to sentience, to memory, to creativity and so forth, would remain. We could still function, love, care, and continue to experience the world without this fanciful, thought-up thing.
Just as we tend to consider ourselves indispensable in our working role, so too does the self-construct regard itself in this way. We assume our job position can only effectively be fulfilled by ‘me’ doing it ‘my’ way. And because the self-construct was originally a survival imperative, it continues to regard itself as such and so never considers its redundancy.
This construct, this ‘thing formed in the mind’, has created a total dependency upon itself in regarding the entirety of experience and action to be of its own doing. It thinks it’s a constant subject which via its agency alone can the world be known, and any response to that world, be made. No wonder it thinks it’s special and that it must be preserved.
Any preservation requires work though; the imagined subject of ‘me’ is rather needy and wants assurances of its status. If these assurances don’t come from others, it creates its own in applying little affirmations of conceit to itself. Interestingly, these affirmations can take both a negative and positive form dependent on the individual’s innate character traits.
So perversely, the ‘quaintly decorative article’ can appear charming to itself in terms of its own perceived deficiencies. It can build into its narrative what to it is an alluring sense of inadequacy in which it feels secure by virtue of flaw and frailty. Conceit cuts both ways; it isn’t just about ‘me’ being ‘better than’; it can also encompass being ‘worse than’.
The person who continuously stresses to all those around them of their uselessness or stupidity, or of their noteworthy capacity to suffer, is conceited too. They’re placing a perverse and certain pride in the uniqueness of their inadequacy or burden. In this way, they set themselves apart from others just as much as the boastful egotist.
So we decorate ourselves with one or other of these two modes of conceit; we’re prideful in either a negative or positive sense – it doesn’t matter which; it’s still a disease. Any remedy is beyond the power of the physician; the mind carrying the disease must administer the cure. Of course, as with any health issue, we first must observe our symptoms.