The disease of conceit

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

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.


18 thoughts on “The disease of conceit

  1. I just hope to be egoically aware, someday. 😉

    I wonder, though, if this notion of “me” ceased to exist would our very survival be threatened? Isn’t “me-ness” or egocentric thinking needed to a certain extent? Not in excess, of course, but for basic survival, as much as “we-ness”, our need for the collective, society?

    Hariod, I appreciate your thoughts on so many ideas. May I endeavor to contribute to them in my own modest way?

    • Hello there Y-shaped one – how sweet of you to visit. And how enchanting to be greeted with a tease . . . 🙂

      I rather suspect that your question is rhetorical, so the following response can just be left to hang in the air pointlessly; though do respond if you desire to tease me further – you are most certainly welcome. 😉

      The notion of ‘me’, when referenced in this article, and as detailed elsewhere on this site, is meant to stand for the narrative construct that forms in a stream of mentation; wherein it may be modified, sustained and perpetuated. As such, it coalesces as a matrix of self-entity – a flux of data all about ‘me’ and what I am. This matrix can be activated in real time, as well as embedding in both memory and assumption. Being a function of mind, it accesses cognition and so is reflectively aware of its own existence – that is to say it is ‘egoically’ aware.

      Naturally enough, and as you rightly observe, there is always some necessity for the body to reference itself both spatially and temporally for survival purposes; though there is no necessity for this referencing to incorporate a running egoical conception such as assumes a fixedness that simply has no referent. That conception, I speculate, is no more than an evolutionary artefact originally forged in correlation with linguistic and other symbols of the mind. So whether your point was rhetorical or not, by my own lights, the answer is that the egoical self-conception is no longer an imperative. One may wonder why it should be, though an answer seems elusive does it not?

      • Thank you for this response, Hariod. Your ideas intrigue me so, and as I read your writing, I feel I am in the company (perhaps as an audience member who wandered in from the street and is sitting in the farthest corner), of an intellectual whose understanding of such questions is well beyond my reach. Still, I am fascinated and I do read on. Then I ask questions. And you’ve kindly answered them.

        • Please, let me assure you that this certainly isn’t a place for mere intellectual indulgencies; and in any case, I have only a limited capacity in that regard being a reject of the educational system several decades ago. What’s more, your question was astute and entirely pertinent, therefore being most welcome indeed.

          I am grateful both for your presence and for the time you have given to reading this article; truly, I am.


  2. I think you’ve captured the dynamic of conceit very eloquently. It’s based on a gnawing feeling of not being enough (insufficiency, lack), and either puffing up the self or wallowing in its inadequacy. And it’s a dynamic that happens because the self needs to (or is taught to), compare and measure itself against others (separation). When the self believes it is enough, when it becomes enchanted by its own singularity and specialness and also by its connections to others, there’s no need for comparison, for “better than” or “worse than,” for pride or the green eye of envy.

    • Thank God you are here! Why? I rather felt that this article wouldn’t go down too well. Some are affronted by the notion that their self-centred projections of inadequacy are manifestations of conceit. So I’m gratified that you should lend your support to this argument – not least of all as you are a philosopher by profession; a true lover of knowledge.

      More than lending support, you go on to express ideas that go hand-in-hand with the subject under discussion and which, at the risk of appearing to want to repay your support (who cares?), I wholeheartedly endorse myself. This factor of comparison that you bring up is so germane to the subject that it warrants writing a ‘Part 2’ exclusively on this.

      With gratitude and much respect, Hariod.

  3. Hello Friend Hariod,

    I much enjoyed this one, in particular the delicate way you describe the formation and maintenance of a ‘conceit’. As a recovering conceit, I think you hit the nail on the head, the subtle way in which we become a projected self, a whirlpool of thought whose existence is sustained by witnessing its own actions. It really is almost impossible for a conceit to simply choose to be at peace, no? For without the externalized grist for the self-referential mill, either grist of greatness or grist of littleness, there is an absence into which it threatens to dissolve.

    One thought you sparked with your description is that the formation of a conceit is like a child copying an action of his or her parents, without understanding the meaning or purpose of the action. What I mean is that in order for awareness itself to differentiate into individuals – a process which I don’t believe NECESSARILY requires loss of unity consciousness, though in recent memory so often does – a singular field of awareness must swirl itself up into a localized “something”. The formation of a conceit is like doing so for all the wrong reasons, like a pure distortion of divine intent (if you’ll permit me the phrase).

    There is a physicist Milo Wolff who did some research on a particular spin manifold, and found a mathematical formulation (I’m not remembering this well at all), for a rotating shell, like a fluid, that could rotate continuously without breaking fluid streamlines. In other words, an undifferentiated field could “whirl itself” into sustained flow patterns without ever fracturing or separating. I think when the “purpose” is the expression and communication of Truth and Love and the furthering of Creation through our relationships and moments of inter-becoming, it is good. There is no conceit, just a bit of marveling at all that is. Not marveling at an aggrandized or a belittled self, but marveling at all, in which we dwell. But this conceit business, is like a stale copycat, a whirling attempt to sustain a self that has lost its bearings – lost the awareness and relationships that keep a differentiated being continuously enjoined in a field of flowing wholeness.

    Lovely writing, once again . . .


  4. Dear Michael (the ‘recovering conceit’ XD ), what a stupendously beautiful comment; the imagery you introduce here adds so much to my typically dry analysis.

    And yes, the ‘whirlpool of thought’ (or what I call the ‘stream of mentation’), finds it ‘impossible’ to ‘simply choose to be at peace’; though it may flirt with ideas along those lines perhaps, whilst never quite knowing what peace is.

    ‘a singular field of awareness must swirl itself up into a localized “something”’

    Yes of course, and I took this up together with the Y-shaped commenter above. Yet this ‘something’ need not create of itself the idea of its own fixedness of entity, nor reflect egoically upon itself thusly. There is in any unicity of awareness both the appearance of individuality and the realisation of this as a thought-form, or if you prefer, a necessary convention of the sentient system. And of course, there really are such things as collapsing, greying, decrepit old bodies – much as I might hope to deny it. Whether all this is of ‘divine intent’, I could not speak Michael; though you certainly are free to do so here. ❤

    You add so much to my offerings with your imagery, knowledge and wisdom.

    Truly grateful,


  5. Learning much from you Hariod, particularly in your responses to others. I can see from those who follow you the ‘Aroha’ ( a deep sense of love and connection) that infuses your writing. I’d suggest your writing is indeed intellectual – perhaps even more intellectual as it has broken free of some of the constraints.



    • Thank you so much for your gracious and generous observations Jeannie; I truly am touched and humbled by them.

      As regards so-called ‘followers’, then this is a term that I abhor for reasons that I suspect you and most others who visit here do too. The intention here is for an exchange of the many unique experiences and perspectives, this to be sparked by my own little pools of thought. I am happy to be corrected on any deficiencies of logic or language, and am quite aware that many visitors here are my intellectual superiors; of this, there is no doubt. You yourself, are most likely amongst their number Jeannie.

      I had never heard the term ‘Aroha’, so just skipped across to Wikipedia for further information. This ‘deep sense of love and connection’ is something that I feel is important to share as we struggle to unearth more knowledge about what we are, our psychological proclivities, and so forth. I’m sure you would agree, that those in the world who are prepared to give of the necessary energy and time so as to put their own house in order, so to speak, are worthy of love from whatever quarter.

      Forgive the impertinence Jeannie, but would you be prepared to tell me whether you have any practices of mental culture, and affinities with particular doctrines, whether spiritual or purely philosophical?

      Hariod. ❤

  6. Thank you, Hariod, for this enlightening post.

    I learn not only from your posts but from your comments. I must say I do find your posts and comments highly intellectual and find it hard to believe you were a reject from the educational system. If anything, and this is not to do with you, I am afraid to comment because much of what you and others write about is beyond my grasp.

    With much to learn, I approach your posts gingerly.

    Namaste, Ellen.

    • The thanks are all due to you Ellen for providing much necessary feedback. As I think you now know, I am new to the practice of blogging, and am very much still finding my feet.

      I take care over the words I write, as this seems the least of my responsibilities if people are gracious enough to visit and read. I suppose it is true that I write more ‘from the head’ than ‘from the heart’, though I am quite certain that qualities of love, compassion, kindness and intuition are necessary constituents of the complete being, whereas intellect is purely optional. Indeed, it can even be a hindrance to the realization of more profound, intuitive understandings, as I’m sure you well know.

      You can take my word for it that I was indeed a reject of the educational system here in England. Some of the reason for this was down to my own laziness of approach (or of having any approach at all!), and some was down to the fact that I really was not at all quick on the uptake as a student; I really had insufficient interest then in exercising the mind in the ways that were being presented to me.

      Thank you so much for persisting with my articles Ellen; I feel quite certain that there really is no need for you to approach them ‘gingerly’ – you are, after all, an author yourself and more than capable of handling whatever I may set out here.

      With gratitude and much respect for your own work Ellen.

      Hariod. ❤

      • Well, you could have fooled me. I didn’t know you were a novice at blogging although you may have perhaps said so. You certainly fit right in.

        I hope you did not take what I said as criticism. It is just my experience. I am a concrete thinker so have trouble with abstracts on many blogs though I find them totally intriguing and so try to make sense of what I read and catch the writer’s intent. This is a defect with me, I know. Others follow along fine. And I have had to deal with this and other deficits all my life so it is nothing new.

        As for you being a reject of the educational system, the educational system failed you. You were obviously head and shoulders above what was being presented and so not challenged enough to engage I would suspect. And your work is from the heart. I hope you don’t think I was saying it wasn’t. You seem to have access to both worlds, if not more than two.

        With respect and xx, Ellen.

        • Just to let you know Ellen, that I perceived no criticism from your comments whatsoever. In any case, should you or anyone else wish to criticise, then as long as it is constructive then I would welcome it as a source of learning.

          I am far from thinking that I have but a handful of answers to anything at all; and the purpose of creating a blog rather than a static website was so as to be able to interact and learn from others – such as your good self of course.

          Hariod. ❤

    • You know.
      I know.
      You know ‘you’ doesn’t know.
      I know ‘I’ doesn’t know.
      I know ‘you’ doesn’t know.
      You know ‘I’ doesn’t know.
      We both know this.
      Neither of ‘us’ knows this.

      I wouldn’t normally answer so cryptically Meredith, but as it’s you, and not ‘you’, I will, though ‘I’ will not.

      Hariod. ❤

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