On being conceited, arrogant, proud and vain.

A friend accused me of being conceited.

I won’t deny it. Actually I can’t deny it because I’m not sure what it means.

People use conceited to mean arrogant and self-absorbed.

By that definition I am indeed conceited.

But I know for a fact that a conceit is also a literary device – an extended metaphor, often whimsical or hyperbolic.

I also know that a conceit is an idea formed in the mind, a notion, such that someone in a nineteenth century novel might say “I have this conceit about…” in the same way that we would say “I have an idea about…”

Conceit, conceive, concept, they are all related.

So how did conceit end up describing arrogance?

The missing link appears to be the self. Self-conceit was eventually shortened to conceit, and self-conceited to simply conceited.

A self-conceited person has conceits about himself. He’s formed hyperbolic and fanciful notions of his own qualities.


Arrogance comes from the Latin arrogare meaning “to claim for oneself, assume”.

We tend to think of arrogance and conceit as basically the same, but the etymology shows that they describe slightly different characteristics.

An arrogant person is too quick to ask for things, too presumptuous, too keen to claim privileges and benefits for themselves.

Where self-conceit implies an inward-looking vanity, arrogance implies an overbearing relation to others.


I’ve been writing about pride a lot lately and giving very specific religious definitions. But what about the etymology?

Pride, or rather proud is an interesting one.

It comes from the Old French for brave or valiant, without the negative connotations it carries today.

One theory is that the negative connotations of arrogance and haughtiness were attributed to the word as it entered the English language – reflecting the English disdain for their French rulers.


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Which doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about narcissistic obsession with one’s appearance or self-image.

But that’s not what vain originally meant.

Vain means “empty”, from the Latin vanus meaning….empty.

Vain could be used to describe any enterprise or quality that lacked substance and true merit: vain efforts, vain struggle, vain wealth, vain self-regard.

We often describe people as vain, but originally it would have been their actions.

What use is it to tell people they have a high opinion of themselves?

You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you. 

Vanity is a more powerful accusation than that – it shows up the futility and emptiness of our self-conceit and pride. That’s where it is truly cutting.

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part three

In part one we looked at the anxiety of a melancholic in a sanguine world, and in part two we covered the anxieties that arise from a melancholic’s mistakenly taking phlegmatics as a social model. Part three will examine anxieties that stem from the influence of cholerics.

So how does the choleric contribute to melancholic anxiety?

We saw in part one that our society is heavily influenced by sanguine ideas of fun and excitement. In a similar way, society is heavily influenced by choleric sensitivities toward ambition, power, and achievement.

Most people enjoy socialising to some extent, but sanguine influences shape our experience and understanding of what it means to be social, of how to be social. Likewise, everyone desires some degree of success in their efforts and exploits, to improve their position in life, to accumulate some measure of wealth; yet how we go about it is shaped by a variety of choleric influences.

The melancholic tendency to form and pursue ideals means that we idealise the choleric approach to ambition just as we idealise the sanguine approach to social life. And in a sense this is accurate: sanguines are the ideal socialites, cholerics are the ideal achievers; melancholics just need to learn that recognising an ideal does not mean we can or should achieve the ideal.

Cholerics are as diverse as any of the temperaments, but what they have in common is achievement and ambition as their primary motives. Cholerics are excitable and reactive like sanguines, but like the melancholic they form long-lasting impressions. This combination can leave cholerics with the impression that they’re the smartest guys in the room, and there’s some truth to this conclusion.

The excitability and reactivity of the choleric makes them far more sensitive to opportunities than the melancholic or the phlegmatic can ever be. Their enduring impressions give cholerics a long-term vision and a capacity for focus that sanguines typically won’t sustain.

Every “self-made man” story is most driven by a choleric temperament. But that’s not to say that every choleric will resemble a business tycoon. Even amongst the usual list of ambitious and successful businessmen (and women) there’s a diversity that reflects the range within the choleric temperament: flamboyant, viscerally arrogant men like Trump; quiet achievers like Gates; intense iconoclasts like Jobs; their success stories can differ wildly, and even the quality of their success may be open to debate, but they share an ambitious quality that, once you recognise it, is distinctly choleric.

Cholerics are successful across a range of endeavours. You will find choleric musicians, actors, academics, managers, bureaucrats, and of course, politicians.  Their particular combination of excitability and enduring impressions leads them to find the most advantageous position in any domain.  Put yourself in a choleric’s shoes:

Imagine you’re hiking with three friends and together you stumble across traces of gold out in the bush. You realise there may well be more gold in this area, and naturally you start considering whether you could buy the land or carry out a quiet survey, what exactly the logistics and possible returns on such a venture might be.  You decide to discuss it with your friends* but to your surprise your sanguine friend seems put off by the hard work involved. Your melancholic friend seems to like the idea of a gold mine, but doesn’t seem to realise that this is potentially what you are all standing on. Your phlegmatic friend is agreeable, but doesn’t really have an opinion on the matter. Since no one seems to be truly on board, you pursue it for yourself and become the proud owner of a literal gold mine.

*Actual cholerics may be wondering why you would risk sharing the gold mine idea with your idiot friends in the first place.

As per the example, cholerics are more ‘tuned in’ to the opportunities and advantages in life. Sanguines are (apologies) too superficial, while melancholics and phlegmatics are too oblivious.  It’s not that these other temperaments don’t want to be successful or that they can’t be successful, they just have difficulty pursuing success in the choleric way.

For these three temperaments, it might be better to say that they achieve success through doing what they love or enjoy.  Actually this is true of the choleric as well, they just happen to love succeeding, overcoming challenges, pursuing what they believe is worthy.  Unfortunately, the biggest defect of the choleric is an overestimation of their own worth. Feeling like “the smartest guy in the room” encourages a sense of arrogance, and cholerics are known to struggle with or succumb to a powerful pride.

So while it is true that the other temperaments often fail to see the opportunities before them, it’s also true that they tend to recoil from the ruthless and self-serving actions that are sometimes implicit in seizing those opportunities. Australian politics is at present exemplary of the dark side of the choleric temperament. Idealists need not apply, and thankfully the poisonous nature of the process is evident enough to dissuade most non-cholerics (and probably many cholerics) from getting involved.

For the melancholic, it is vitally important to recognise cholerics and the choleric influences in society, and to understand that we are fundamentally unsuited to the kind of life that puts ambition and personal advantage ahead of ideals. While all temperaments can learn from one another, with knowledge it becomes clear that choleric attitudes and strategies are simply not appropriate for the melancholic idealist.

For me this translates into the recognition that I am deeply averse to commercially driven activities. My idealism does not incorporate what I regard as a mercenary motive. Yet at the same time I know that such things simply do not seem ‘mercenary’ to a choleric, within reason. When I think of all the cholerics I have met or worked with, I know that their ‘successes’ would seem to me either empty success or even failures.  Yet there are other cholerics with whom I have a great deal more in common, whose goals are perhaps more idealistic in their ambit.

Regardless, it is a great relief for a melancholic to realise that many of our socially reinforced ideas of ambition and success simply do not apply to us.  We are idealistic rather than ambitious, or if you like, we are ambitious about our ideals.