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.

Uncommon voices

One of the problems with our present media culture is that we are inundated with the thoughts, opinions, and, deeper still, the tone of a class of people with broadly similar backgrounds and skills who write to match an established genre, whose works are validated in large part by being not too dissimilar from those of their colleagues.

So when someone from a very different background writes – and writes well – the contrast is startling.

At least that was my impression on reading the following piece on ABC’s The Drum; effectively a eulogy for a former Australian soldier, killed while fighting against Islamic State in Syria:

There is a great quote from the mountaineer Bill Denz, a former New Zealand army commando, who, having been jilted by the military and never sent to Vietnam, rationalised why he had chosen to climb mountains instead. “Young men must go into the mountains because they long for war,” he said.

Like Bill Denz, neither myself nor Ash had found a worthy “struggle” in the military. So, like all young men of our generation, we sought struggles elsewhere. I chose to pursue a life of mountain climbing and the life of a struggling writer. Ash chose to go and fight with the Kurds on the frontlines of Syria.


The piece is worth reading regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author’s argument. It intrigues me that voices such as these can be all but forgotten in the clamour of day-to-day publishing, and shock us with an almost foreign certainty and conviction.

Reading the comments – panicked comments lamenting glorification of war and debating moral relativism in response to Islamic State – illustrates how easily we can slip into a comfortable familiarity with opinions that, despite our love or hate for them, rarely challenge us.

Do we really understand the breadth and depth of opinion our society? Do we really know how things stand, apart from opinion polls and self-referential media?  I suspect that the conventions of our social discourse are more tenuous than we realise, a superstructure that could all too suddenly fall away in the midst of real conflict because most of us – the agents and advocates of this discourse – have no real desire to defend our positions with anything more than words, or else would find that our positions offer nothing of substance to defend.

I hope I can stick close to what is real and ideal, against the heat and vanity of empty opinion.


New You Resolution

My latest MercatorNet article draws on a 17th Century French genius and an esoteric Neo-Confucian spiritual discipline to answer the question: what would make this new year truly more happy?

When asked at a party whether he was enjoying himself, George Bernard Shaw replied “that’s the only thing I am enjoying.” For most of us in life it is the other way around: we can blame circumstances, other people, cruel fate or daily drudgery but in the end the common factor in all our unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and complaint is we ourselves. There is something amiss in the human psyche, and we are loathe to face it, let alone try to fix it. We would happily renovate everything but ourselves, even to the point of hoping that the year itself will change for our benefit.