The French have this wonderful word, amour-propre, so much better than our English “self-love.” It comes, with its edge, from La Rochefoucauld, his urbane and scintillating Maxims in the seventeenth century. It is the arch-flatterer, “more artful than the most artful of mankind.” In parallel, it comes from Blaise Pascal, who observes that Christianity is the only cure. Then it comes again through Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the “enlightened” eighteenth century, who thought the primitive savages incapable of amour-propre, because they lacked the gilt-framed mirrors of sophisticated society, in which their pride might be reflected. He imagines it the source of all corruption; and with some authority, for he was himself among the most corrupt of men — this Rousseau who taught us all to “blame society.”

Really there is nothing new under the sun, and the concept comes much earlier from Saint Augustine of Hippo who in his City of God calls it in Latin, amor sui, and puts it about the centre of his review of human tawdriness. That, in turn, is how it came to Pascal: via the French Augustinians, with whom Pascal was in thick, about the time he was writing his Lettres provinciales. One might add, contre Rousseau (and perhaps with Joseph de Maistre) that it goes back farther, to Adam and Eve.

Ye devill appeals to Eve’s amour-propre. She then appeals to Adam’s. That’s how this whole wretched mess got started. Note that this couple predeceased all Rousseau’s noble savages, and that the field anthropologists have since discovered that the primitive tribal types are a lot like us. Which is to say, bad, in many colourful ways, and quite invariably self-regarding.

I cannot prove that Pascal (and Augustine) are right, to a gallery of liberal theoreticians, but then, I do not seem to have such an audience listening at the moment. The pope does, however, and I suppose that’s why he gave a slew of medals the other day to such as Richard Gere, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, and who knows what other movie stars were named after I stopped reading. Surely it was a satirical attempt to show what posturing clowns they all are; though I fear the satire may have been unintentional.

Among the chief theories, embodied today in Hollywood capitalism, is that the amour-propre of celebrities is a creative force that can be harnessed to advance philanthropic causes. One might question whether the causes in question are actually philanthropic, or even benign in the manner of a good brain tumour, but that would be to dwell upon details, details.

My own theory is often the opposite. I hold that hardly anything good is accomplished in this world by the people who manoeuvre to take credit for it. (Hence my general anathema upon politicians, including the ecclesiastical ones.) Moreover, the much good actually done is not generally publicized. And this in itself is a good thing, because if people found out who was behind it, their punishment would be doubled.

Verily, this is why Holy Church has been, since the first centuries, very suspicious of claims made on behalf of “saints,” and went to the trouble of appointing Advocati Diaboli (“devil’s advocates”) to get at the truth about them, before rather than after canonization. (The term for this office has since been suppressed by the prim.)

I firmly believe that it is possible to do good in this world, because I have seen it done. But only by men (including women, and wow, how many women) who did not seek the credit, nor could even be driven by the prospect of feeling good about themselves. It happens, but I think, only by God’s grace.