It is widely remarked this week, in the wake of the scandal that brought down the governor of New York, that Eliot Spitzer is a victim of his own arrogance. Hubris is the word most often used, it being a fine old word that comes to us from the classical Greek of ancient Athens. Hubris means something more than sinful pride. It is a special category of pride, one that mixes arrogance and shamelessness into a heady mix that results in a certain carelessness about the details of life, if that’s what you call it when you attack prostitution rings while at the same time spending thousands of dollars on high-priced prostitutes. Pride is a sin common to the human DNA. Hubris is an ugly strain that finds expression usually when people have attained a certain level of power that makes them feel immune. What applies to others doesn’t apply to them. They casually break the rules they enforce on others.
The Greeks considered hubris to be the greatest crime because it always involves some sort of outrageous act, some egregious ripping of the fabric of human decency. In Spitzer’s case we have a man of enormous power who bragged about steamrolling his opponents who now has been brought down by his own iniquity. That is always the end of hubris. It is a self-destructive sin.
It has also been pointed out that hubris is often found in the mighty and powerful among us. While that is true, I wonder if that is not a way to let the rest of us off the hook. After all, I’m never likely to be in a similar position–or maybe I will be, who knows?–but you can’t count on it. I got some help on this from Dennis Miller, the comedian, former Monday Night Football commentator, and now radio talk show host, during a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly. Mr. O’Reilly said that it happens all the time that famous people can’t handle fame, and he pointed to John Belushi and Heath Ledger. Miller responded instantly that it wasn’t really a product of fame but seems to be a human problem that we all face. Whenever we achieve anything in life, the very fact of success (small or large) reveals to us the holes within our soul that we otherwise cover up. Success in any field can be debilitating because we know we don’t really deserve it. That sense of inner emptiness can lead us to make choices–sometimes very stupid and dangerous choices–that result in our own destruction.
If we look at Eliot Spitzer and think, “He got what he deserved,” we’re right. If we think that we would never do anything like that, we’re fooling ourselves, and we may be worse off than him because we haven’t learned anything from his sudden, shocking fall.