Spitzer, Niebuhr and the Sin of Pride

In the flood of information about Eliot Spitzer’s taste for high-priced vice yesterday, all I could think of was a … Continued

In the flood of information about Eliot Spitzer’s taste for high-priced vice yesterday, all I could think of was a dead Protestant theologian: Reinhold Niebuhr. And, strange as it may sound, I bet Spitzer did, too.

Neibuhr was, after all, sort of the Grand Master when it came to human fault and the reality of sin. Below Niebuhr’s image on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, the caption was succinct and brutal: “Man’s story is not a success story.”

Any student of the corrupting power of pride and ego knows Niebuhr, and thinks of him often. And as it turns out, Spitzer was such a student.

Last August, Gov. Spitzer gave a speech to the Chautauqua Institution entitled “The Need for Both Passion and Humility in Politics.” Spitzer opened by saying he wanted to reflect on
“the inevitable risks that occur when passion and conviction are not sufficiently tempered by humility. How we manage these risks, it turns out, may be just as critical as the fight itself.”

Spitzer then launched into a biography of Niebuhr and his activism and writing after WWI. Then, in a moment loaded with Shakespearean irony, Spitzer told the crowd:

“Niebuhr understood that the exercise of power can be shocking and, at times, corrupting. But he also understood that power is absolutely necessary to fight the battles that must be fought. The trick is to fight these battles with humility and constant introspection, knowing that there is no monopoly on virtue. Moreover, this combination is simply more effective. For power untethered from humility is certain to eventually fail.”

For two days now, the square-faced Spitzer has seemed like the embodiment of hubris and hypocrisy. “How could he be so stupid?” was the mumbled refrain at the coffee shop this morning. On Fox News, Roger Stone (no friend of Spitzer or his father) delivered the verdict: “this is what hubris brought you.”

Neibuhr wrote in his classic “Nature and Destiny of Man” that, “Man is insecure and involved in natural contingency; he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness….All of his intellectual and cultural pursuits, therefore, become infected with the sin of pride. Man’s pride and will-to-power disturb the harmony of creation….The ego which falsely makes itself the center of existence in its pride and will-to-power inevitably subordinates other life to its will and thus does injustice to other life.”

It’s hard not to think Spitzer has committed an injustice, not just to his wife and kids, but to all those who work for him, who voted for him, who looked to him as a steam roller for righteousness that he promised to be.

“Hubris is terminal,” Spitzer said to polite applause during last summer’s speech. I’d say it isn’t — I’d say it’s inevitable and Spitzer’s proof. And if you can’t stand truth coming from a theologian, I offer you the quote cherished by irreverent reporters everywhere from Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”–they’re both saying the same thing: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the diddy to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

  • Mr Mark

    Utter rubbish. Sin of pride? Please.It’s simple: monogamy is not the natural order of things. Our sex drive – especially as males – is to reproduce often and with multiple partners.The difference with humans is that we are rational beings who often make decisions that go against “doing what comes naturally.” That includes taking marriage vows and promising sexual fidelity to a single partner, an act of commitment that goes against the laws of nature. It also includes more mundane decisions, like not farting or defecating in public, decisions that – like sexual monogamy – we alone in the animal kingdom have the ability to make.There was no “sin” involved in Spitzer’s act, just a simple betrayal of a vow he made to his wife coupled with his giving in to his biological programming.

  • Anon.

    I agree with Mr. Mark’s comments of 3/12/08.Those that believe a Deity created Man and all of the universe (or Nature and Nature’s Creator as Thomas Jefferson might put it) has the predominate share of responsibility for the human experience, the human condition in this area (and others as well). But if you don’t believe in such a Deity, that man evolved (as the evidence supports being the case), then Mr. Mark’s comments are spot on.

  • Brambleton

    Mr. Mark,For the record, I can attest that there are men, living on this planet, who consider themselves to be something more than primates. The sex drive that you are referring to is common in a lot of males; however, most males graduate from this form of behavior as they mature. Participate in empty, intimate-less sex with enough people when you are young, and you soon realize that life can be so much more than that.As far as the natural order of things are concerned, I’m curious how you would explain penguins, who mate for life. (And I’m sure they’re not the only species).FYI: At best, what Spitzer did was break the law. At worst, he broke a trust with his wife, his daughters, and with the people of New York who elected him. Hope it was worth it.

  • Brambleton

    Mr. Mark,Again, if you see yourself as an ape or a chimp, then maybe you can relate to the Times opinion. Personally, I can’t. And perhaps the citizens of New York would be a little more sympathetic towards their Governor if he wasn’t committing felonies on the clock.Maybe we should let the poor guy off the hook because he’s wired to act like this? Excuse me if I don’t consider someone who is a cheat, liar, and criminal to be the best representative of the state.And many congrats that the whole atheist thing has worked out for you. Strange, all the “pressures” of being Baptist hasn’t caused me to cheat on my wife either. Maybe the open relationship that I have with my wife as a Christian, and the fact that I’m held accountable by my men’s group has helped keep me from screwing anyone with a pulse. (Oops, sorry. That was the inner monkey in me speaking. Bad boy. Sit Ubu sit. Good doggie.)

  • Gaby

    When will America get over its opposition to prostitution? If women choose to sell their body because the demand is there, why not? Can someone tell me where the harm is?

  • Chris Everett

    Mr. Mark is on the mark, as usual. The whole notion of “sin” is a perversion of morality that fosters profound ignorance of human nature.Mr. Spitzer likes what he likes. I’m not sure EXACTLY what he likes, but I’m willing to bet that I like it, too.The main problem, as I see it, is that he doesn’t appear to have been honest with his wife about it, which would have allowed them to negotiate some kind of compromise that would best accommodate both their needs. This sort of thing seems to be dealt with in a much more healthy way in Europe, which isn’t nearly as burdened as the U.S. with the disfunctional notion of sin.So the conclusion: Mr. Spitzer is certainly responsible for his deception and betrayal, but some of the responsibility belongs in the lap of religion, which has so damaged man’s self image that he views his natural appetites with shame and either denies himself their fulfullment or fulfulls them in secret.

  • Me, Myself

    >The main problem, as I see it, is that he doesn’t appear to have been honest with his wife about it,<We don't know this. Perhaps his wife did know. We can assume his wife didn't know, but we certainly don't know. Frankly, I cheated on my wife (in the sense that I was not honest with her), with some consequences that I saw coming, consequences that were not the sort most people would want to endure. But I could not/would not stop my actions that led to those consequences, which of course including hurting my wife and my kids. Why I did what I did is still confusing to me, in the sense that I never thought, until it happened, that I was capable of betraying someone to whom I made some important vows.I'm Spitzer's case, he partook of something he had previously railed against, and so there is that amazing element of hypocrisy – along with his abrasive personality that left him with few friends – which has led to his political downfall. And for all we know, he'd put off his wife, too, with that abrasive personality, and perhaps – unlike my wife – Silda Wall Spitzer turned a blind or even willing eye to her husband's extra-marital behavior.

  • Mr Mark

    Dear Brambleton -Why so defensive? Who’s saying we’re monkeys? Not me and not the Times article I cited.You wrote:”Maybe the open relationship that I have with my wife as a Christian, and the fact that I’m held accountable by my men’s group has helped keep me from screwing anyone with a pulse.”So sorry to hear that you’d be screwing everything alive if it weren’t for your men’s group. From your many posts, I got the sense that you had more inner fortitude than that and that your self-accountability far outweighed any external mechanisms for the same.Typical “there go I but for the grace of god” BS, BS whose flip side is, “there BY THE GRACE OF GOD goes that poor soul.”BTW – by “open relationship” with your wife, do you mean “open” in the sexual sense? Just asking.

  • Mr Mark

    Chris Everett writes:”Mr. Spitzer likes what he likes. I’m not sure EXACTLY what he likes, but I’m willing to bet that I like it, too.”My guess – he’s a back-door man. How else to explain the comments of the prostitute that he wanted unprotected dangerous sex?If my guess is right, then Spitzer was just doing what most politicians do to the rest of us every day. :O

  • Jim

    The men don’t know what the little girls understand.

  • Hyperlocal

    My, how uplifting. Was it Paul or Augustine who described man as being born “inter faeces et urinam”? If this is what “faith” helps you think about human possibilities, hurray that I was born to a closet agnostic and a Southerner so soured by hellfire tent preachers that no one imposed any real “faith” on me at all.As a result, I can remark that this doesn’t seem to be about sex or about the filthy corruptibility of human nature — it looks to me like it’s about a man desperate to shore up his ego, to the point that being a tin-god in politics and buying the best in girls was worth the money and effort that went into it. How do people get into this mindset, which answers to the clinical definition of pathological narcissism? If you bother to study human nature, the quickest way there is to believe one is fundamentally flawed and a failure, leading to frantic pursuit of behavior that will cover that up. Sort of a Potemkin life. And I suspect it’s exactly the mindset that naturally follows from being told mankind is “conceived in sin and born in corruption.” Hurray for Faith! Scored again!

  • kyle foley

    it is obvious, Lord, what happened.undoubtedly he was the best instead the ego’s wrath-talons please, Lord, heal this one of our leading politicians,

  • monte cristo

    The people all loved the brave Lancelot until they discovered the wily D’artagnan underneath. I predict he’ll rise again to fight another day, as he was clearly the master of both the lance and the sword. The poor man was only seeking respite after many hard-fought battles with the republican scurge. Naturally they wanted his head on a pike when his guard was down.In the heat of battle, Elliot forgot the first half of the golden rule of great swordsmanship – parry and thrust.

  • Annette

    Men are forgiven sexual sins. His call girl “Kristen” whose picture is in the papers is probably never going to recover from this.

  • Hyperlocal

    Annette:Props for thinking of Kristen, or Ashley as we now learn she is actually known to her friends — but Ashley has music. (If you read the coverage, she is a R&B singer.) She will sing this away or sing it into a truth that connects her to the rest of humanity. Her Johns, who are mostly about money, power and their own lunges at self-validation (look at me, I am one of the mighty of the earth), aren’t as likely to have that. My money’s on Kristen — she may not be “fine” but I think she’s more likely to overcome this than the guys who get busted.

  • Maurie Beck

    Last night on Charlie Rose I saw one of the strangest conversations pertaining to why Eliot Spitzer would put himself in such a vulnerable position. The assumption was that he had to know the risks and only some fundamental personality flaw (i.e. a self destructive streak, hubris, he wanted to get caught, he’s a pig, he’s afraid of death (see Moonstruck)) could explain his long history with prostitutes. Of course, the why question is an age old one concerning the motivation of men and women to cheat and have sexual liaisons. The fact that it happens with regularity should tell us something. How about we start with the simplest explanation; i.e. that our sex drive is fundamentally the result of biology. The sex drive is as compelling as hunger. Of course, it varies among genders and among individuals within genders. In other words, some people have a much strong libido than others. Regardless, human sexuality is the one area that, try as we might, will not be put in society’s box. It might be nice to psychoanalyze human motivation in general, or Spitzer’s motivation in particular. Frankly, I think that is making it too complicated.So why did Eliot Spitzer, or anyone else for that matter, have sex outside of marriage with prostitutes? How about he wanted some sexual variety with young hotties and leave it at that.

  • frank carter

    I’m leery about individuals that express shock and dismay what the Gov. did. Perhaps this people are hiding something themselves about their hidden past or life? Why come down so hard on a fallen person regardless who he is? You once had so much admiration for that person, now you are proudly casting and hurling the first stone. Why do you find it so shocking what he did? people do all kind mindless things, mostly because they find pleasure in it, and most of all sin is fun and pleasurable, until you get caught in the cookie jar. In the the mortal words of the great Cesar, I saw I came and I conquer!! regardless of the consequences!!

  • autumn ozog

    The way I figure it, what he did in his personal life was his business and none of yours or mine. What he did as Governor is NYs business.Why do people get so santimonious about sex? As long as they are not bothering you, why do you care?Oh, I forgot, you are a Christian! Not only do you do what YOU want to do but you want everyone else to do what you want then to do. That sounds uneducated to me.Autumn Ozog

  • autumn ozog

    The way I figure it, what he did in his personal life was his business and none of yours or mine. What he did as Governor is NYs business.Why do people get so santimonious about sex? As long as they are not bothering you, why do you care?Oh, I forgot, you are a Christian! Not only do you do what YOU want to do but you want everyone else to do what you want then to do. That sounds uneducated to me.Autumn Ozog

  • Mr Mark

    Jim writes:”Last year, my neighbor borrowed my hedge clippers for, to quote him, “an hour or 2″. He didn’t return them for 2 months.During that time, walking across the street, punching him out, and taking them back would have been very “natural”.I presume you would have supported that solution to the dispute.”Typical deluded faux-victim think.They were YOUR clippers. Why not get them back at the three-hour mark on the day you lent them?No, you’d rather play the victim, allowing the situation to go on for months, all the while stewing over how awful your neighbor was. YOU let the situation fester, building imaginary scenarios in your mind about your awful neighbor to the point that YOU thought that a “very natural” solution would be to walk across the street and punch the guy out. I’d guess the guy simply forgot to return them that day and it never entered his mind afterwards.How much simpler it would have been to cross the street any time in those two months and say, “Hi, Elmer. Hey – you probably forgot that I lent you my clippers. I need them back.” I doubt the door would have slammed in your face.Now, THAT would have been the natural and HUMAN thing to do.

  • ksinger

    I’m reading all these comments about monogamy and who cares who Spitzer was sleeping with etc. There is a certain amount of truth to that I’m sure. The issue here though, it that Spitzer made his reputation and career on prosecuting LAW BREAKING, and as far as I know, prostitution is on the books as a crime. (Whether it should be is also not the issue at present) So, all aguments about monogamy aside, Spitzer was vigorously prosecuting people for prostitution – a crime – while saying “but it’s OK for me”. At the very least, doing that opens him up to unreal risks of blackmail, which according to one article I read, was one of the real fears when this investigation began. Not the best thing for a governor.If I were his wife though, I don’t think I’d be up there with him on the podium though. I wonder what’s going through Silda Spitzer’s mind to put herself through that. I’d be GONE in a big way. Just a comment.

  • kelargo

    I don’t think Spitzer has the wisdom to know the difference.

  • Kirk Maberry

    While most people here are correctly divining the foolishness and hubris of Eliot Spitzer, it is funny to see the few people who believe this to be a private matter. You didn’t read the article very well. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands love, support, identify and vote for this man. His involvement in this dangerous crime has destroyed their faith in him. His family must be suffering terribly as well. It is not a private matter. While I recognize that European culture is far more understanding of these things, American culture is the issue here. Make no mistake, American culture, puritanical as it may be, is the greatest culture ever conceived on earth. We have G-D to thank for that as much as the men who recognized that less is indeed more. While Genghis Khan may be a great destroyer of nations, none of us would care to switch places with the people of that era. Sadly, too many Americans despise their own country and are not wise enough to recognize the awesome opportunities available precisely because of our foundation upon G-D’s word.P.S. This is a religion page. If you don’t like what is being written, you don’t have to read.

  • James R. Cowles

    Mr. Mark says “The difference with humans is that we are rational beings who often make decisions that go against “doing what comes naturally.” That includes taking marriage vows and promising sexual fidelity to a single partner … “Uh-huh, I see.Last year, my neighbor borrowed my hedge clippers for, to quote him, “an hour or 2″. He didn’t return them for 2 months.During that time, walking across the street, punching him out, and taking them back would have been very “natural”.I presume you would have supported that solution to the dispute.Jim

  • Brambleton

    Mr. Mark,As a Baptist and Promise Keeper, the term “open” would never be in reference to a sexual relationship. I use the term to describe a relationship in which my wife is intimately familiar with everything that I feel and think. She knows exactly what types of things hinder my ability to remain pure in heart and mind.

  • Chris Everett

    Brambleton,Though I think you are deluded in your religious views, I admire the level of intimacy you maintain with your wife.

  • Brambleton

    Thanks Chris. It certainly wasn’t easy on my part as I was not used to that type of relationship. But once I started to figure it out, I became addicted. (It also helped that it was Biblically relevant.)Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

  • Maurie Beck

    I wish I had read all of Claire Hoffman’s rationale for Eliot Spitzer’s peccadillo before writing my previous post. Citing original sin from Reinhold Niebuhr and Robert Penn Warren, Hoffman offers the religious explanation for moral failings, instead of the psychoanalytic one. How about the evolutionary explanation; the more sex, the more offspring. Recent research shows that Genghis Khan and his lineage accounted for a large percentage of descendants in the area of the Mongol Empire. Of course, Claire Hoffman’s musings pertain to normative values, whereas I’m not saying whether it is right or wrong, just that it is common to human sexuality.

  • Mr Mark

    Brambleton writes:”As a Baptist and Promise Keeper…we included the words, “divorce is not an option” in our wedding vows.”A good thing too, as Baptists divorce at the highest rate in the the country. Atheists divorce at the lowest rate in the country.I’m puzzled by you. First, it’s your Jesus buds who keep you from straying. Then, you somehow believe that a few words inserted in your wedding vows will provide a firewall against divorce. Life doesn’t work that way. Are you saying that absent those words in your wedding vows and the ever-watching eyes of your mens’ support group that you’d be pulling a Spitzer? Strange musings.Good luck with that.

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