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.”