Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attends the 63rd Israel Independence Day Celebration at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a hero in the classic sense of the word. His is the story of a powerful man brought low by sexual impropriety – a classic tale which speaks to how great success is attained, and the cost often associated with attaining such success.
“Pride goes before the fall” according to the commonly translated verse from the biblical Book of Proverbs. “Ruin” or “brokenness” are each better translations from the Hebrew, for fall, but that is not essential as people try to make sense of recent revelations about Schwarzenegger.
Of primary importance is the fact that we watch these events not simply because we enjoy witnessing others, especially famous others, suffering, but because we identify with it. There is something fundamentally human about the story – something captivating about power and fame, and about the kinds of people who achieve them.
The recent revelations concerning Schwarzenegger’s long-term affair with a household employee, and the fact that he secretly fathered a child with her, is a page ripped from the works of authors such as Sophocles and Aeschylus. It’s a hero story in which the hero rises, falls, and rises again, to a place of greater wisdom if not greater power.
To be sure, this is only Act Two in what is classically a three-part drama. It’s the part of the story in which we see the hero undermined by his own hubris. But it’s also a story in which that very hubris was critical in achieving the greatness for which the hero is known.
Schwarzenegger’s actions are inexcusable, but that does not mean that they are impossible to understand. In fact, one could easily claim that the same boundless sense of energy and possibility which enable one to attain huge success in three different fields of endeavor, as Arnold has in body-building, film and politics, is the definition of hubris – a trait marked by the inability to experience that the rules apply to you as much as to the next person.
Perhaps that’s why Proverbs simply indicates that pride, a biblical version of hubris, goes before the fall, instead of advising people to avoid the fall by avoiding pride. Wisdom, in this case, rests in knowing what the process is and then deciding accordingly how to proceed.
It turns out, that like so many things in life, the traits which empower our ability to rise, are the same ones which bring us down. The real story lies in what we learn from the rising and falling. That’s what defines the hero.
Whether Arnold turns out to be such a hero, or whether his will be a story of arrested development, we will have to wait and see. If we watch for that, in Arnold and in ourselves, then this will be more than a story of our voyeuristic obsession with the rich and famous, it will be a contemporary continuation of an ever-important examination began thousands of years ago – one with which we should probably never be done.