hubris [hyoo-bris, hoo-] –noun excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.
Eliot Spitzer is not the first, nor will he be the last, person brought low by the machinations of his own desires. It is a classic tragedian theme since the ancient Greeks. Two years ago in The Suicidal Pursuit of Perfection I described a fragment of the treatment of a very bright, sophisticated, angry feminist, who insisted upon living as if the world adhered to the rules she demanded rather than the imperfect world of reality as it actually existed. The early months of her 4 day a week treatment felt like a gauntlet in which she decried my inability to help her, daily expanded upon the ways in which I was inadequate (in all spheres) and attempted to provoke me to attack and fail her as so many men had before. After several months of what felt increasingly like a stalemate, her analysis truly began:
The breakthrough came when she casually mentioned toward the end of one session that her ankle was bothering her and she was annoyed (she was almost always annoyed about something, I might add) that she wouldn't be able to jog that night. Since I knew that she was living in a marginal area of Manhattan and this was at a time when crime was at high levels and much in the news, I had concerns that her jogging might be putting her at risk. When I asked her where she jogged, she confirmed that she jogged in a relatively dangerous area. Her response to my comment to that effect was that women should be allowed to jog wherever and whenever they wished without fear of men and that nothing and nobody, including me, was going to stop her from doing what she wanted.
I was greatly relieved that it did not take long for her to recognize that her angry feminism (which had roots in long term feelings of disgust with her mother and envy of her brother's exalted position in her family) was inadvertently providing her with a rationalization for dangerous and self destructive behavior. I should point out that both of us agreed that she and every other woman should be free to jog wherever and whenever they wished, but reality required that until such time as this Utopian ideal could be arranged, prudence dictated that she jog at a different time and place as was her wont. When, as often was reported in the news in those days, a woman was assaulted and badly injured near the area she had been jogging, she responded with an anxiety attack; she was stricken with the thought that it could have been her and that there was an unconscious part of her mind that had been inviting just such an outcome. This was the true beginning of a very successful analytic treatment.
Most people forget, or never recognize, that our unconscious desires include both constructive and destructive trends. Consider the five year old who delights in building a great structure out of his blocks and takes equal, or even greater delight in destroying that very same structure. Or consider his little sister, who delights in beating him to the punch and destroying his block building even knowing he will react with vigor to the insult. Self-destructive tendencies are ubiquitous. We forget that at our peril.
People who achieve great wealth which is (or feels) out of proportion to their efforts are at particular risk of developing what has been occasionally referred to as "Acquired Narcissistic Character Disorder." This is also a genuine risk for those who are born to great wealth out of no effort of their own. Great wealth, and the ability to gratify all of one's desires, is a great boon. Yet the ability to avoid frustration sets up a dynamic in which limits are increasingly unrecognized and ignored. If the individual has underlying character pathology (and most people have some vulnerabilities) great wealth will place great stress on those aspects of character that are less well developed. Those who have more than the usual dependence on the external environment for self-esteem regulation (ie they need admiration and adulation to enhance their self esteem) are at high risk of self-destructive behavior. Their wealth and success insulates them from the deleterious effects of misbehavior. They end up surrounded by people who feed their ego and slowly divest themselves of those who might place brakes on their desires. This is not inevitable, of course; ancient Kings always had a court jester to remind them of their fallibility, but there are few of us who can control the tendency to listen to those who extol our virtues and dismiss those who contest them.
Unfortunately, once such a person of wealth and power discovers their continuing need for the environment's approval and acclaim, their need for such escalates. The goal posts move. This is poorly understood by the individual. All he knows is that he feels like he is on top of the world when he receives the ministrations of a beautiful woman, or sniffs a drug that specifically enhances feelings of well being and superiority yet he senses that he needs more. Anyone can have one woman; he is special and can have many women. He doesn't understand that his destructive tendencies are as poorly controlled as his hunger for approbation.
The escalation of desire is well known. The tale of the Hollywood star or the professional athlete who destroys himself when he begins to sense his appeal beginning to wane is also an old story. When you need adulation and those attributes that bring it about begin to fade, the intensity of the need escalates. Greater risks are needed to maintain the "rush": higher doses are required to bring the old feelings of well being and superiority to fruition. The rush is addictive and addiction is always self destructive.
I do not know if this applies to Eliot Spitzer, yet what we do know suggests an almost Greek tragedy to this tawdry affair, a man who has challenged the Gods and been undone by his own hubris. He was a prosecutor and knew full well how to investigate corruption; he used his skills as a pathway to the New York Governorship. Yet he made elementary errors that pointed, like a red beacon, directly at himself. How could he have made such errors? It never (consciously) occurred to him he could get caught. He was smarter and better than mere mortal men. He crushed the peons who stood in his way. He was elected with 70% of the vote. He was wealthy beyond most people's dreams. He was loved by the masses for destroying the evil capitalists. (This is New York state after all.) Yet in one year he has destroyed his governorship and now has likely ruined his life.
The downfall of Eliot Spitzer is an obvious occasion for Schadenfreude. He was often mean spirited and used his powers as Attorney General as a bludgeon to threaten people with prosecution if they ran afoul of his temper or ego. He was unpleasant to people who he could use to advance his political ambitions. Yet, one does not need to be a Psychiatrist to appreciate how sad this entire affair is, not only for his wife and daughters, who he has shamed, but also for himself. Gratification with insufficient frustration escalates desire and our unbridled desires make us foolish and mad. It was all so unnecessary just as it now seems in retrospect so inevitable. We have learned so little about ourselves in the last 2500 years:
Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
Greek tragic dramatist (484 BC - 406 BC)