Commentators are already calling the rise and fall of New York governor Eliot Spitzer “tragic.” The tragic arc, as the old Greeks articulated it, goes something like this: talent and drive lead to success, but success breeds arrogance and blindness to one’s human limits. Then comes the fall from power, engineered by the gods to teach mortals once again that even the mightiest and most brilliant of us are in the end defined by our common flaws. But the fall has something grand about it: in Sophocles, for example, Oedipus’s angry pursuit of knowledge about his horrific crimes is admirable, too, for it ultimately saves his city from a devastating plague. His excesses also come to some good by illustrating Aeschylus’s dictum that “suffering teaches”—teaches that for all of our abilities and achievements, we are still mortals subject to time, chance, and our own chaotic passions.
Like most scandals that bring down modern American politicians, however, Spitzer’s lacks the grandeur of tragedy. True, his talent and ambition, like Oedipus’s, led him to significant public achievements and fame. As the “sheriff of Wall Street,” he relentlessly pursued alleged financial evildoers, earning along the way a reputation for toughness and results that swept him into the governorship. And also like Oedipus, he overreached because of hubristic arrogance and self-righteousness—“Listen, I’m a fucking steamroller and I’ll roll over you or anybody else,” he once warned Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco. Even before his current troubles, he had been wounded by allegations that his staff ordered state police to track Republican State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s travel records, in an effort to damage him politically.
Yet Spitzer’s downfall—sordid trysts with high-priced prostitutes, complete with grubby financial hijinks to cover up his deeds—is ultimately the stuff of low comedy and satire. For insight into the departing governor’s troubles, then, we’d be better off looking to the Greek comic poet Aristophanes, who uses sexual crimes and excesses to dramatize his characters’ inability to subordinate the body to the mind and do what is in the public interest. Like Aristotle, Aristophanes saw politics as “public virtue.” And the paramount virtue is self-control: the ability to resist one’s appetites for a higher good. The politician who gives in to appetite—especially sex—is unfit to rule, for his failure to control himself shows that he is a slave to his passions. Once such people obtain political power, like the Sausage-Seller in The Knights or Bdelykleon in The Wasps, they use it to indulge themselves at the expense of the community. How can we trust such people with political power and responsibility, Aristophanes asks, when they will sacrifice even their own honor and reputation for the sake of more immediate pleasures?
Do Americans really care any more about sexual indiscretions among our public officials? Sometimes we seem to have severed the link between political power and virtue. Many now see virtue as belonging solely to the private realm, and we’ve tended to reduce political power to questions of technique and policy—as if knowing the name of the prime minister of Kazakhstan qualifies one for political leadership. It’s easy to imagine Spitzer’s ending up as neither a tragic nor a comic figure, but rather a therapeutic one: hawking his tell-all bestseller on Oprah after a suitably groveling public apology, while the audience experiences neither pity nor fear, nor even scornful laughter, just the tears of cheap sentiment.