During the American Revolution—as in any war—the British quite rightly targeted the estates and the landholdings of the leadership on the American side. Because to them, these men weren’t founders—they were instigators. At one point in the war, George Washington’s estate was threatened by advancing troops. Thinking he might be able to save his boss’s property, one of Washington’s overseers rushed out to try to convince the enemy to spare them.
When Washington heard about this, he was not pleased. In fact, he wrote immediately to his staff: I’d rather my home be demolished than receive special treatment. Given our selfish and corrupt modern politics, it’s a remarkable sentiment. Here was a rich, powerful person turning down a favor, not only refusing to profit from his position but actually willingly accepting a potentially massive sacrifice because of it.
Why? Because it was the right thing to do. And as Marcus Aurelius said, that’s all that matters.
The Stoics, were, as far as we know, similarly inclined as leaders. When Rome’s finances were in ruins, Marcus Aurelius sold off the treasures of the imperial palace to shore them up. He could have levied high taxes, he could have invaded another country—he could have used his power so that others suffered instead of his family, but he didn’t. Because that would have been unfair. James Stockdale and John McCain turned down special treatment as prisoners of war in Vietnam. They must have ached for even the slightest relief. They were desperate to get home. But they refused to abandon their duty—they would not undermine their country or deprive their fellow prisoners.
This is not to say that a Stoic must decline every perk in life. Or that you can’t be compensated for your work or your success. However, we must always consider whether these perks come at the expense of somebody else, or if our special treatment means neglect elsewhere. What if everyone took advantage of their position? How would the world work? How fair would that be?
We must always do the right thing…even if it comes at great cost.