Cicero and Cato both refused to take bribes, despite how widespread the practice was for politicians at the time. Cato refused to be enriched by his office in any form, even though that was even more common. Marcus Aurelius refused inheritances that were offered to him, much the same way.
Although they never gave us their exact reasons, it’s pretty easy to deduce. Because corruption is a betrayal of the public trust. Even if it weren’t, Marcus and Cato would likely have declined all the same. Why? Because to accept the money would have been to sacrifice their autonomy. They lived along the same principle so brilliantly expressed, thousands of years later, by the photographer Bill Cunningham: “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
Just look at Seneca. While there is no evidence he took outright bribes, he did accept a paycheck from Nero. He accepted piles and piles of gifts. He couldn’t see that Nero was slowly buying him, trapping him in a gilded cage. Seneca’s fortune grew—soon, he was the second richest man in Rome—but his control over his own life diminished. He was tied up in Nero’s misdeeds; he was at the mercy of his whims. When Seneca tried to walk away, Nero said, “Nope.” When Seneca tried to give all the money back, he learned that’s not how it works. Nero called the tune now. Nero owned him.
To a Stoic, that was a form of death (indeed, Seneca died not long after this, at Nero’s hand). Blood money comes at the cost of your soul. Bribes and corruption are not just wrong; they’re dangerous. It’s corrosive. There are always strings attached, whether the money comes in the form of a salary or an envelope of cash slid under a table. Let Seneca be an example of that. Let Cato be an inspiration.
But most of all, remember what Bill Cunningham said: If they pay you, they get to tell you what to do. Remember: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”
P.S. This was originally sent on February 17, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.