When asked about stoic characters in the immensely popular NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, most fans are quick to respond it is of course the gruff, mustachioed Ron Swanson who stood as the pinnacle (or caricature) of the Stoic ideal on network TV from 2009-2015—and who continues to fight the good stoic fight on reruns and streaming services every night.
This identification shows the evolution of words in the English language—a slow but inexorable process. Nonetheless, the ideal of Stoicism is so vital as to justify some effort in preserving the word. A term initially signifying an influential, coherent philosophy—a usage which in this essay I’ll signify by capitalization, to differentiate from the more vernacular, lower-case usage—it has come to be used rather carelessly as a near-synonym of “aloof” or even “masculine.” In fact, Parks and Recreation expounds a great deal upon the teachings of Stoicism and its modern misunderstanding; but Ron here serves as more of a foil, a stand-in for what people think of when they imagine a stoic.
The real Stoic sage of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana is the less celebrated Garry Gergich. The bumbling Gergich, the butt of innumerable jokes, may seem like an odd representative of a philosophy famously expounded and embraced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—but his career, values, and, most of all, his relationship to his family and friends make him a worthy disciple of those ancient Greeks and Romans.
Stoics Are Communitarians, Not Individualists
Unlike Ron Swanson, whose radical libertarianism puts him forever at odds with the very idea of effective government, Garry Gergich is right at home in the Parks and Recreation Department. It is hard to imagine a better place for a Stoic. While in modern usage a stoic is a cold loner, Stoic writers in fact believe firmly in their responsibility to the city and its citizens. Musonius Rufus writes in the first century about this Stoic conception of human society as dependent on strong community:
“If you will agree that man’s nature most closely resembles the bee which cannot live alone (for it dies when left alone), but bends its energies to the one common task of his fellows and toils and works together with his neighbors; if this is so, and in addition you recognize that for man evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbor—with such ideas, I say, it would be each man’s duty to take thought for his own city, and to make of his home a rampart for its protection.”
The parks department of any city is an office particularly well suited for a Stoic. It is engaged with the creation of opportunities for citizens to enjoy beauty and engage in wholesome recreation.
Cicero, drawing heavily from Stoic philosophy in his work De Officiis (On Duties), writes in 44 BCE: “Fellow-citizens have much in common—forum, temple colonnades, streets, statutes, laws, courts, rights of suffrage.” A parks and recreation department creates and maintains our equivalent to fora and temples. While the typical image of a stoic might be the mountain miner living in his isolated cabin (something Ron Swanson does periodically), Rufus, Seneca, and other ancients agree that a Stoic cannot ignore the fact they are part of a community with obligations to the people around them.
Rufus in particular responds to individuals very much like Ron Swanson, who hold themselves as separate from society. Swanson’s individualism is tempered with time, but he is a useful contrast to Gergich in this regard. While Swason is eventually convinced to write a will that may benefit his stepdaughters, until that point it reads: “Upon my death, all my belongings will transfer to the man or animal that has killed me.”
Swanson here is quite clearly of the mindset Rufus rejects: “If you say that each one should look out for his own interests alone, you represent man as no different from a wolf or any other of the wildest beasts which are born, to live by violence and plunder.” For Rufus and other Stoics, an individual human differs from a wild beast in obligation to their city and family. Swanson realizes this only much later in the series, while Gergich has this understanding from the beginning.
Gergich in fact pursues three other noteworthy vocations related to the care of those things held in common with fellow citizens. As a volunteer for protagonist Leslie Knope’s city council campaign, he dedicates himself to the operation of elections and suffrage. In proffering his time, he ensures the city is governed by the individual he deems most fit to do so. Stoics frequently emphasize the importance of good governance, with Epictetus writing to lambast magistrates who were lazy or selfish, and so here we see Gergich again building up the community through his own efforts—with no thought to material gain or recognition.
Toward the end of the series, he achieves what he describes as a long-held dream: working as a notary. While his inflexibility as a notary—insisting on following every rule, no matter how trivial—is annoying to his friends, it is quite appropriate to a Stoic. As Cicero writes in De Officiis, “An upright man will never for a friend’s sake do anything in violation of his country’s interests or his oath or his sacred honor, not even if he sits as judge in a friend’s case.” Having taken an oath to uphold the standards of a professional notary, including the careful adherence to regulations, Gergich refuses to bend them.
And in the final episodes, Gergich begins one more career—as Mayor of Pawnee. He assumes the position in perhaps the only way a Stoic in good conscience can—accepting a nomination to lead in order to guide it through difficult times, rather than campaigning out of any sense of ambition.
A Man of Simple Tastes and Modest Wealth
As Mayor Gergich, again, he seems to cleave closely to the advice of the Stoics. Epictetus, in admonishing an Epicurean city leader, writes in his second-century Discourses:
“You live in a chief city: It is your duty to be a magistrate, to judge justly, to abstain from that which belongs to others; no woman ought to seem beautiful to you except your own wife, and no youth, no vessel of silver, no vessel of gold.”
Garry Gergich, so far as is revealed, governs according to these principles. He remains unfailingly loyal to his wife, Gail, and utterly uncovetous toward any luxuries besides the simple ones he enjoys at home—a glass of wine and a stack of books, or a meal with his family.
Swanson also has apparently simple tastes, and an appreciation for manual labor, another characteristic valued both by the Stoics and associated with stoicism in contemporary usage. However, in the early seasons he shows a decidedly un-Stoic regard for his personal wealth, stashing an abundant fortune in gold at various secret locations. Though he does not live lavishly, his concern about potentially losing his riches—going so far as to create “decoy” stashes of gold—indicates he has not yet managed to disconnect himself from worldly affluence.
As Seneca warns Lucilius, avoiding luxury is but the first step of detachment: “We need to look down on wealth, which is the wage of slavery. Gold and silver and everything else that clutters our prosperous homes should be discarded.”
By contrast, Gergich’s simple tastes apply as well to his life outside of work and his retirement goals. Given the chance to celebrate a dream bachelor party, Garry takes his friends to the ice cream parlor where he met his wife. His ideal vacation is to travel to Muncie, Indiana—a preference to staying near home that well aligns with Seneca’s famous aversion to travel. And his wished-for retirement (perpetually delayed by his instinct to continue serving his community) is to sit by the lake with a tall stack of books.
Here he could be directly taking advice from Seneca, who advises his friend Lucilius: “If you retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly.”
And, after 40 years on the job, Gergich attempts to retire with little fanfare, again following Seneca’s advice that “one’s retirement should neither be paraded nor concealed.” His attachment to Pawnee and the chance to improve the town continues to bring him back to work in various capacities—perhaps doing as Seneca did, who famously kept being drawn into Roman government until the Emperor Nero turned on him—but Gergich’s modest tastes and way of life never seem to change.
The Purpose of Friendship for a Stoic
It is this fundamental satisfaction with his home life and lack of notable career ambition that gives Gergich the ability to laugh off every slight and insult the show throws at him. He is not a perfect Stoic sage—at one point he does resort to dishonesty to cover up a humiliating injury—but in nearly every episode he is seen shrugging off embarrassment and scorn.
As Seneca says, “A good man . . . will endure with an unruffled spirit whatever happens to him”; when faced with misfortune or mistakes of his own making, Garry rarely lets out more than an “Oh, shoot” before getting back to the business of correcting it. This is in notable contrast to Swanson’s famous temper tantrums, triggered most frequently by the mistakes of others or a mention of his ex-wives.
In comparison to Ron’s frigid, “stoic” demeanor (punctuated by occasional explosions of anger), Garry is magnanimous to his co-workers—despite their continuous mistreatment. In Seneca’s ninth letter to Lucilius, he describes how a Stoic views friendship differently than an Epicurean. Epicurus advises his disciples to make friends because one may eventually need to rely on them, while Seneca claims that a Stoic makes friends “for the purpose of practicing friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant.”
It is abundantly clear Gergich follows the Stoic formula here—his friends are rarely there for him when he needs them, and any assistance they do render tends to be delayed by their need to laugh at his misfortunes before they offer any aid. Nonetheless, Gergich is unfailingly loyal to them and repeatedly demonstrates his “noble qualities.”
The relationship between Garry and his friends is one that a Stoic should come to expect. Epictetus, Seneca, and other philosophers of the Stoic tradition emphasize a Stoic must abandon any hope of being seen as wise in order to actually become wise. They should expect no admiration from outsiders who value status, money, or other worldly aspirations. Epictetus instructs his students in his Enchiridion: “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything.”
And, indeed, Gergich is thought foolish by most of his co-workers, at least until they glimpse his private life. He demonstrates this to good effect when his cruelest friends miss an invitation to a party he is throwing, assuming that, given the Garry they know at work, his life is going to be, in their own words, “pathetic.” Nonetheless, when they realize the party is, in fact, a delightful one, and that Garry’s family life is idyllic, they are warmly welcomed in.
This episode reveals more than simply Garry’s magnanimity toward his frankly awful friends—they were able to assume for so long that Garry’s life would be pitiful only because Garry himself was humble and unbothered by their assumptions. This trait actually becomes a running joke, Garry’s humility leading other characters to be perpetually surprised at everything from the beauty of his daughter Millicent to the size of his penis (apparently enormous). Here Gergich draws directly from Epictetus’s Enchiridion: “You will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, ‘It seemed so to him.’”
Read “It’s All A Bit Absurd”
A Stoic Sage and a Stoic-in-Training
In all these ways, Garry stands in sharp contrast to the more stereotypically stoic character, Ron Swanson. Ron’s primary character development entails learning to make friends and trust others—traits that come naturally to Garry. Moreover, Ron shows repeatedly how intensely concerned he is with what others think of him. He conceals moments that might suggest he is “soft” and has an easily injured pride.
Perhaps most detrimental, he remains unable to control his emotions regarding his ex-wives. When they (known as Tammy 1 and Tammy 2) are mentioned, Ron swears and snarls; his grudges against them are seemingly perpetual. When near his ex-wives, Ron is incapable of maintaining his own personality but is sucked into theirs, failing in the most spectacular way to keep control of his own soul. But as Ron opens up and becomes more “normal”—marrying into a healthy relationship, raising children, making close friends, and learning to let go of grudges—he comes closer to the Stoic ideal that Gergich lives from the beginning of the series.
It is perhaps appropriate that Gergich is the only main character to die in the series. In the finale, we see him celebrate a “perfect” 100-year-long life and are told he passes away peacefully in his sleep shortly thereafter. He is the only character whose death does not perturb the audience, because he is the only figure to achieve the fullness of soul that Stoicism offers.
Although his external accomplishments are impressive and come to fruition by the end, the Stoic understanding is that his calm acceptance of aging and approaching mortality are not due to anything external to himself but because he has conformed his soul with nature, living a life characterized by virtuous acts—a state of moral affairs referred to by Stoics as “Eudaimonia.” His desires have never been for wealth, recognition, or position, but instead those things which are in his own control: being an ideal father and husband, a kind friend, and a servant to his community.
Fortunately for Ron, he too seems on this path by the end of the show. We last encounter him paddling a canoe on a pristine lake, having become director of the new Pawnee National Forest. The most common interpretation of Ron’s character progression is that he gradually becomes less stoic, settling down to live a more “normal” life. In reality, he has been progressing toward the virtues Gergich has already mastered.
Swanson was never a Stoic. Nonetheless, he demonstrates some important Stoic qualities—a detachment from material luxuries and firm commitment to honesty. For example, he makes notable progress towards other virtues, such as a mastery of his temper (as the episodes go on). By the end, he has made true friends—not merely “workplace proximity acquaintances,” a result of his learned kindness and generosity.
Moreover, he has entered a healthy, equal marriage, raising his stepdaughters as well as having a baby. Rufus in particular praises this, noting that, contrary to philosophers who argue for complete solitude: “When this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.”
Finally, he has—after some convincing—taken a job caring for a National Park, and not (as with his previous city job) with the primary interest of limiting its functionality. He has, in other words, discovered a duty to his fellows, an obligation to steward those things shared by the community. That he can do so while enjoying relative peace from the crowd is a great aid for those attempting to achieve Stoic sagacity. Seneca wrote in his moral letters: “You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd.” Free from crowds, but with a close family, a few true friends, and meaningful work serving his community, Ron Swanson is at least well positioned to achieve eudaimonia.
But we need not wait until the final season to see a Stoic sage in action. From the beginning, Garry Gergich exhibits Stoic qualities for all to see, even if he does not draw attention to them. The value of a Stoic life is revealed not in Ron Swanson’s scene-stealing manliness or his reality-bending masculine skills, such as carpentry or welding—rather, Stoic virtue is manifest in the face of setbacks and difficulties. The way Garry Gergich calmly plods ahead through embarrassments and failures would discourage a typical person, but he manages to continue fulfilling his duty to family, friends, and community. This is emblematic of true Stoic virtue.
It is appropriate that this mastery goes largely unremarked, as the great Stoic writers universally warned against seeking recognition. But for those who look closely, the difference between Gergich and Swanson serves as an enlightening depiction of the difference between a truly stoic life and the hypermasculine parody that has broadly usurped the title of stoicism in modern parlance. Swanson’s character arc, meanwhile, presents the journey to Stoic improvement that is possible even for those who—at present—resemble our flawed modern notions of stoicism more than the authentic and valuable philosophy.
Matthew has worked in one-on-one education since 2010. He’s currently a tutor in economics, history, math, and English, while providing occasional online commentary.
He lives in Montana.