In the inaugural address for Pope Benedict’s new cycle of catecheses about St. Paul, the Holy Father calls particular attention to the Stoics and their influence on first century culture.

We must recall in particular the Stoic philosophy, which prevailed in Paul’s time and also influenced, though marginally, Christianity. In this connection, we cannot but mention the names of Stoic philosophers, such as the initiators Zeno and Cleanthes, and then those chronologically closer to Paul, such as Seneca, Musonius and Epictetus. Found in them are very lofty values of humanity and wisdom, which were naturally received in Christianity. As a scholar on the subject writes masterfully, “Stoicism … proclaimed a new ideal, which imposed on man duties toward his fellowmen, but at the same time freed him from all physical and national ties and made him a purely spiritual being” (M. Pohlenz, La Stoa, I, Florence 2, 1978, pp. 565ff).

Who were the Stoics and what were there beliefs? The old Catholic Encyclopedia breaks them down into three groups spanning around 700 years. The third of these, lasting until the fifth century, would have been prevalent during Paul’s era. By this time Stoicism was “ethical and didactic.” Unlike during earlier periods, “[s]cience is no longer the knowledge of nature, but a kind of theological summa of moral and religious sentiments.”

A U.K. group called “Early Church” has a short entry about the Stoics that concludes with the following comparison: “Despite their differences, Stoic and Christian ideas of creation both were agreed on one matter: the universe did not come about by chance. As Cicero’s Stoic declares: ‘Nothing that is without mind can generate that which possesses mind.'”

You can read more about the Stoics at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Stoicism was one of the new philosophical movements of the Hellenistic period. The name derives from the porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens decorated with mural paintings, where the members of the school congregated, and their lectures were held. Unlike ‘epicurean,’ the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins. The Stoics did, in fact, hold that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage—a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection—would not undergo them. The later Stoics of Roman Imperial times, Seneca and Epictetus, emphasise the doctrines (already central to the early Stoics’ teachings) that the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Our phrase ‘stoic calm’ perhaps encapsulates the general drift of these claims. It does not, however, hint at the even more radical ethical views which the Stoics defended, e.g. that only the sage is free while all others are slaves, or that all those who are morally vicious are equally so. Though it seems clear that some Stoics took a kind of perverse joy in advocating views which seem so at odds with common sense, they did not do so simply to shock. Stoic ethics achieves a certain plausibility within the context of their physical theory and psychology, and within the framework of Greek ethical theory as that was handed down to them from Plato and Aristotle. It seems that they were well aware of the mutually interdependent nature of their philosophical views, likening philosophy itself to a living animal in which logic is bones and sinews; ethics and physics, the flesh and the soul respectively (another version reverses this assignment, making ethics the soul). Their views in logic and physics are no less distinctive and interesting than those in ethics itself.