A Scythian Origin of Philosophy? Christopher Beckwith’s Scytho-Centric Interpretation of Eurasian History
Christopher Beckwith is, in my opinion, the most interesting world historian of our time. He is prolific, deeply erudite, and extraordinarily audacious. Although not necessarily convincing, his more outlandish claims are always thought-provoking. In his most recent book, The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China (Princeton University Press, 2023) Beckwith outdoes himself in propounding a Scytho-centric interpretation of Eurasia in the early period of classical antiquity (circa 700-300 BCE).
The Scythians were probably the first people to master cavalry warfare, which they developed sometime after the year 1000 BCE. Chariots had been used for almost a millennium, but mounted archery was new. This innovation allowed the Scythians to expand rapidly and gain immense military power and wealth. Beckwith argues that the Scythians united the entire steppe zone, something that had never happened before and would only happen in the future on two other occasions (by the Göktürks in sixth century and by the Mongols in the thirteenth). Scythian influence, he further claims, was instrumental in the creation of the Median and Persian empires, and led to the emergence of the first powerful states in China. Beckwith also thinks that the Scythians developed the idea of universal empire, which they bequeathed to other pastoral peoples and ultimately to all of Eurasia. Like all steppe peoples, he argues, the Scythians did everything that they could to facilitate trade, helping their rulers accumulate vast amounts of wealth.
Beckwith credits the Scythians not only with pivotal political and economic innovations, but also with key intellectual developments. He links the very idea of monotheism to the Scythians. His most audacious arguments concern the supposed Scythian origin of speculative philosophy, which he uses to explain the emergence of the so-called Axial Age of universalizing thought in early classical Eurasia. His interpretations here are pointed enough to deserve extended quotation:
Could philosophy be a Scythian invention too? The first part of this chapter shows that the Greeks, Persians, Indians, and Chinese were each taught by an early Scythian philosopher and thus experienced Scythian philosophy first-hand at about the same time, before there is any other sign of Philosophy per se in the lands where they taught. …
The first great philosophers of Greece, China, India, Iran, and Scythia, who flourished between approximately 600 and 400 BC, were revolutionaries. They did something entirely new and unprecedented: all of them criticized and rejected the traditional beliefs and practices of the countries where they taught. Each one was arguably his adoptive culture’s earliest philosopher – in this strict modern sense of the world – with the addition that in Antiquity philosophers were expected to practice their philosophy. Chronologically, they are:
Anacharsis the Scythian, a half-Greek Scythian who taught in Greece.
Zoroaster, a Scythian speaker who taught in the Scytho-Mede Empire.
Gautama the Scythian sage (Gautama Sakyamuni) who taught in northern India. [The Buddha, in other words]
Gautama (Lao-Tan, Laotzu) who bears a Scythian name and taught in early China. [The founder of Taoism].
(Beckwith 2023, Pages 234-235)
On the surface, this has the look of a crank theory of the kind turned out by enthusiastic but inadequately educated amateurs. But as Beckwith is extraordinarily learned, these ideas need to be taken seriously. Yet no matter how I look at them, they still seems severely strained. Consider, for example, the origin of Greek philosophy. Anacharsis, the half-Greek, half-Scythian gadfly of sixth-century BCE Athens, was widely reckoned as one of the “seven sages” of ancient Greece, but he did not establish a school of philosophy. Philosophy as a focused discipline, moreover, emerged in the Greek city of Miletus, not Athens.
It is possible, however, that there was a Scythian connection with the so-called Ionian Enlightenment of sixth-century Miletus. But before delving into this issue, I must first admit that I am not an expert in this fields, and as a result my own speculations here are rather amateurish. It is also possible that other scholars have come up with similar ideas; if so, I must apologize for not citing them.
To put it simply, I think it is possible if not likely that the first Greek philosophers were inspired to think about the nature of existence by their encounter with Scythian beliefs. Their city, Miletus, was deeply involved in Black Sea colonization and trade, and had extensive mercantile connections with the trade-oriented Scythians. As is generally accepted, the pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers sought above all else to explain nature by identifying its fundamental element, or arche. For Thales, often regarded as the first Greek philosopher, the arche was water, whereas for Anaximenes it was air and for Anaximander it was the “unlimited primordial mass” (apeiron). The Scythians, it turns out, had very firm ideas of their own about this issue.
Scythian religion evidently focused on the idea that fire is the source of all creation, and therefore forms the fundamental substance of the universe. Whereas most ancient Indo-European peoples placed a sky god at the top of their pantheon, the Scythians worshipped above all others a goddess of the hearth, Tabiti. Elements of ancient Scythian fire worship arguably survive in the Zoroastrian faith, which still maintains 167 Fire Temples. They can even be found today in Iran in the secular observances of Chaharshanbeh Suri carried out by on Nowruz (Iranian New Year), which entail jumping over bonfires.
It is not possible to fully understand how the first Greek philosophers derived and framed their ideas about the nature of existence, as their writings survive only in fragments preserved by later Greek thinkers. But it does seem possible that curious Ionian thinkers were taken aback by the Scythian insistence that fire is the fundamental principle of the universe. This oddity may have led Thales and Anaximenes to propose a different element (water or air, respectively), and for an Anaximander to imagine something deeper than any of four of the classical elements (earth, water, air, and fire). Such speculation could have led to further basic inquiry, giving rise to philosophy as a sustained intellectual pursuit. I also find it highly significant that the earliest Ionian philosophers were also deeply invested in geography, which led them to think seriously about the Scythians, the powerful and wealthy people who inhabited the northernmost reaches of their (known) world, and whose practices and beliefs differed so markedly from those of the Greeks.