14.02.16, Beckwith, Warriors of the Cloisters

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Alex Novikoff

The Medieval Review 14.02.16

Beckwith, Christopher I.. Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 211. ISBN: 9780691155319.

Reviewed by:

Alex Novikoff
Fordham University

The title of this book is peculiar and misleading. The volume deals not with monasticism or any socio-religious aspect of the cenobitic life in the East or West, nor does it concern warriors of a physical or metaphorical kind that medievalists are likely to recognize (such as, for example, the milites Christi), and nor does it present any substantively new information in the history of science traditionally defined. The cloistered warriors in question are the pacifist Buddhist monks of Central Asia (whose social environment is never explained) and who sinologist Christopher Beckwith claims were the first to develop what he calls recursion, the systematic method of listing arguments, sub-arguments, and counter-arguments in pursuit of the truth. According to Beckwith, this intellectual approach not only lies at the heart of the scientific method (a point I am inclined to agree with), but it was transmitted to the West from Central Asia via the Islamic colleges (madrasas) of classical Arabic civilization, which developed no scientific culture of its own. Modern science as we know it thus stems directly from the Buddhist monks of ancient Central Asia. If such a theory were even remotely provable, it would present a major reorientation to the consensus view of the Greco-Arabic foundations of the Western scientific tradition. If overhyped, as revisionist arguments of this sort often are, then one would do well to recall the historical fallacy Marc Bloch labeled the "idol of origins," by which Bloch meant not simply the tendency to explain the present in terms of the remote past, but more specifically the danger inherent in attempting to identify a finite beginning that can serve as a complete and unifying explanation of the whole. [1]

It was George Makdisi who in the 1970s and 1980s famously advanced the thesis that the medieval Islamic college pioneered a method of argumentation, the scholastic method, which was borrowed and later made famous in the universities of medieval Europe. As Beckwith rightly notes, scholars have by and large not been persuaded by Makdisi's argument. What is unsaid is that this has not been out of ignorance of Western Europe's profound debt to the philosophy and science of the Islamic world, which has become a thriving field of scholarship and an even fashionable topic of general discussion. [2] Rather, it was the lack of any direct causal connection between two vastly different institutional environments, whose intellectual parentage in any case each owed much to ancient sources, and the fact more generally that Christian and Muslim teaching methods become meaningless when divorced from their cultural context. Also unmentioned is the important fact that Makdisi was careful to distinguish between Islamic colleges, which were physical structures, and medieval universities, which were self-governing corporations that existed independently of their cloistered surroundings.

Throwing caution to the wind, Beckwith boldly introduces a one-up of Makdisi's argument, claiming that scholars of Islamic civilization remain in the dark about the Central Asian origins of the madrasa and further suggesting that scholars of Western Europe have misconstrued the origins and true essence of science. In Beckwith's estimation, the original, native home of the recursive argument method and the college was not in the Western or Islamic world at all, but in Central Asia. Furthermore, "these two constituent elements...never became crucially important to Classical Arabic science," but when they were introduced to medieval Latin culture they became "responsible for the development of the world's first full scientific culture. It is this culture that led eventually to the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, the direct forerunner of modern science" (8). Much of the remainder of the book is a tendentious and repetitious attempt to downplay the genesis of scholasticism in medieval Europe, which is subjected to brutal oversimplification, and to minimize the original contributions of Islamic science in order to prove this East-West connection.

Beckwith is a specialist in Tibetan language and culture and is the author of a well-received general survey of Eurasian history. The one informative element of this book is an exposition of several interesting texts from ancient Tibet that show a commitment to the method of listing arguments and disputing the points that they contain within the sub-arguments that follow. Had he decided to give a full analysis of these texts and their social context, this book might have made a productive contribution by showing that Buddhist monks were no less capable of disputative argumentation than their Islamic and Western counterparts, and consequently ought not to be marginalized as an exotic sideshow in the global history of rational inquiry. Instead, so fixated is Beckwith by the idea that modern science owes its teleological origins to Central Asia (and only to Central Asia), that all other aspects of ancient, Islamic, and Western medieval history are conveniently distorted to fit his agenda. This includes a complete dismissal of every form of argumentative discourse before the late twelfth century, which is when he claims recursion was first "transmitted" to Europe via the Latin translations of Avicenna's De Anima. What the mechanism for transmission might have been is never explained. Equally obscure is how Avicenna acquired the recursive argument method in the first place. Untroubled by the fact that "the only problem is the lack of sources on its transmission from the Buddhists to the Muslims," Beckwith resorts to the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Since Avicenna's father was from Balkh, "the greatest Buddhist center of Western Central Asia before Islam," it therefore follows that he must have "learned a local intellectual tradition, understood its usefulness, and adopted it for his own works" (87-91). Beckwith is visibly hostile to conceding any aspect of Islamic civilization to the history of scientific inquiry, to wit "most of the greatest scientists of Classical Arabic civilization were Central Asians" (136). Avicenna, for instance, is repeatedly referred to as "a Central Asian scientist and philosopher."

Provocative, sarcastic, and many outrageous statements mar the seriousness of Beckwith's presentation. "The [ancient] Greeks had no overt, rigorously systematic method of formal analysis" (124); "The Byzantine Greeks became more and more rigidly religious. They rejected Aristotle and other ancients, and increasingly lost what little science and technology they had retained from antiquity...Byzantine culture stagnated and eventually disappeared" (136); "There is nothing specifically Arab or Islamic about Classical Arabic science" (121); "The reason such a 'scientific culture complex' developed uniquely in Western Europe has remained unclear" (ibid); "Western Europeans welcomed with open arms what became a flood of literature by philosopher scientists with the exotic Latin names Alfarabius, Algorithmus, Alhazen, Alkindius, Avicenna, Averroes, and many others" (107). "It must be pointed out that in ancient and medieval history, the gaps far outweigh the bits filled in with explicit accounts of anything. This seems not to be understood by many historians today" (91); "Many historians are aware of Renaissance humanists' attempts at manuscript edition, but few, perhaps, are aware of the later development of the science of critical text edition" (156). Beckwith systematically ignores or repudiates any scholarship that stands in the way of his argument, while cherry picking his favorite quotes on the importance of medieval science from Edward Grant's History of Natural Philosophy (2007), whose excellent work does not deserve to be cited in this fashion. The conclusion ends with a bizarre indictment against scholarship in the modern world and a hope for a "revival someday" of the "precise, logical thinking" of medieval scholars (165).

The treatment of Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is sensationally flawed. After trampling roughshod over such well-studied figures as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Robert of Courçon, and Peter of Poitiers in order to show that they copied their argumentative methods willy-nilly from Avicenna, Beckwith then attempts to reinvent the "origins" of the medieval university on the basis of a single, minor document contained in Heinrich Denifle's Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis (1899). The so-called College des Dix-huit, whose charter is one paragraph long and has never been considered anything more than a minor affair in the long evolution of the University of Paris, is here presented as "uncontested" proof that the first college in Europe was established in exactly 1180. Among the signatories of the charter is one Jocius who had just returned from Jerusalem, and "because Jerusalem is located inland, Jocius had necessarily spent time in the Islamic Near East--undoubtedly in Syria, which was one of the main destinations of merchants and pilgrims alike. There he must have encountered the local small type of madrasa on which he modeled the identical institution he founded in Paris, Europe's first college. The Near Eastern origin of the Western European college could hardly be clearer" (40). These and many other staggering leaps of faith are typical of Beckwith's decidedly unscientific approach to establishing cross-cultural connections and firm chronology. Of the innumerable scholarly works by historians of medieval Europe that Beckwith has not consulted, he might profitably have started with Marc Bloch.

Warriors of the Cloisters does a scholarly disservice to several relevant fields at once: to Western medieval history by grossly distorting the basic facts of scholasticism, to Islamic science by casting the Near East as an unoriginal and unwitting transmitter of a foreign invention, to Central Asia by implying that its inherent value lies solely in what it bequeathed to the West, and to the history of science by renaming and reifying "science" and then divorcing it from the content of its inquiries. Cross-cultural and comparative intellectual history is a valuable enterprise and surely ought to be practiced, but not by praying to the idol of origins in a never-ending contest of who got there first. In sum, the title of this book is highly misleading, the subtitle is vastly overstated, and the image chosen for the cover (a Renaissance Italian painting of Saint Stephen arguing with the rabbis) has in fact absolutely nothing to do with Beckwith's controversial thesis. Colorful and evocative as the dust jacket may be, I am instead reminded of a genuine piece of Tibetan wisdom: Much in the window, but nothing in the room.



1. Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Knopf, 1953), 29-35.

2. Leading practitioners in this field include Charles Burnett, David King, A. I. Sabra, George Saliba, Julio Samsó, as well as many others. For popular accounts, see Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (Orlando: Harcourt, 2003); and Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

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Alex Novikoff

Fordham University