How Coffee Caused the Enlightenment

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I am taking a break from my new role as Jeremy Lin’s unpaid PR assistant (can you believe last night’s victory?!) to blog on two topics I enjoy: the Enlightenment and coffee.  That’s right.  Steven Berlin Johnson, a popular scientist and author of The Invention of Air (Riverhead, 2008), suggested a few years back that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was fueled or driven by coffee.  I’m sure that I would disagree with Johnson on many fronts, but I found his presentation interesting, not least because I myself would love to start a salon and think philosophical thoughts over coffee.  To watch a longer talk by Johnson, go here.

It might be interesting to some that I’m posting on the Enlightenment because it is largely responsible for the rise of skepticism in western culture.  Though I’m aware of that, I’m also interested as a young historian in the spread of ideas both bad and good.  This is part of why I so enjoy both the Reformation (good ideas–sola Scriptura and sola fide, to name just two) and the Enlightenment (many bad ideas promoted by brilliant and interesting personalities).

I’ve been reading Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company (Basic, 2010) and very much enjoying the sketches of the philosophes while at the same time quarreling with Blom’s strong anti-Christian bent.  It’s good to read books like this, though, to stretch one’s mind, test one’s apologetic muscles, and learn a bit more about how influential coffee (and just a bit of wine) was in the development of modernity.

 

  • http://standingonshoulders.net Adam B. Embry

    Hey O – Good stuff! John Coffey (no pun intended, btw) writes about the “proliferation of coffeehouses” in England during the later 1600s. Based on Steve Pincus’s study, Coffey describes that “People met [in coffee houses] to read newspapers and discuss politics, and High Church Anglicans associated coffeehouses with Puritanism and republicanism; one declared that ‘a coffee-house is a lay conventicle, good-fellowsip turn’d Puritan.’”

    -John Coffey, Persecution and Toleraion in Protestant England, 1558-1689 (Essex: Pearson Education, 2000), 181.

    -Steven Pincus, “‘Coffee politicians does create’: coffeehouses and Restoration political culture”, in Journal of Modern History 67 (1995): 834.


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