Should We Thank Coffee for Modern Civilization?

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Thu, Nov 27 - 9:00 am EST | 3 years ago by
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    The Good Life

    Coffee arrived in Europe in 1529, and most historians date modern history from the 1500s. Coincidence?

    As I write this, I’m happily into my second cup of the day. The stimulating effect of the caffeine will keep me going until midday, when I will likely indulge another.

    Go back to the bad old days, Before Coffee, when the most popular drinks were alcoholic. Even at breakfast, the most common drinks were wine and weak beer. The historian Tom Standage points out that water supplies near most human settlements were suspect, so drinking alcohol was often healthier than drinking water. But the high rates of alcohol consumption also meant that people spent most of their waking hours under the influence, so to speak, mellowed and inebriated to varying degrees.

    But along came coffee — and everything changed. Morning coffee drinkers began their days energized, with their senses and intellects stimulated. As a result, Europeans started to work harder and to work smarter, and the rest is history. Deep-thinking science and clever engineering took off, poets and playwrights became more creative, and even the average man and woman became more productive each day.

    Also important was the development of European coffee-house culture. The coffee houses brought people of all stripes, classes, interests, and talents together for drinking and socializing. Imagine how uncountably many business deals, philosophical debates, artistic inspirations, and travel-the-world expeditions were launched over a cup of coffee. (The Braun company site has some pictures of famous European coffee houses to add to your bucket list.)

    So a question: how far can we take this Coffee-Caused-Modernity thesis?

    To answer that question, we must turn to the Turks, because it is thanks to the militaristic and imperial ambitions of the Turks that coffee came to Europe. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman empire was expanding westward into Europe until it was halted at Vienna in 1529. (I have a suspicion that His Magnificence was so named for his truly magnificent headgear, as this image testifies.) The Turkish army was then repulsed, and when they retreated in a hurry they left behind many bags containing coffee beans.

    Enter the next hero of our story, Franz Georg Kolschitzky, a Pole who had lived in Turkey and who distinguished himself in the fight against Suleiman’s forces. Kolschitzky recognized the beans for what they were, claimed them as war booty, and launched himself as an entrepreneur in Vienna by opening its first coffee house. The brew, sometimes mixed with sugar and/or milk, was very popular with the Viennese, and coffee and coffee houses spread rapidly across Europe.

    So let us salute both Suleiman of the Magnificent Headwear and Herr Kolschitzky of the Entrepreneurial Alertness. Unintentionally in Suleiman’s case and intentionally in Koschitsky’s, those of us who worship at the altar of the bean know to whom we should direct our reverent thanks.

    But exactly how much of the benefits of modern civilization flowed from the introduction of coffee?

    We should note that the Turks had both coffee and a coffee house culture for at least a century before the Europeans did. But the Turks did not go on to develop the powerful ideas and institutions that shaped modern civilization. So coffee can’t be the only factor.

    Also worth noting are the following historical events, all of which shaped modernity and predated the arrival of coffee in 1529:

    • The energetic Portuguese had been sailing up and down the west African coast for a century: Bartholomeu Dias leads an expedition around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, Vasco da Gama reached India by 1498, and Pedro Alvares Cabral got to Brazil in 1500. And working with the Spanish, the Italian Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492 and the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan led the first voyage around the world in 1519.
    • In Germany, Martin Luther posted his 98 Theses on the Wittenberg church door in 1517, thus triggering the great unleashing of religious energy in the Reformation/Counter-Reformation battles.
    • Sometime before 1514, the Pole Nicolaus Copernicus first sketched his heliocentric model of the universe, and astronomers and mathematicians were already making more careful observations and calculation of the movements of the planets and stars.

    So by the time that coffee arrived in Europe, revolutions in world exploration, religion, and science were already underway across the continent.

    (And, we should point out, the classical Greeks, Romans, and others earlier built great civilizations with no coffee at all, hard as that may be to imagine.)

    Coffee therefore can at most get contributory credit for helping create modern civilization. The Dutch brought tea to Europe in 1610, about eighty years after coffee’s arrival, adding another stimulant to the menu. But coffee’s and tea’s physiological effects at most added force to trends that were already activated.

    In both cases, the physically-energizing effects of caffeine were enhancements to civilization’s development because feeling more energetic does not by itself determine how that energy will be directed. That depends on the a person’s beliefs and values. An energetic person can devote himself to war, to the pursuit of sexual pleasure, to religious asceticism, to discovering magic formulae in ancient texts, or to any number of pursuits. Some of those quests will lead nowhere, and some might lead to the development of modernity. So if we want a fuller explanation of the development of modern civilization, we need to ask, as we will in future columns, what new ideas and values the Europeans adopted that set them off on a different path.

    Yet amidst all of the praise of coffee, we should acknowledge that not everyone welcomed its arrival or saw it as a boon to civilization. In the interests of fairness, we should at least hear out the dissenting side. I therefore quote from the 1674 Women’s Petition Against Coffee:

    “Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.”

    And even worse:

    “The Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunuch: our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.” Yikes.

    Let’s plan to discuss those very serious matters further, ladies, at the café. I’ll buy.

    Don’t miss last week’s column: Why Power Does Not Corrupt — and It’s Character That Matters Most.

    Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at ProfessorHicks@EveryJoe.com.

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