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Coffee & The Age of Reason (17th Century)

Coffee & The Age of Reason (17th Century)

Sir Francis Bacon was knighted at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century. He began his professional life as a lawyer, but became best known a leader of the Scientific Revolution in Seventeenth Century Europe. This new philosophy established and popularized an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, drawing knowledge from the natural world through experimentation, observation, and testing of hypotheses.

Bacon led the denunciation of the influence of the Ancient Greek philosophers; he wanted to demolish the edifice of human knowledge, and rebuild it from the beginning on a new, more solid foundation in which everything was challenged and nothing was assumed. The religious wars of the Restoration had cleared the way for this revolution, in part by diminishing the authority of the Church, especially in Northern Europe. In England, a new nationalism flourished.

The spread of this new nationalism throughout Europe was accompanied by the spread of a new drink, coffee. Coffee promoted sharpness and clarity of thought. It became the preferred drink of scientists, intellectuals, and businessmen. It helped them to better regulate their working day; first by waking them up in the morning, then by keeping them alert throughout the day, and if needed, by extending the work-day late into the evening.

Coffee was served in calm, sober, and respectable establishments that promoted polite behavior and discussion. These establishments - the earliest coffee shops - provided forums for education, debate, and self-improvement. The impact of coffee was especially profound, since at that time, the common beverages were ale, beer, and wine. These were drunk even at breakfast, because they were far safer to drink than water, which was usually contaminated in most cities.

Coffee was made using boiling water, and was therefore safe to drink. It provided a new alternative to alcoholic drinks. Those who drank coffee at breakfast (instead of beer) began their day alert and stimulated, rather than "relaxed" (if not a little inebriated), and the quality of their work and thinking improved dramatically. Coffee was heralded as:

That Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
That heals the stomach, makes the genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
And cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.

Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic torpor that had lasted for centuries. And the novelty of coffee further contributed to its appeal. It was a drink that had been unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Drinking it was yet another way that Seventeenth Century thinkers could show that they had moved beyond the limits of the ancient world.

Coffee was the great soberer. Coffee was a manifestation of modernity and progress. Coffee became a symbol of intellectualism, and indeed, the ideal beverage for the new Age of Reason.

(See A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage.)

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers