Imagine a world not centred on reason and rationality. A world without the ideas of liberty, fraternity, tolerance, equality and constitutional government. A world devoid of the steam engine, aviation, batteries, spectacles, spinning wheels, magnetism and electricity. Imagine a world without coffee. That last statement might have caught you by surprise, seeming like a misfit, but the role of coffee and the coffeehouse culture in The Age of Enlightenment is a widely recognised fact, although one not as widely known. The age was a period of tremendous philosophical progress in Europe characterised by the rise of scientific temperament and an increasing scepticism towards the religious dogmas of the church. The ideas that emerged in this age would go on to shape the impending political revolutions in the continent and indeed the future of the entire world. However, every phenomenon needs an impulse. This sort of intellectual movement would have been impossible if the conditions had not been present and it is these conditions that eighteenth century European coffeehouses are credited with furnishing.

In the era preceding the advent of coffee in Europe, much of the continent was intoxicated throughout the day. People spent their days in alehouses drinking beer and wine, slumped in a counter-productive stupor for much of the day. Then started coming in reports of a mysterious black liquor consumed in Asia which invigorated men and kept their minds and bodies alert for long durations of time. In this liquor was to be found a stimulus to activate the brain early in the morning and keep it running through the day with no desire to sleep. Such were the first tidings of coffee that swept through Europe, presenting it as a mystical, magical, energising beverage which held the promise of increased productivity and unlimited energy.

The first coffeehouse in England was known as ‘The Angel’ and was established in Oxford around 1650. A penny would gain you admission and access to the newspapers, journals and conversations within it. Serving as points of congregation for an assemblage of eclectic minds from various walks of life, the coffeehouses soon began to serve as an excellent replacement for the alehouses that had been prevalent before them. The random uninspiring drunk talk was replaced by spirited conversations and a healthy exchange of new ideas amongst sharp minds. The coffeehouses emerged as spaces of social interaction, providing the perfect atmosphere for intellectual debate and knowledge transmission. They became a hub for learned men to discuss and propound their viewpoints on topics that included news, politics, scandals, fashion, philosophy, daily gossip, current events and philosophical debates. Stimulated by the celebrated beverage, the sharpest minds of the age churned out some of the finest ideas of the day, ideas that were to go on to transform the political landscape of the continent. Coffeehouses slowly came to be dubbed ‘Penny Universities’, an allusion to the unbridled learning that could take place in these spaces, all for the cost of one penny. Reporters soon began to make the rounds of these coffeehouses, announcing the latest news and simultaneously gathering ideas for the next day’s digest. In an age of segregation, when differences in economic and social class had precluded the mingling the various strata, coffeehouses entered the picture as egalitarian spaces where anyone could gain entry, all at the price of a penny. The ideas that emerged had a tremendous influence on the status quo in every field. Not only did they lead to the recognition of the need for rationality and scientific reasoning, they also fuelled the pioneering scientific advances of the time. It was in this age that the steam engine was invented by James Watt, man first took to the skies in the hot air balloon, the first chemical plants were set up and George Lesage invented the telegraph. The progress made in this age in the fields of botany, astronomy, physics, chemistry, economics, biology and philosophy are perhaps unparalleled even to this day.

The coffeehouse culture not only provided the ideas but also set the stage of the philosophical revolution in Europe that would go on to be called the Enlightenment. Who would have thought that a simple, delicious beverage could so profoundly affect the political and philosophical terrain of an entire continent? The ideas that emerged then still continue to hold sway across the globe, as enduring as the popularity of coffee itself…

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