Posted in Kafevend Blog

After looking at Johann Sebastian Bach and his coffee cantata last week, we here at the Kafevend blog thought it would be good to carry on looking at those famous individuals who hankered after a cup- or several, in this case- of coffee. Today we are examining the life of the philosopher Voltaire, a Frenchman who lived from 1694 to 1778 during the Age of Enlightenment.


François-Marie Arouet, who was to become known as Voltaire, was born in Paris to a rather well off family. After leaving school he decided he wanted to become a writer, much to the chagrin of his lawyer father who wanted him to follow in his own footsteps. Voltaire worked in various jobs found for him by his father and at one point was sent to study law, but throughout all of these he stuck to his guns and began writing poetry, essays and historical studies. He was forced to move back to Paris after his father prevented him from marrying a Protestant refugee which would have resulted in scandal. Back at home, he came to blows with the authorities several times due to his criticism of the establishment and acerbic satire. One such encounter in 1726 led to his exile to Britain.


Voltaire's time in exile here in the UK had a big effect on the way he thought. At the time Britain was ruled by a constitutional monarchy, a system which limits the power of the monarch. Whilst it was no democratic utopia, it was a fairer system than the absolute monarchy back home in France which he had fallen foul of, thus resulting in his exile. Thanks in part to his experience in Britain, Voltaire became an advocate of human rights, particularly the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and also the separation of the church and state


During his lifetime, Voltaire was a prolific writer, penning thousands upon thousands of letters, books and pamphlets. Perhaps his most famous work is the novella called 'Candide, ou l'Optimisme'. It was a satirical piece, mainly attacking the ideas of an earlier philosopher named Leibniz and his stance of optimistic determinism. The book follows the character Candide who begins living a sheltered life in a place akin to Eden. Candide leaves this life and after witnessing the many hardships found in the real world, becomes disillusioned with the view that "everything that happens is for the best". Voltaire finishes by saying "we must cultivate our own garden"- there are many interpretations, but a simple one in the context of the book would be that we need to be responsible for our lives, and not rely on potentially destructive blind optimism.


We might well wonder how Voltaire managed to fuel such a wealth of philosophical thinking and this is where coffee comes in. Following coffee's introduction to Europe, it had served as an inspirational aid for many thinkers and Voltaire was no exception. He was reputed to have drunk in excess of fifty cups a day. Whilst it seems a given that he was a big fan, it's unlikely he had quite that much- he wouldn't have had much time left in the day to write, and when he did  it would have been quite jittery! Despite his doctor warning him about the potential harm his beloved brew could do to him, Voltaire lived to the ripe old age of 83, going down in history as one of the great minds of the Enlightenment.

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