The French are known for their love of coffee. If you visit Paris, you’ll find coffee shops sprawling around the city. I was in Paris in mid-2018 and I found cafés in every nook and cranny of the city. There is neither a street nor a block that has no coffee shop in it.
This café culture fueled some of the greatest French intellectual achievements. From the Enlightenment period to the existentialists and recent French intellectual movements, cafés provided a sanctuary where writers, philosophers, and artists fiercely debated various ideas.
It is no surprise, therefore, to find that one of the most notable French intellectual figures absolutely loved coffee.
I am referring to Voltaire, who reportedly drank 40-50 cups of coffee a day. It is not certain whether this is the truth or a mere exaggeration. But hyperbole or not, one thing is for certain—Voltaire loved his coffee.
Who is Voltaire?
Voltaire is the nom de plume or the pen name of the distinguished seventeenth (17th) century French satirist, writer, and philosopher Francois-Marie Aroet. He used the named Voltaire after his incarceration in 1718. Voltaire is thought to be an anagram for the Latinized version of his surname—Arovet Li.
During his lifetime, Voltaire authored plays, essays, novels, and poems, the most famous of which is the satire, Candide. For his work, Voltaire became known as a towering figure of the Enlightenment period.
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Voltaire is a fierce defender of free speech, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state. He is credited (wrongly) for the oft-quoted statement “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The actual author of that quotation is Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote this quotation in her book “The Friends of Voltaire”).
Voltaire’s work influenced many writers and philosophers after him. Victor Hugo, Goethe, Diderot, Gogol, and so many other writers praised his work.
Even politicians and monarchs are not immune to Voltaire’s charm. Napoleon Bonaparte is said to be an admirer of Voltaire’s work. Even the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, read Voltaire. Later, Catherine would write letters to Voltaire and when Voltaire died, Catherine the Great bought his library. That’s how she loved Voltaire.
At present, Voltaire is a revered icon in literature and philosophy. His name has survived the vestiges of time.
Coffee during Voltaire’s time
In the seventeenth (17th) century, during Voltaire’s time, coffee was somewhat controversial. It’s not as widely accepted then as it is now. (In fact, coffee is now the second most consumed substance next to water). The debate centered mostly on whether coffee is good or bad for the health.
The opinion was divided. Some, like Louis Lemery, opined that coffee is good for the health as it fortifies the stomach and the brain. He claimed that coffee was also good for digestion. Lemery also noted the invigorating effects of coffee, citing the observation of African shepherds whose goats became more active after consuming coffee. (There is evidence that coffee was discovered by goats actually).
Others were not so generous with their assessment. They recognized the stimulating and intellectual effect of coffee but likened it to having the inverse effect of alcohol.
Voltaire’s obsession with coffee
For Voltaire, however, coffee’s intellectual effect was quite important. There’s a story that Voltaire drank his coffee as early as five in the morning and ended at three in the afternoon. But there are also accounts that he drank coffee well into the night.
Stephen G. Tallentyre (which is the pen name of Evelyn Beatrice Hall) wrote that:
He dined in Paris that night at a coffee-house, with a few other literary men. He arrived rather late. He had come straight from Versailles, and alone of the company knew what had occurred there. He made his dinner, after his frugal fashion, off seven or eight cups of black coffee and a couple of rolls, and was very talkative and amusing.”Stephen G. Tallentyre, The Life of Voltaire (1903)
Voltaire spent a substantial sum of money just for his coffee. But he didn’t drink it black. He reportedly drank it with chocolate, also a rare commodity back then. At that time, chocolate was reserved for the aristocrats. It was so luxurious that even Queen Marie Antoinette (the beheaded queen of France) had her own chocolate assistant.
Voltaire also had a favorite coffee shop known as Café Procope. This café was known as the home of Encyclopedistes. Aside from intellectuals and gossip mongers, this café has once been visited by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (whose love for coffee is also well known), and John Paul Jones when they were in Paris.
Voltaire’s friend, one Madame Suard, once wrote in a letter that Voltaire was always in a good mood after drinking his coffee (I think most of us can relate).
Voltaire’s addiction to coffee led his doctor to warn him that coffee will affect his health adversely. But Voltaire lived up to 83, even claiming that he had been poisoning his body with coffee for decades. He really drank coffee until the day he died.
It is hard to believe that Voltaire actually drank 40 to 50 cups of coffee a day (unless the cups were really small). That would mean drinking coffee 2 to 3 cups an hour. I cannot imagine the palpitations he would have experienced if he indeed drank such copious amounts of coffee. Indeed, even for plain water, it’s hard to consume 40 to 50 cups of it in one day.
What is certain though is that he loved coffee, even going through the pains of importing such expensive commodity. And we can be sure as well that coffee helped Voltaire write the literary and philosophical works for which he is now well known and revered.
And the same is true for most of us. Coffee is the fuel that keeps our brain running. I guess if someone does question our love and need for coffee, we can always point to Voltaire and claim that if coffee helped him bring forth revolutionary ideas into the world, coffee can also help us power through our day.
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