Caffeine and the Age of Enlightenment

Was caffeine the fuel that enlightened the European Age of Reason (17th–18th centuries) after the alcohol-fueled haze of the Dark Ages? Christopher Columbus’ 1502 encounter with a Mayan trading canoe in the New World led to the introduction of cocoa into Europe on a large scale. Tea arrived in Portugal, and coffee through Italy, in mass scales later in the century. The coffee bean, tea leaf, cocoa bean, and kola nut are naturally bitter, but the lure of their psychoactive properties encouraged their recombination with fat (often milk) and sugar to render more palatable foods and drinks such as coffee and chocolate. To trace the introduction of psycho-stimulants such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar into Europeans is to trace the history of colonialism and imperialism. I don’t remember this being mentioned in history class.

Without the six pots of coffee a day that filled his mental tank, would the world today still remember Voltaire (1694–1778), a key figure of the French Enlightenment who anchored the greater European Enlightenment?

Further reflection on the subject may be warranted, perhaps with a Diet Coke in hand.

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute on January 2012.