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The metaphysics and politics of coffee

My coffee has gone cold and so now I must contemplate the entire universe

Every time you make yourself a cup of coffee, maybe while standing nearly lifeless (or half dead) in front of that coffee pot on a particularly dismal Monday morning, it is not difficult to take it for granted that the coffee is there. It’s so obviously there, so how could it be otherwise? But in its thereness, the metaphysical question of being applies. Being is. But, how come? However, maybe that coffee is not so very obvious after all. All effects obscure their causes, although, yes, sometimes causes obscure their effects. The truth is, we get used to things, and when we do it gets easier to take them for granted, without gratitude.

I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway, that coffee is a popular drink. Every year, close to two and a half billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, and at least half of those are by my brother-in-law. But this wasn’t always the case, especially before my brother-in-law turned five. If history had worked out a little differently, maybe we’d all be obsessed with something else entirely, like, say, mint tea. At one point in history, coffee was thought of as a “bitter invention of Satan.” It was shunned in the West because no one wants to end up demonically possessed by a beverage.

Legend has it that coffee was discovered around the year 850 A. D. by a poetically inclined Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. Kaldi saw that his goats would all gravitate towards a kind of cherry tree and that, after eating its berries, the goats would be noticeably more energetic. Kaldi tried the cherries himself and he felt just heck-gosh-darn-it marvellous. Poetry flowed out of him and his eyes widened to a world of wonders in a new way. He began waxing Heideggerian about how man is not the lord of being but the shepherd of being, and that was long before Heidegger showed up to confuse philosophy undergraduates.

Kaldi brought the cherries to an Islamic monastery where its devout dwellers experimented until the first form of coffee came into existence. As you would expect, when a miracle is discovered, the popularity of coffee spread quickly in the Middle East. Not everyone was a fan but, in general, coffee began to trend. When the West caught a whiff of the stuff, this ambivalent stance towards it continued. A mix of fascination and terror. The criticism seemed to outweigh praise until Pope Clement the 8th tried coffee and said these great words: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

Well, thank Clement for that. But all of this brings me to the horrible realisation I had today that my coffee had cooled down while I was reflecting on the history of coffee. I realised, as that cold coffee touched my lips and as I shuddered at the brutality of that experience, that we are often so busy getting caught in the vortex of the twenty-four-hour news cycle or the details of the history of some or other beverage, that we forget that just by contemplating coffee long enough, we might end up proving the existence of God and better understanding something of modern politics. It’s easier to do so, in fact, when you notice how your coffee changes. So, let’s contemplate change for a moment, shall we? We’ll get to the theology and politics of it in a moment.

Everything changes, you know. Things that are once were not, and will one day not be again. You and I are included in this, I’m afraid. And change can happen in different ways. Filling my cup: a quantitative change. Spilling my coffee: a location change. Coffee cooling down: qualitative change. Digesting the coffee: substantial change to the coffee and, although this is debatable, to me. Change would occur even if we lived in a simulation and, for that reason, it would need to be explained.

If I were drinking my coffee with Aristotle or St. Thomas, they would remind me that change involves the actualisation of a potential. It involves making real what could be real. Coffee has the potential to get cold. I can heat it up again, too, but I’m too busy writing this thing to do that. All created beings are a mixture of actuality and potentiality and these facets of being interact with each other. They interactualise. For a potential to be made real, something that possesses a certain actualising power has to impart that actuality to what doesn’t have it, as when the temperature of the room cools the coffee down. Everything needs a real changer for change to happen.

Now, to make this very straightforward fact more interesting, let’s think of an isolated moment in the life of some coffee. The coffee is on my desk, next to me. It is approximately three feet off the ground because of the desk. And the desk is approximately three metres from the ground because my house is on the first floor of a block of flats, and the block of flats is supported by a foundation, which is supported by the ground, under which is the turbulence and tormenting heat of lava, and so on. I’m thinking vertically here about the fact that the coffee is where it is in space and not just in time because it is dependent on other things which are dependent on other things, which are dependent on yet other things. And so on. The coffee has no power on its own to be where it is. The coffee can only be where it is because it depends on the desk, and the desk can only be where it is because it depends on the floor.

I mention this more vertical way of thinking, from cup to table to floor to building to foundation to ground, and so on, because I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that we require something like an initial starting point, like a big bang, for all of this to exist as it does. Aristotle, for instance, believed in the Carl-Saganancity of a universe that always ways and will always be, as if time itself is not a creature, although I think it is.

An atemporal or vertical way of thinking about coffee helps us consider how various actualities depend on other actualities, which depend on other actualities in turn. Change cannot happen apart from this atemporal dependence. Moreover, each thing, which depends on other things at any given moment, clearly is not self-sustaining and self-supporting, and so requires something else, which in turn is not self-sustaining or self-supporting. This is true at the microscopic and subatomic levels too, as we dive into the coffee, into its water and caffeine, molecules and atoms and quarks and gluons, and so on.

The obvious contingency of the thing—the fact that it is not self-supporting—doesn’t disappear but becomes more and more glaringly apparent the more you look at things. Not only does nothing fully account for itself but nothing self-actualises itself either, including the subjects of Maslowian psychology. All potentials are actualised by things that are not the thing itself, even quite apart from some historical-temporal explanation. The potential of my coffee cup to be there, feet off the ground, is actualised, for instance, by the table it is on.

Now think, as much as you are able to, about everything. Think about the sum total of everything that exists. Metaphysically, we are asking about all of that, all of us included. If I am walking in a forest and I happen to come across a giant cup of coffee floating inexplicably in the middle of a beautiful clearing, without apparent reason or support, I would be likely to ask the question of how it got there. Well, while that is no doubt disturbingly inexplicable, it is no less strange that there is anything at all here rather than nothing. It would be weird for a giant, unsupported coffee cup to be in the middle of a clearing in the forest, but it is far weirder that there is a giant, unsupported universe right in the middle of—well, in the middle of what exactly?

Here we are, and here everything is, and when you really think about it, rather than just taking it for granted, you discover that it is rather strange that anything exists at all, especially since everything in the system of the entire universe is clearly not a self-supporting thing. And it isn’t good enough to merely state the fact of everything’s self-evident presence, as scientistic atheists do, because the description in itself is not an explanation. If someone dies drinking poisoned coffee, as someone does in Keigo Higashino’s thoroughly enjoyable novel Salvation of a Saint, merely describing the crime scene is not sufficient to solve the question of who poisoned the victim and why. In other words, answering any question at one level is hardly to answer it at all the levels that are required for the answer to be sufficient.

Nothing we know of in the universe is self-supporting, so why would the universe itself be self-supporting? It will also not do to constantly point to causes of change that are themselves open to change, because then you have to simply point to another cause for change, which is itself also changing and changeable because, in that case, we are dealing not just with infinite regress but with the silly idea that just because you add yet another level to your hierarchy of being that you have in fact solved the problem—because you really haven’t. All you have done is deferred it. This is why mechanical explanations don’t ultimately destroy mystery. Just because you know how a machine works doesn’t mean that you have properly understood the mystical presence of the machine itself.

My point is this. We’re not just interested in what changes our coffee from warm to cold coffee. We are interested in why the coffee exists in this very moment, as isolated from all other moments. We’re also not just asking about the chemical composition of coffee because that doesn’t answer the question; it merely rephrases it. We’re not thinking about history because that’s just another way to defer the question of being. We are asking the metaphysical question: Why is there coffee instead of nothing?

What actualises the potential of the sum total of everything in the coffee as well as everything that is the universe? We’re interested in what actualises the universe itself (and the coffee): what actualises anything’s potential to be, given that everything is so obviously loaded with potential? We don’t really need to ask about the whole universe at all and how it came to be, of course. We just have to ask about any simple, everyday thing, like a cup of coffee. Its thereness is astonishing, isn’t it?

To avoid infinite regress, we can now posit that there must be an Unactualised Actualiser, or what Aristotle calls the Unmoved Mover. We need something that is so actual that it does not have any potential at all. As soon as something has a potential, after all, it would require something else to actualise that potential and that would merely put us on the cosmic infinite regress path all over again. Thus, the Unactualised Actualiser would have to be absolutely unchangeable. It would need to have no parts because if it had parts it would be dependent upon those parts for its existence and we’d end up with yet more regress. It would need to be so real that it does not require anything else to explain its own reality.

If we’re taking the natural order of things as seriously as I’m trying to, then this is the only logical explanation available to any of us regarding why there is something rather than nothing, at least insofar as change is our main consideration. If you decide to contest this logic, your own logic would need to be on the basis of a more logical possibility.

We can, of course, simply settle for the fact that everything just is. We, at least most of us, can believe our senses and accept that they are not lying to us. But if we want an explanation and if we trust the basic inferential logic of how things depend on other things and that the sum total of all dependent things must require something singular and independent upon which everything can rest, it is not just possible but necessary to trust that an Unmoved Mover is the only possible answer. It is a logical necessity.

There are myriad ways to fine-tune the above argument, which is really the shortest version of it I could give without risking boring you. But I have another reason for bringing this up. And that reason is political. Because politics always rests on some or other metaphysics. This metaphysical division of being into actuality, the technical name being act, and potentiality, the technical name being potency, suggests a fantastic array of powers of actualisation and potentiality.

Even in our most basic understanding of the world, we know that there are harmonious and inharmonious ways that act and potency can interact. Here’s a harmonious interactualisation: I drink the coffee, and it ignites a little spark in me, and I move on to enjoy my day. Here’s an inharmonious version of this: I drink several cups of coffee in a row and soon enough, I feel insanely anxious, become restless, get a headache, get dizzy, and my heart rate goes nuts. The political dimension of this simple interaction with coffee would be that my interactions with others, as now affected by my interaction with coffee, could be better or worse, depending on the proportion between actuality and potentiality in this specific interaction. Harmony, which is what we should be aiming for and which the ancients described in terms of the life of virtue, involves difficulties in our interactions too, such as the difficulty of getting out of bed and making the coffee. Why does it not make itself? Ah yes, I’ve already implied an explanation for that.

Well, politics is much more complicated than this, of course. But you get the idea. It’s a matter not just of what interacts but also of a certain proportion between the things that interact. In some places and times, there has been harmony. As suggested in the Genesis story in the bible, harmony is achievable in terms of how certain aspects of creation allow for and limit each other. In her marvellous book, The Need for Roots, Simone Weil uses this principle to discuss certain needs for the soul, noting that “needs are arranged in antithetical pairs and have to combine together to form a balance. Man requires food, but also an interval between his meals; he requires warmth and coolness, rest and exercise. Likewise in the case of the soul’s needs.” She notes our soul-needs for a political order that allows for balancing liberty and responsibility, equality and hierarchism, honour and punishment, truth and freedom of opinion, security and risk, as well as private property and collective property.

Arguably, there are reasonable ways to consider all such things. But, in our time, something glaringly bothersome makes even reasonable consideration close to impossible.

It’s worth noting that there are also things that have a certain kind of existence that are completely imaginary. Let’s imagine, say, coffee that tastes exactly like tea. I can throw these antithetical ideas together quite easily to create a pure logical possibility. This is not a real potential, of course, because it is not grounded in the nature of real things. It is fiction, which even to be a fiction must exist somewhere—that is, in my mind—even if it isn’t truly realisable. If my coffee really tasted like tea, it would actually be tea and not coffee. Just because it is thinkable does not mean it is actualisable.

Technically, then, we are dealing here with something that has so little actuality that it is nearly completely all potentiality. If a person were to believe that one can really actualise something that has no being, he would essentially be equating himself with the ultimate actuality. He would quite literally be thinking of himself as equal to God, who is not a mere logical potential but a logical necessity. While I grant that you may not accept the existence of God on the basis of anything like what I have said, even so, the vast majority of people would agree, given the degrees of actualizing power readily and even obviously perceptible in the world, that to assume the ability to call a new nature into existence by what amounts to sheer will is a rather astonishing sort of hubris.

But it is this very hubris that is at the heart of the entire liberal political project. Right now, we are confronted with the noises made every day around transgenderism and the medical violence done in its name, and blame is readily placed at the feet of reality-denying postmodernists for the onslaught of pronouns in various bios. But to look at our current political moment both metaphysically and historically, we start to see that alarmingly far back, even before Sartre inverted essence and existence, the modern project was already obsessively concerned with falsification. The idea that we can only determine what is true after antagonising being, which is what modern science does, is already to place actuality at the service of potentiality. But this idea leaked into everything, including theology, philosophy and culture.

Way back, the conception of personhood in the heads of nominalists, even before Descartes, was already tending to think of logical possibility—meaning a pure object of thought without any material being—as superior in a way to potency proper. The conception of personhood at play was one of pure thought, imaginatively but not actually cut off from reality. It was a blank slate before Locke and Rousseau. It was, in short, a fiction. Its reality was rooted, not in being and its natural division of act and potency, but in the mind, which can easily invert that division without even noticing that it is an inversion.

Politics for a long time now has been de-ontologized. It’s why it’s so easy to get caught up in political discussions that have almost nothing to do with actual political concerns; that is, with what it means to live well in the world, given that we interact with and interactualise each other, and given that we even have the potential to denigrate each other if we cannot perceive harmonious interactions wisely. Theoretical relations are now more commonly entertained than real relations.

Sure, you could look at this lengthy meditation and accuse me of doing the same. But, part of why I have traversed the whole universe, from my coffee cup to God to the realm of the political, is because I ultimately have a very simple point to make. The political has to be, in the richest sense, universal. But the truly universal is not a false universal absolutely ripped from context. It is intimate as well. It pertains to various actualities and how they play off each other and give of themselves to each other. It pertains to the lives we really live. And the truth is that where the so-called political yanks us away from concrete particulars, it is no longer really political. Where it destroys the tensions between those antithetical pairs that Weil mentions, without even considering what they mean, we cannot figure out what it means to live together and we cannot possibly encounter wholeness. Right now, what is being sacrificed for the sake of so many fictions, the absolute fiction of money included, is everything from families to nations to harmonious geopolitical solutions, all in the name of reconceptualising the world as a realm of pure artificiality.