Coffee Houses
For me, one of the most surprising and truly enlightened factors in the Age of Enlightenment in 17th and 18th Century England was the role of cafés, or as they were known then, coffeehouses. I love my flat white coffee – not instant but a double shot of espresso, topped with milk precisely steamed to a perfect consistency but not overheated. As my friend John used to say, “Life is too short to drink bad coffee!” However, just as importantly, these first cafés fostered theological and philosophical debate and, historians tell us, significantly contributed to the development of Britain’s financial markets, newspapers, literature, arts, and political parties.

For the admission price of a penny, people could enjoy a cup of the newly discovered beverage, or tea or hot chocolate, as well as to learn and discuss the news and issues of the day. The first English coffeehouses, in the university city of Oxford, were patronised by eminent scholars and became known as “penny universities” because anyone who had a penny could attend and listen to the debates. Accordingly, cafés were renowned for allowing all levels of society to mingle and the conversation was “contentious but civil, learned but not didactic”.[1]

Besides being more accessible than universities, the non-alcoholic atmosphere of the coffeehouses was more conducive to serious discussion than the local pubs, or alehouses. These first cafés quickly spread to London where patrons could also soon read one of the first daily newspapers of the Western world, The Spectator. Established in 1711, its daily circulation was only 3,000 copies but in the coffeehouses, its readership swelled to an estimated 60,000 Londoners, about a tenth of the city’s population. It also reached the USA, where James Madison, America’s “Father of the Constitution”, was an avid reader.

In its introductory issue, Joseph Addison explained that The Spectator was “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality”, to bring “philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools, and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee-houses”, and provide readers with well-reasoned and polite discussion.[2]

Squid Ink?
However, observing coffeehouse debates, Addison noticed some of the tricks being played and, in 1712 he wrote:

I, who hear a Thousand Coffee-house Debates every day, am very sensible of this want of Method in the Thoughts of my honest Countrymen. There is not one Dispute in Ten, which is managed in these Schools of Politicks, where, after the three first sentences, the Question is not entirely lost. Our Disputants put me in mind of the Skuttle Fish [i.e. squid], that when he is unable to extricate himself blackens all the water about him, till he becomes invisible.[3]


In other words, in 90% of these debates, the issue was “entirely lost” after just three sentences.

Four hundred years later, his words ring as true now as then, don’t they. How many contentious Facebook discussions or blogs have you ever seen that actually resolve the issue being discussed? I can’t think of any. Mr. Addison, however, identifies what often goes wrong – the issue gets lost because one of the “disputants” has injected squid ink into the water, to hide and then to escape in the confusion

What can be done? We have to rid ourselves of squid ink, firstly by not using it ourselves and then by responding better when others use it.

Why Do We Use It?
As I see it, we’re most tempted to act like squid when we realise we’re wrong and don’t want to admit it. Instead of enjoying the truth we’ve just discovered, we’d rather preserve our pride by escaping into confusion we’ve caused. Let’s instead humble ourselves so we can contribute to serious discussions and increase clarity of thinking in our society. Let’s commit ourselves to never using squid ink.

So what is it exactly? Three examples I particularly notice are two kinds of ad hominem attacks and the perennial red herring.

 (i) Ad hominem by dismissing
Whenever our personal convictions and preferred beliefs are threatened, our natural response is to become defensive and counter-attack. That’s fine if we counter the argument with a better one, the truth as we see it. All too often, however, we simply attack our opponents, avoiding the issue by shooting the messenger trying to give us the message we need to hear – it’s why Israel stoned the prophets. We may airily dismiss someone disagreeing with ‘my truth’ as too old or too young to understand, or the wrong race, or the wrong gender, as some claim today: “Male, pale, and stale!” How could an old white man possibly be right about anything when he’s the problem? Witty, but squid ink. 

In sporting terms, this is ‘playing the man and not the ball’ and in most sporting codes, it’s enough to have us penalised or sent off the field. If only this could be done in social interactions too – how many disagreements might be resolved instead of dusted off and repeated ad nauseam. If I ever dismiss my opponent based on their age, race, or gender, I’m part of the problem, not the solution. 

(ii) Ad hominem by insulting.
We’ll always be tempted to label our opponents as somehow inferior to ourselves and that’s simply pride. Every time I want to insult someone, I have to forgo this natural response and instead be spiritual or godly. Jesus warns us:

 …everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says…, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.1

Insults are hate-filled and fuelled and never to be used if we want to love our neighbours and our enemies. If I ever use an insult, I’m discharging squid ink and therefore darkness into the conversation and I should be honest as to why I’m doing it.

Paul writes:

…do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.2

Since we don’t know what motivates ourselves most of the time, how can we presume to know what motivates others? We can guess but be wildly wrong, so the Scripture commands us to leave that judgment to Jesus who will bring everything into the light when He returns. In the meantime, love believes the bestand hopes the best of our opposition3 and we need to stick to the issue, leaving the water clear and clean.

 (iii) Red herrings
Sorry if I’m overusing fishy metaphors but this one is worth hanging on to. It seems that a William Cobbett once used a kipper (a strongly-scented smoked herring) to divert the hounds of a hunting party by dragging it across the trail of a hare being chased. Similarly, we can get an argument off-track merely by introducing another issue. If the discussion has become contentious or unresolvable, of course, the distraction may be helpful but otherwise it merely adds to the confusion. Accordingly, if I introduce a red herring, I should ask myself why I’m doing it. Maybe I need to humble myself, admit my error, and become reasonable (and likable) again so the debate stays worthwhile.

Avoiding the Need
Of course, it’s much better to not need squid ink. Changing the metaphor, Jesus warned us that our perception of truth is always flawed because we all always have logs in our eyes 6

The Hebrew word for “stupid” here means as brutish as cattle. It’s embarrassing to have God describe me as such but every time I find myself hating reproof, i.e. being corrected, I remind myself I’m being stupid.

 (ii) Pre-judging
Sometimes I’m not listening to what my opponent is actually saying:

 He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.7

This pre-judging is, by definition, prejudice and we should be ashamed of it. So, rather than behave foolishly and shamefully, I have to choose to listen with an open mind and heart. At other times, I’ve only heard one side of an issue and judged too quickly:

The first to plead his case seems right… until another comes and examines him.8

What would we think of a trial in which the judge only listened to the prosecution, or only to the defence, and yet don’t we often judge this way? Properly listening includes withholding judgment until I’ve heard both sides thoroughly cross-examined.

 (iii) Being contentious
Why am I arguing? Am
 I just spoiling for a fight with no concern for what is true? My attitude always determines whether I create strife or introduce light. The Scriptures are unequivocal:

Through arrogance comes nothing but strife, but wisdom is with those who receive counsel. 9

Most arguments need less heat and more light, less arrogance and more humility. If we are right, the truth will eventually come out so we can relax a little. As Milton wrote:

 Let truth and error grapple. Whoever knew truth to be beaten in a fair fight?

Responding to Squid Ink
So, while watching for my own squid ink, what should I do if others squirt it into our conversation? Here are two responses that I’m still working on:

 (i) Refusing to be distracted
If I’m raising a point or asking a question that’s being avoided, as Olivia my wife tells me, I need to hold on to it, refusing to let it go, until it is addressed or answered. I may need to keep restating it, and this may come across as aggressive or provocative, so I have to remain calm and respectful:

If the ruler’s temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offences.10

Squid ink eventually dissipates, sometimes helped by the swirling water as the victim struggles to escape!

 (ii) Regaining or reaffirming common ground
If anyone feels attacked by me, I’m seldom, if ever, going to persuade him of anything:

A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a citadel.11 

I have to make peace first. This may be done by surrendering some ground that I shouldn’t be defending anyway – giving ground to any truth that my opponent is asserting is being reasonable. If peace can be established, if necessary by a sincere apology, James the Lord’s brother promises:

…the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.12

If my aim is genuinely to increase right-thinking, I have to remember it grows from seeds sown in peace rather than in contention.

In Summary
Cafés significantly contributed to England’s 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment because they provided an environment conducive to public discussion of theology, philosophy, news, arts, literature, and politics. Encouraged and learning from this, we should:

 (i) Train as baristas so that we can contribute to our era a consistently great cup of espresso coffee!

 (ii) Learn to engage in respectful dialogue with all and sundry, especially those with whom we disagree.

 (iii) Look for opportunity, as Joseph Addison did, “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality” not only in our private conversations but also in public, especially in our social media such as on FaceBook.

To ensure we are adding light instead of heat, contributing clarity of thinking instead of confusion, we need to:

 (i) Rid ourselves of all squid ink – it adds only darkness into a conversation.

 (ii) Remember we’re most tempted to use it when we realise we’re wrong
and don’t want to admit it. Rather than enjoy the truth we’ve just discovered, we distract from or change the topic. Better we stay in the light and in the truth.

 (iii) Squid ink often manifests as ad hominem attacks, i.e. insulting or accusing our opponents of wrong motives, or as irrelevancy.

 (iv) Ideally avoid even the temptation to use squid ink by better preparing ourselves for debates. This can include not assuming our opponents are wrong, not judging too quickly, and not being contentious.

 (v) One way of responding to others discharging squid ink is to refuse to be distracted, to hold firmly to the issue until the ink dissipates. Another is to regain or reaffirm common ground to ease tensions and make peace.

The Value of Conversation
Lastly, someone, I think Robert Thouless of Straight and Crooked Thinking fame, once noted that we all have cherished ideas and notions that we carefully harbour in our hearts. And then one day, we bring them out in a conversation and, for the first time, in the cold, hard light of day, we see how inaccurate or ridiculous they are. There is much to be gained, he concluded, from engaging in proper conversation.

Perhaps the last word should be Seneca’s:

 Many might have attained wisdom had they not assumed that they already possessed it.

And the best place to find it may be over a cup of coffee with an opponent in your nearest café!


[1] Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 97.
[3] The Spectator, 5 September, 1712., 18 Nov, 2011.
[4] Latin for “to the man”, or person.
[5] Matt 7:3-5.
  1. Matt 5:22
  2. 1 Cor 4:5
  3. 1 Cor 13:7
  4. Matt7:3-54. It’s good to see today’s social psychologists almost catching up with Him in recognising this implicit and/or unconscious bias – now if they would just listen to Him, they could help us more and cause less trouble in their crusading. Anyway, here are three logs that I consciously try to remove from my eye:


    (i) Assuming my opponent is wrong
    This massive log can completely blind us and I don’t want to stay blind. As Seneca said:

     Many might have attained wisdom had they not assumed that they already possessed it.

    Solomon puts it just as bluntly:

     Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.5Prov 12:1

  5. Prov 18:13
  6. Prov 18:17
  7. Prov 13:10
  8. Ecc 10:4
  9. Prov 18:19
  10. Jas 3:17-18