The coffee houses of Europe
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 July 2016)

In the late 1970s, when Canadians were wondering how they could help the anti-communist workers struggling against the Polish government, they received three words of advice from Polish Canadians: send them coffee. In Poland, coffee was in short supply, like everything else, and it was considered a necessity, especially for meetings.

My memory of that experience prepares me for the idea that the coffee house is one of the crucial European institutions. Across the continent, it has for centuries been the birthplace of world-shaking ideas. In country after country, individuals have come together in freedom to stimulate each other, exchanging words "of eloquence and rivalry." George Steiner, the philosopher and critic, believes that, "So long as there are coffee houses, the 'idea of Europe' will have content."

He admires coffee houses so much that he gives them pride of place in his book, The Idea of Europe. It's a topical theory when Britain is apparently leaving the European Union and Canada is moving (at a stately pace, of course) toward a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU.

Coffee houses come first among several characteristics that together form Steiner's definition of Europe. Over coffee, much history has been made. In Paris, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre met for the last time in a coffee house. In Vienna, those who hoped to meet Sigmund Freud knew the café where he might be found. In a Geneva café, Vladimir Lenin wrote a treatise and played chess with Leon Trotsky.

That's why we were sending coffee to Poland. They were plotting a revolution (hoping to bring down the Soviet empire, in fact) and they needed the right brew for the occasion. As Steiner says, "The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook."

Not everyone will agree with Steiner. At age 87, he continues to create arguments. A man of great erudition, he nevertheless comes up, on occasion, with off-the-cuff notions. The Idea of Europe began as a lecture in 2003. It was later published as a little book and has since been reprinted.

Steiner was born in 1929 in Paris and grew up speaking three languages (English, French and German) as the son of a Jewish couple from Vienna. The family left for America when Hitler invaded France. When he was six, his father, a banker, taught him to read Homer in the original Greek.

Learning about Hitler's death camps in the 1940s, Steiner felt like a survivor. That created a tone of tragedy around much of his writings.

"My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust," he once wrote. In his 40s, having learned about Marx, Einstein and Freud, he said, "Europe committed suicide by killing its Jews." He became a U.S. citizen in 1944.

At the University of Chicago, he studied mathematics and physics, as well as literature. He has since been a professor at Harvard and Oxford, and a much-published author on philosophy and the relationship of language to culture and society.

In Steiner's view, walkability is another defining characteristic of Europe. Throughout history, Europeans have walked from town to town, village to village. Among the walkers are great philosophers and poets: Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Rousseau, William Wordsworth, etc. "The voyager seems never to be altogether out of reach of the church bell in the next village," Steiner writes. "The beauties of Europe are wholly inseparable from the patina of humanized time."

Europe's awareness of history also separates it from much of the world. You can see it in the street signs. Europe names streets after historic figures -- poets, generals, scientists, philosophers. In that way, every European hears about history from childhood to death. Canadians, on the other hand, name their streets after trees -- maple, birch, oak, pine, willow. As a child in Paris, Steiner often walked from the Rue La Fontaine to the Place Victor Hugo. Europe has squares named after Mozart or Beethoven. The result is that Europeans, young and old, live within echo chambers of history -- cultural, intellectual, and political. This isn't some inspired notion of educational bureaucrats anxious to broaden everyone's knowledge. It's a practice that Europeans adopt naturally. How else would you name a street?

On a more cosmic level, Steiner believes Europe is the result of two great influences, "pagan Athens" and "Hebrew Jerusalem," permanently in competition, their differences together leading to unprecedented levels of creativity. But has the richness of the European spirit run dry? Christianity is fading and the passion that once fed the EU is disappearing. Europe may have lost its ability to cherish art and science. "Young Englishmen choose to rank David Beckham high above Shakespeare and Darwin in their list of national treasures."

Whatever Steiner once thought about Europe's self-destruction, he remains a cautious optimist, still impressed by what he can see of the traditional spirit. He's hoping that the European experience will lead in the future to a newly developed "secular humanism," which would provide post-Christian Europe with a governing ethos. He can't say what that ethos might be, or who might invent it, but that's not Steiner's job. His purpose in life (and it's not a small thing) is to make his readers think.

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