December 20, 2003

"a select company of curious men"

The Economist on the internet/coffeehouse analogy:

The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like today's websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint.

The analogy is an idée reçue by now, but the article is full of interesting history.

For a gloomier perspective on aspects of 18th-century coffee-house society, see Samuel Johnson's Rambler 177 .

[From Vivaculus:] ... I hasted to London, and entreated one of my academical acquaintances to introduce me into some of the little societies of literature which are formed in taverns and coffee- houses. He was pleased with an opportunity of shewing me to his friends, and soon obtained me admission among a select company of curious men, who met once a week to exhilarate their studies, and compare their acquisitions. ... Every one of these virtuosos looked on all his associates as wretches of depraved taste and narrow notions. Their conversation was, therefore, fretful and waspish, their behaviour brutal, their merriment bluntly sarcastick, and their seriousness gloomy and suspicious. ...

[Response:] It is natural to feel grief or indignation when any thing necessary or useful is wantonly wasted, or negligently destroyed; and therefore my correspondent cannot be blamed for looking with uneasiness on the waste of life. Leisure and curiosity might soon make great advances in useful knowledge, were they not diverted by minute emulation and laborious trifles. It may, however, somewhat mollify his anger to reflect, that perhaps none of the assembly which he describes, was capable of any nobler employment, and that he who does his best, however little, is always to be distinguished from him who does nothing. Whatever busies the mind without corrupting it, has at least this use, that it rescues the day from idleness, and he that is never idle will not often be vicious.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2003 11:36 AM