Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Reflections on a Café
Folha de S. Paulo, July 20th 1979 (*)
For a long time, a very long time, I have wanted to convey an impression about the development of Brazil.
“Development” is a term I use here in a sense only remotely related to what is usually understood by that word. I am not referring to economic-financial development. This is the supreme meaning — and not rarely the only one — that is attributed to this word, which in our days is steeped in bourgeois hedonism and communist materialism.
From my perspective, economic development does have its place. However, it does not hold the supreme place for the simple reason that man is more than just a stomach.
Supreme development does not only consist of promoting the corporal welfare of “brother body,” as the Franciscans would say. Rather, it must consist in the development of the whole man, with all the elements of this whole arranged in due hierarchy. Thus, the soul holds first place. Among the faculties of the soul, I want to emphasize one of its most noble abilities which is its capacity to relate material things to spiritual things, and then relate them both to God.
The whole universe was created to the image and likeness of God. For this reason, similarities exist among all things since two beings similar to a third are necessarily all similar. Thus, material things have the ability to mirror spiritual realities. To know how to express the spiritual aspects of material things, both individually or as a whole, is to know how to perceive the most noble uses of those things. By doing this, the intelligence has a better grasp of the spiritual. This is the highest use of matter, even for the blessed who, after the Resurrection, will see God face to face.
One who is imbued with these great truths can develop the habit of making the matter-soul-God relationship a ruling activity of his mind and thus reach the apex of his personality. In other words, he attains the full and orderly development of his own being — his supreme development.
Precisely because these truths are most abstract, they have a relationship with what is most profound and decisive in concrete reality.
Thus, one element of the grandeur, the well-being and the force de frappe of a country is the intimate relationship that exists between its natural resources and its landscape on one hand and the characteristics of its national spirit on the other.
This is so true that an observer is able to note all sorts of physical aspects of a country such as the formation of the mountains, the meanders of the rivers, the thousand colors and types of vegetation, the fragrances of the flowers, the flavors of its regional cuisine, the harmonies of native music and dances or the styles and colors of typical garb. The acute observer will then take these characteristics and note their affinities with the spirit of the population. This can be seen, for example, even in the nature of the games and quarrels of its children, the deeds of its mature men, and the proven wisdom of its aged. All this produces a complex fabric intertwined by a thousand inseparable affinities. The differences among these elements distinguish nations from one another even more than territorial boundaries.
For example, what a difference there is between France and Germany! Obviously each nation with its respective “fabric,” forms one single whole. It is impossible to imagine a France inhabited solely by Germans, or a Germany inhabited solely by Frenchmen.
Classical tradition, and later the profound influence of the Church, taught these men to be much more soul than body, and to seek in material things analogies and supreme lessons about the soul and God. From this comes the admirable consonance between the body and the soul of great peoples. These peoples were led, in an immense unified action, to interpret their respective material surroundings and find in them a multitude of affinities with their own souls, affinities that culture accentuated and made salient.
I have the impression that amid the contemporary storm, most men, depersonalized and reduced to a mass by today’s modern, mechanical and cosmopolitan civilization, no longer know how to grasp the spiritual and “divine” significance of things.
Neither do men know how to perceive the links that join them, nor do they understand the settings in which they were born. And, in young countries like Brazil, the symbolic interpretation of panoramas, flora and fauna, the flavor and taste of the fruits of the earth, and the sounds and songs of nature, all this has been reduced, for many of us, to the foggy memories of childhood that progress wiped out in our adolescence with the steam roller of “practical sense.”
These considerations came to my mind when I heard of a picturesque episode that took place in Londrina (Brazil). It is with pleasure that I narrate what a friend told me about this “coffee capital.”
A man of wit and initiative opened a café there in a glass pavilion. This was not just any café. In his selection of coffee, he offered no less than 25 varieties. I am entertaining myself by running my eyes down the list of the many methods of preparation. Among the hot coffees was, of course, “Café Chantilly,” followed by, among others, a somewhat perplexing “Scotch Coffee,” in that Scotland does not even produce coffee. After them, come a pompous “Royal Coffee” and a dashing “Society Coffee.” The iced coffees are quite naturally headed by “Viennese Coffee.” But their ranks are smaller, with only six varieties compared to the 12 hot coffees. The hot and iced coffees are followed by seven more labeled “others.” What might “Coffee Crème Liqueur” be like? How is it different from the simple “Coffee Liqueur?” And the “Coffee candies?” The fact of the matter is that this variety has enchanted the public, and the establishment is always full.
Couldn’t this diversification that a man with a lively imagination achieved with coffee also be attained with so many of Brazil’s fruits and, mutatis mutandis, with the country’s countless flowers? And with this, how many more of our soul’s riches could be revealed! In light of the analogies of a truly Catholic symbolism and the glorious, accompanying labor of our people’s soul, how much magnificence would unfold before us!
If someone were to tell me that all this is only daydreaming because it does not solve the oil crisis, I would respond with a hearty laugh. Because a Christian-developed Brazil is not primarily defined as an immense fleet of motor cars, but as an immense family of souls.
(*) The preceding article has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. American TFP.