What is a Teapot?

One of the scare stories told to students applying for a place at Oxford and Cambridge is that they their fate will inevitably be determined by something arbitrary and unexpected. With a mendacious grin the professor will recline as he asks, “What is a teapot?”

Via The Atlantic, here is tea time in Syria:

Iraqi refugees find themselves on the boundaries of another war: a teapot lives with the community abroad.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army warm their drink on the embers of one of the regime’s posters: a teapot brings life and energy out of destruction.

Behind the flimsy curtain defending against snipers, an iron teapot is the unperturbed stoicism of routine.

The good teapot can be picked out of the rubble; it civilises war. Is that a good thing? Or does it just normalise it?


Orwell, and the Humanism of Making Tea

What Orwell probably didn’t realise when he sat down to write his rules for making tea was that he was contributing to the humanistic philosophy of the cuppa. Would it be Aristotelian tea? Platonic tea? Socratic tea? No, that’s quite silly. But still, it’s true that his article was somewhat essentially humanistic: in ways I love and would rather pretentiously advocate. What do I mean? Is Mark really comparing making tea to humanism? I believe he is.

The Good Book by Professor A.C. Grayling – whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet – lays down a huge volume of what the author calls “secular laws”. That is to say, humanist values that dispense of divine instruction, and as a corollary they dispense with the sense of predetermined “absolute” laws. Religious critics always claim that without supernatural justification for universal laws, they can’t hold as fact: objectivity, and therefore any moral purpose to law, falls apart to blurry subjectivity. Readers of this blog will know, full well, that I hate this process; there are objectively moral laws that ought to operate in this world, as the Good Book attempts to illustrate. As a basic starting point, these might include: no murder, no rape, no pedophilia, no racial/sexual discrimination. We don’t need God for this.

Now Orwell, in writing his rules for tea, is doing the same. Writing on the presupposition that there are no agreed laws for tea making – given the absence of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient Tea Father – he tries to establish an empirical science behind how one should travel from leaf to drink (e.g. “the water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact”). As it happens, most of his rules do the trick.

I’m not so convinced about the Ceylonese vs Chinese debate, but it’s true the milk should be added to the tea, rather than the other way around; that there should be no sugar, ever; boiling water; made in small amounts; no strainers. In other words, appreciate your tea. And read Orwell’s rules.

Just don’t name a blog after it. (That’s my job.)