A cup of tea in Britain, perhaps more so in England than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is a truly important thing. It is a cliché we are more than happy to buy into. Not in the sense of afternoon tea but a brew, a cup of tea you offer to someone when they come into your house. They could say they are just popping round but there is something off putting if you are not offered a cup of tea.
Is there anything more to a cup of tea that can be understood philosophically?
A cup of tea is a signal of warmth, a way to convey emotion. Is it then a tool of disarming others and drawing them in close but always at arms length, as is the British way? A cup of tea however is not merely a tool, a piece of equipment. There is instead something ritualistic about a cup of tea. There is more to it than first meets the eye. A humble cup of tea stands up as a pillar of community, family and love. A cup of tea is shared. There is something far more reverential about a cup of tea than it seemingly deserves. There is an apparent disassociation between the object and what it is.
The cup of tea is not merely tea leaves brewed in boiled water with milk and sugar. That is the components, the material, the matter that make up a cup of tea. Its form is the cup of tea. The form and matter of the cup of tea are not what it is. The ritualistic aspect of a cup of tea is dependent on the fourfold in Heidegger’s philosophy; the connection between mortals and immortals, earth and sky. That fourfold are found in the cup of tea in ways we would not easily understand. It is far more than we would think about and could possibly think about every time we are offered a cup of tea.
How then are those aspects of the fourfold that cannot be one without the others?
The humble cup of tea, if it is to be more than what first appears, is connected to the vessel through which the tea is collected in. Heidegger talks of a jug not merely being something that has space in it in which liquid can be poured. He speaks of the connection to god and ritual praise of god through which a world and people is established.
A cup of tea is a pick me up, it is something we offer to someone who has had bad news. It offers comfort against harsh times. An act of hope and gratitude for the person we offer it to and perhaps also to that which we don’t understand. We offer a cup of tea because we cannot offer answers about what will happen. This is also the case with death. A hot, sweet cup of tea is a remedy for shock and awful news. There is then a connection between the cup of tea and mortals as well as immortals.
But is there also a link between earth and sky in connection to a cup of tea?
The fourfold is connected to the weather. In Building Dwelling Thinking Heidegger talks of the bridge which withstands the rain and allows the river to flow unimpeded. Is it not the case that we are most inclined to drink a cup of tea when we arrive home during a rainy day? The sound of rain against the window and the greyness of the sky and the wind that whips around the city streets. These are something that the cup of tea stands up against. When faced with the coldness of the day a cup of tea is a warming retreat which we can hardly hope to explain by saying it is merely a hot drink.