Arguments From Authority

In the early Middle Ages, Christian scholars based many of their arguments on the writings of Aristotle. Aristotle’s texts arbitrated any dispute. Aristotle was the authority and people have been making arguments from authority ever since (and doubtless long before.) We all do to some extent or other.


An argument from authority, or an appeal to authority, occurs when an authority’s support is invoked as evidence upon which to base a conclusion (“so and so said, therefore….”) These are, at best, weak arguments that can be easily defeated.

The authority of Lu Yu

Recently I was struck by replies to a tea question posed on social media. The questioner wanted to know how to interpret Lu Yu’s prescriptions on water temperatures as applied to brewing sheng pu’er, for, given the way we brew today, it is generally considered to need rapidly boiling water. The relevant passage from the Cha Jing was duly quoted.

Lu Yu

“When the boiling water makes a faint noise and the bubbles are the size of fish eyes it has reached the first boil (yifei 一沸). When strings of pearls arise at the edge of the kettle it has come to the second stage (erfei, 二沸). When the bubbles are much bigger and waves of water resound like drumming, then the water has reached the third boil (sanfei, 三沸). Beyond this, the water is over-boiled and too old to be used for brewing tea.”

Thereafter came the responses; exegeses on Lu Yu’s remarks in an attempt to shoehorn pu’er brewing into the temperature prescriptions of the Cha Jing. Yet no one seemed concerned to question Lu Yu’s authority in the matter. Do his prescriptions have any merit today?

Doubtless Lu Yu’s Cha Jing is a valuable historical work and he is properly credited with popularizing the drinking of tea in China.  But he was writing 1300 years ago, during the Tang dynasty, when the manner of consuming tea was far different than it is today in North America, or China for that matter. Here’s what he said about brewing the powdered tea that he popularized

“At “second boil” (when the bubbles start slowly streaming up) one should take a scoop of the boiling water for later use and using a pair of bamboo tongs to stir the water, creating a swirl. Into the swirl one adds the prepared tea powder using a scoop. Soon after the water will be ferociously boiling. At this point we add the scoop of water previously removed. This way the water will not over-boil.”

This method, or variations on it, may still used for the ceremonial preparation of matcha but apart from matcha, the tea we largely consume is not powdered tea but infused leaf. Lu Yu’s prescriptions are useless for most of today’s tea drinkers. Although it is interesting (and historically important) to understand what Lu Yu has written, appeals to the “sage of tea” are no more useful guiding our actions today than Aristotle’s teleology ought to have been to Augustine or Aquinas.

It Goes As It Goes

And so it goes with other tea authorities as well, right down to the vendor from whom you purchase your tea. But be very careful. We have license to question authorities; not to reject them out of hand. Before we can dismiss some authoritative source or other, we must be able to demonstrate, rationally, why it ought to be dismissed. After all, some authorities are correct.

Always think critically about your tea choices and how to handle them. Base your conclusions on the evidence you can muster; not on whose name you can invoke.

Authoritatively yours…


That’s my take; what’s your view.

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