How to drink with Obsopoeus
Part IV of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series
“Tamen est potare voluptas, ex qua virtutem regula iuncta facit.”
(Drinking is a pleasure, and giving it rules transforms it into a virtue.)
Greek, Latin, and English all have a word for alcoholism. In the first case it’s methe, in the second one ebrietas. However, unlike in modern Anglo-American culture, self-destructive drunkenness was not practiced by a lot of people in either ancient Greece or Rome. Indeed, in Rome you were supposed to water your wine down to about a third precisely to help you maintain control over your pleasure, rather than the other way around.
When, then, did binge culture become a thing? When did men start drinking to excess to prove their manly credentials? It happened in Germany during the 15th century, and the idea spread virus-like throughout Europe during the 16th century. Which is why Vincent Obsopoeus wrote his The Art of Drinking—translated by Michael Fontaine with the title How to Drink—in 1536.
It isn’t clear why exactly binge culture arose and spread at that time, but Fontaine guesses that it had something to do with the rapidly changing times. As he puts it in the Introduction to the book:
“The crusades were over, the economy was changing, and the knights of the medieval world no longer had any purpose in their lives. They turned to wine to fill the void.”
The change was quantitatively dramatic. The estimate is that per capita consumption of wine in Germany shot to about six times what it is today. That’s a lot, and something had to be done, which is why Obsopoeus decided to write a book about it.
Figs in Winter, by Massimo Pigliucci is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
He had been the rector of an elite high school south of the wine growing region of Franconia, and had presumably been a eyewitness to the sudden phenomenon of widespread excessive drinking. In writing the book he was inspired by a classic of ancient literature, Ovid’s Art of Love, with the important difference that while Ovid was being ironic, Obsopoeus was (largely, as we shall see below) very serious.
The book was highly successful and Obsopoeus put out a revised and expanded edition the following year. But of course it was eventually banned by the Church and put on the Index of Forbidden Books. Which, I’m sure, only had the effect of boosting sales.
The approach Obsopoeus takes to his subject will be alien to any American familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous: moderation, not abstinence. Think of it this way, says Fontaine, the translator: in America today, the opposite of sleeping around is not celibacy but monogamy. The same, thought Obsopoeus, should go for drinking.
How to Drink is very frank about the then new culture of competitive drinking, hazing, and peer pressure. In book 2 Obsopoeus even describes what we would today call toxic masculinity. And he does so in verses, even though most of Fontaine’s translation is rendered in prose.
Vincent Obsopoeus himself was an odd and fascinating character. He thought he had many enemies, yet they usually didn’t even know he existed. He could be sensitive and funny, as well as fun to be with, but also impetuous, intolerant, and rather stubborn. He couldn’t let something go once he became obsessed by it.
Just as is the case for authors today, he needed endorsements for his book, so he asked the famous humanist Joachim Camerarius to write a poetic blurb for The Art of Drinking. Camerarius, who barely knew Obsopoeus, responded:
“I’m enclosing the verses you asked for; feel free to disfigure your book with them, if you insist. … I get it, you don’t care what people think; so as requested, here you go.”
Obsopoeus was not deterred by the sometimes vitriolic criticism the book received, writing:
“I hear a lot of people are trashing me behind my back for publishing [The Art of Drinking]. They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care. They can go on hating and criticizing me until they explode.”
How to Drink is divided into three books. In book 1 Obsopoeus explains the art of drinking under different circumstances, for instance at home with one’s wife, or about town, in the company of friends, or at social functions, like weddings and other celebrations.
Book 2 takes a more stern tone and very frankly and vividly depicts the downside of excessive drinking, including a wonderful description of an imaginary garden characterized by contrasting parties: that of temperance and good times, and that of drunkenness. The latter features anthropomorphized versions of Dementia, Self-Indulgence, Memory Loss, Depression, Drunken Behavior, Brawl, Insanity, Fury, and Madness. Quite an unwholesome group indeed.
The third book presents us with the question of just how seriously we are supposed to take the first two, since it is devoted to advice on how to win a drinking contest! Obsopoeus assures us that he is not rejecting his own counsel as given so far, but rather helping people who find themselves pushed by social circumstances into drinking games. Since he’s a champion—he tells us—we may as well learn from the best. And to be fair, much of his advice even here is, in fact, quite useful.
Here are some highlights from the actual text, with accompanying brief commentaries:
“There’s no job art can’t overcome, so if you and I don’t want to be unsophisticated when drinking wine at parties, we’re going to need an art of worshipping Bacchus, too. Unless they worship Him with the precise art they should, those who worship Him will feel His wrath. Bacchus is mellow, you see, but if you underestimate His power and worship Him the wrong way, He becomes impossible to handle.” (Book 1)
Bacchus, of course, was the Roman god of wine, the counterpart to the Greek Dionysius. Obsopoeus, in the style of the ancient Greco-Roman writers, uses him as the personification of his subject matter, warning his readers from the get go that drinking properly, i.e., in agreement with Bacchus’s wishes, is an art that needs to be learned and cultivated. If we don’t pay attention, then we incur in Bacchus’s wrath, with horrible physical and mental consequences.
“The life of the mind isn’t sustainable over the long haul if it doesn’t get rest at regular intervals: (i) The mind’s worries and anxieties must be relaxed; a healthy mind will have to seek relief to pep up. (ii) The body’s weary limbs need to unwind, too, and (iii) Holidays must be marked by special alcoholic drinks.” (Book 1)
Here Obsopoeus engages in a defense of what we would today call rest and relaxation. Both the mind and the body need rest from time to time, and wine—again, in reasonable measure—helps us relax and enjoy our downtime. This is a point that is made also by the Greco-Romans, for instance when Seneca writes that “We must give our minds relaxation: they will arise from rest better and more vigorous. … Sometimes we should even come close to tipsiness, not so as to drown us, but to calm us down; for this washes away our cares and stirs the mind deeply and remedies sadness as it does some sicknesses.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, 17.5,8)
“You want to select friends whose hearts are pure: friends whose outlook is positive, respectful, and committed to dignity.” (Book 1)
Several Greco-Roman philosophies—including both Epicureanism and Stoicism—stressed the importance of friendship as a source of joy and to keep us on the right track. Epictetus, accordingly, warns us to pick our friends carefully: “Anyone who often associates with others for conversation or dinner parties, or simply for companionship, is bound either to become like them himself or to change them until they resemble him.” (Discourses, 3.16)
“This is Drunkenness, and those are the gifts with which she repays her worshippers—gifts you wouldn’t give your worst enemy. Drunkenness is an insane evil, a delicious poison, sugar-coated destruction, saccharine sorrow. Drunkenness is an ugly failing and a disgraceful pleasure. Run from her! She’s a sickness that afflicts your mind and body. Nowadays young and old are everywhere worshipping at her altar—madmen!—having run Sobriety far out of town. Believe me, no danger is more clear or present than this; it’s the fastest way to ruin your body and your mind.” (Book 2)
We are now in book 2, where Obsopoeus shifts from friendly advice on temperance to stern warnings about the nasty consequences of excessive drinking. It is in this book that he conjures the image of a garden populated both by followers of Temperance and by those of Drunkenness. The imagery is stunning and highly effective. I don’t know why anyone would want to drink to excess after having read this section of the book!
“At this point you might be saying, “What are you doing, you wine-soaked teacher!? Why is your Muse unraveling all your past work? … You’ve been extolling a moderate intake and modest dinners and you’ve been teaching us to make sobriety the guiding principle of our lives. Now you’re saying, ‘I’m dying to enter a drinking contest! Step right up if you’re prepared to walk away drunk!’ … I’m not doing this unthinkingly. I’m not recanting the rules I prescribed earlier and my Muse isn’t unraveling all my past work, either. A man should get to brag in the art he knows; every expert should pride himself on his art! It was just and right for Cicero, the lawyer, to be conceited about his powers of public speaking; he was the supreme glory of the Roman forum!” (Book 3)
The last book of How to Drink feels at first like a betrayal of the first two, or at the very least a strident contrast. Here we learn how to best others at drinking contests, the very sort of thing that Obsopoeus so far told us to stay away from! Maybe the author really did follow closely Ovid’s Art of Love and meant the whole thing ironically.
Or maybe not. The sound advice readers get in the first two books stands. But Obsopoeus recognizes that sometimes peer pressure is just too much to resist, or that it is impolite to always refuse one’s friends. So, if you really have to, you might as well learn how to win a drinking contest from a master!