Click image to order
Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries


Food and Drink

We Have Sex Education. Should We Teach Drinking Education, Too? [By Michael Fontaine]

It sounds heretical to even ask, doesn't it?

In this world of ours, though, we’ve grudgingly come to admit that a few things that seem instinctive, really should be taught. Sex is one. Driving a car is another.

In all my life, though, I’ve never heard of anyone offering a course in the art of drinking alcohol.

I don't mean a twelve-step program to quit alcohol, mind you. I mean a course in how to enjoy alcohol responsibly, sustainably, and with discrimination.

Controversial? Sure. Risky, dangerous, potentially disastrous? That too.

But maybe it's not as nutty as it sounds – especially with so many of us stuck at home and drinking more than usual.

What might drink education look like? In fact, it might look very much like the book I recently rediscovered and translated as How to Drink: A classical guide to the art of imbibing. And even though it's five centuries old, the ideas it contains are as insightful, timely and actionable as ever. You simply won't believe it.

In much of the world, booze is an all-or-nothing thing. Thirty percent of us in the U.S. never touch the stuff. The other 70% of us do, with varying degrees of success. And for better or worse, virtually all of us learn about alcohol in the same hit-or-miss way that people once used to learn about driving cars or sex.

How to Drink animated BacchusFive hundred years ago in Germany, a man named Vincent Obsopoeus saw a better way. Obsopoeus (pronounced Job? So pay us!!) was a very experienced drinker, and he decided to do the world some good by systematizing his experiences as rules and committing them to paper.

Incredibly, he wrote his treatise as a poem – a poem in classical Latin, the language spoken in ancient Rome 1,500 years before his time.

Obsopoeus' poem became an instant classic. It was read and reprinted – until the book was suddenly banned. It disappeared for centuries and was eventually forgotten.

No, Obsopoeus wasn't a rock star. He was the principal of an elite high school in Bavaria, and in his time he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture among young men of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking.

German universities had fraternities way back then – and frat parties, too. Drinking competitions started popping up, where the goal was to make the other guy pass out. Sounding like a critic far ahead of his times, Obsopoeus regarded this flush of hardcore masculinity he was seeing as “toxic.” (He says so explicitly.)

Worse, boozing was taking over professional life, too. The pressure to join in was overwhelming.

Obsopoeus saw all this and sought to halt it. He lifted his pen and composed a three-part poem called De Arte Bibendi, The Art of Drinking. He was inspired by a famous three-part poem from ancient Rome called The Art of Love, the world's first- or second-oldest course in sex education. (The competitor for that honor is India's Kama Sutra.) 

The difference between Ovid and Obsopoeus is that Ovid wasn't really serious about most of the advice he offers. Obsopoeus was, and he speaks with the candor of someone who's been around the block a few times.

The surprising thing is that unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, Obsopoeus doesn't just advocate teetotalism—that is, abstaining from alcohol completely.

Better, he thought, to take stock of the main occasions for drinking, see what works for most people best, and then systematize and institute some rules to guide our behavior.

image from

In that respect, we can see a clear analogy with sex education in schools today. Sex ed typically recommends keeping sex within the bonds of a committed relationship. It doesn't recommend lifelong celibacy, which – if you look around – clearly isn't a sustainable way of life for most people.

Obsopoeus thought of booze the same way, and he uses that central insight to develop a number of practical strategies for managing our relationship to alcohol.

He begins by pointing out that there are three occasions on which we drink:

  1. At home by ourselves,
  2. Going out to meet friends, and
  3. At social functions, like work parties and weddings.

Interestingly enough, Obsopoeus says home is far and away the best place to drink. Why? Because drinking at home gives us a chance to spend time with our significant other.

Obsopoeus spends the rest of his first book discussing how much to drink and how to behave on each of those occasions. He helps us identify the best drinking buddies, advises what to say and not say, and even how to give a toast.

In the second book, he turns to a far darker topic, excessive drinking, and repeatedly admonishes us not to go down that path.

In book three he does a complete about-face, and offers to teach us his secret way to win competitive drinking games--and it's not what you think.

In a series of blog posts this week, I’ll share some of Obsopoeus' insights and practical advice. I’ll also reveal some fascinating background material that I couldn’t squeeze into my book, material that reveals the creative impulse that led him to write it in the first place.

To listen to a podcast expanding on some of these thoughts, click here.

I’d like to end this first post, though, by reflecting on a problem I kept coming up against in translating the poem: namely, the choice between “drunk” and “alcoholic.”

Old Drunkard background

Obsopoeus wrote his Art of Drinking in the 16th century, long before it occurred to anyone to consider excess drinking a disease. Of course he recognized that drinking to excess can be self-destructive, that it ruins your family, finances, health, and even life; he says so himself. The idea of “alcoholism,” though, literally didn’t exist back then.

When I went to translate his poem, then, I faced a dilemma—and a morally loaded one.

Latin has many words, like vinosus, for someone who drinks too much. So, should I translate them “drunk” or “alcoholic”? The first is faithful to Obsopoeus and his world, the second to our own. But the second is anachronistic, and hence faithless to the author.

“In the animal kingdom,” remarked Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012), the late professor of psychiatry, “the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.” Nothing proves his point like having to choose between drunk and alcoholic. One of those words brings naught but condemnation and stigma; the other brings compassion, help, even health insurance payments.

“No one can serve two masters,” quipped Jesus. Meanwhile “the translator is a traitor,” runs a famous Italian proverb (traduttore, traditore). Faced with the impossibility of serving both, I chose to betray both. I wound up charting a middle course, letting the context dictate whether to say “drunk” or “alcoholic.”

I hope readers will tell me what they think.

Notes in the Margin

In a nice review yesterday, Philip Martin wonders about one of my translations. 

Obsopoeus wrote, wine "has no steering wheel."

Wait, he was writing in the 16th century. Did they even have steering wheels then?

They did – on boats! (The Greek proverb literally says “Wine lacks rudders.”)

November 24, 2023

July 14, 2023

December 10, 2022

November 08, 2022

October 05, 2022

July 05, 2022

June 02, 2022

April 27, 2022

January 28, 2022

September 23, 2021

September 02, 2021

August 10, 2021

August 05, 2021

August 01, 2021

July 23, 2021

July 19, 2021

July 15, 2021

June 08, 2021

June 07, 2021

click image to order your copy
That Ship Has Sailed
Click image to order
BAP ad
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


  • StatCounter