I have mentioned in a previous letter the story of how during the Roman era, the inhabitants of the province of Hispania, which is now Spain, pronounced the word vivere (to live) as bibere (to drink). This is why it is said that Julius Caesar would joke by saying, “Beati hispani quibus vivere est bibere,” which translates as “Fortunate the ‘Hispanics’, for whom living is drinking.” As you friends have seen first-hand, this remains true for all those of us who come from the people of Hispania. But beyond the obviously comical, the deepest meaning of this saying is largely misunderstood.
Vivere est bibere is not just about drinking. It represents a way of life of community centered around the rituals that bind us to one another. It is, in its most fundamental sense, not to live in drinking as vice but to live in the mode of festivity. It is a life of the neighborhood bar, and the farm, and the table, and the town square. It is a life where the downtown streets and piazzas are the constant evidence that buildings cannot contain the overpouring will of the human spirit.
Vivere est bibere is spontaneous gathering and a disposition to give and receive. It is a life that does not admit the edification of the alienating walls of personal space. It is the front door that is always open, and a constant disposition towards hospitality. It is always living with the expectation that strangers may be “angels in disguise,” and that “all strangers are beggars from Zeus.” It is to understand that the bar and the church are the height of civilization and that the rest is fluff. It is to realize that the only proper response to the overabundance of existence is celebration and that everything else is secondary in comparison.
Just like vivere est bibere was the rather ridiculous way of life of those in the distant peninsula of Hispania compared to the serious industry of Rome, this way of life remains somewhat ridiculous in the modern world. But as Don Quijote taught us, the ridiculous can also be the most heroic and reactionary. In a world obsessed with health and metrics, we often forget that community and intimacy are the center of all health and human flourishing. Our vivere est bibere refuses to conform to the status quo of an era that seems suspiciously determined to separate us into isolated individuals with no will or bonds. Our vivere est bibere is the realization that nothing is closer to us than the face of the other and that in that encounter lies all truth and meaning. Our vivere est bibere is the reminder that we are and always will be each other’s only shelter.
Vivere est bibere!