Weaving together Humanism’s many colored threads

18 September 2023

Review: Sarah Bakewell, Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope (Chatto & Windus, 2023)


The British writer Sarah Bakewell is a proven master at presenting serious questions of philosophy and intellectual history to general readers. In her delightful 2016 book At the Existentialist Café, she examined the philosophical way of thinking termed Existentialism, using an historical approach grounded in the actual lives of Existentialist philosophers (I reviewed At the Existentialist Café on my personal blog in 2017). That study provided a philosophical history covering a period of about half a century. Her most recent book Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope, is even more ambitious in its scope.


Bakewell’s objective in this erudite and thoroughly captivating volume is to trace the strain of thought known as Humanism from its roots in 14th century Italy to the present, by looking at a broad selection of figures whose thinking she takes to comprise the Humanist tradition, even though almost none used the term to refer to themselves, and despite considerable debate as to who was, and was not, a Humanist. There is no firm consensus even among committed humanists, as to what the term Humanism means in all its dimensions and incarnations. The term itself did not come into common usage until the early 19thcentury, when it was used to describe an educational approach centered upon the study of Greek and Roman classics.


Humanism is often thought of as a form of opposition to religion and specifically to the Christian theological view of humans as inherently sinful beings who need to subordinate their lives to the will of God and position themselves for a good place in the hereafter. But for Bakewell Humanism is far more complex than simple anti-religious thinking. There have always been Humanist currents within Christianity and other faiths, she notes, where the focus has been “mostly on the lives and experiences of people here on Earth, rather than on institutions or doctrines, or the theology of the Beyond.” Further, the terms “Humanist” and “Humanism” often arise in contexts outside the realm of religion, including architecture, philosophy, medicine, literature, photography, and film.


Today there are identifiable Humanist organizations throughout the world whose members meet, discuss, disagree, and issue manifestoes, focusing frequently on what the word humanism itself means. While the word sometimes seems ensnared in a “semantic cloud of meaning,” as Bakewell puts it, her title suggests that, at a minimum, Humanism is a perspective based on freethinking, enquiry, and hope. Freethinking denotes a preference for allowing our lives to be guided by moral consciousness and evidence, “rather than by dogmas justified solely by reference to authority;” enquiry reflects a belief in the value of study, education and the use of reason as a means to a more virtuous and civilized life; and hope is just that, the feeling that, despite recurring and dispiriting evidence of human failings, it is possible to “achieve worthwhile things during our brief existence on Earth.”


The diverse strands and manifestations which freethinking, enquiry, and hope have taken over the centuries constitute a “coherent, shared humanist tradition,” Bakewell argues, linked by what she terms “multicolored but meaningful threads.” All “look to the human dimension of life,” she writes with emphasis. The views of Humanists “now permeate many societies, whether recognized as such or not.” Almost by definition, “everything we do can seem a bit humanistic.” Although many earlier works have addressed aspects of Humanism, Humanly Possible appears to be the first which attempts to weave the multicolored threads into a comprehensive historical overview of the Humanist tradition.


Bakewell presents that tradition in approximate but not exact chronological order, with the 14th to 18th centuries constituting roughly the first half of her narrative. From the 14th to the 17th century, Humanism overlapped with what we term the Renaissance, centered initially on the Italian peninsula; in the 18th century, it was nearly congruent with the French Enlightenment. The second half of Bakewell’s narrative is dedicated to what might be termed modern Humanism, from the 19thcentury to the present.


In the 19th century, when the term Humanism came into common usage, Humanist thinking supported the rise of liberal democracy and came to embrace science and the scientific method as keys to Humanist understanding. But the 20th century presented new and frightful challenges to the Humanist understanding.  Two world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the Holocaust, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities in the first half of the century caused many writers to see an “unanswerable refutation of the entire humanist worldview… The idea that humans somehow oozed evil took up residence in the cultural atmosphere.”


Yet if the entire Humanist project was thrown into doubt by the experience of two world wars, the Holocaust,  and the rise of totalitarianism, the post-war years also saw an ever-wider acceptance for core Humanist values.  Humanism began to take into account a wider range of issues, including racism, colonialism, cultural diversity and, more recently, climate change and damage to the planet. Across the seven centuries, Humanists of course had to confront anti-Humanist thinking and action, confrontations which helped produce many of the multicolored threads that are central to Bakewell’s narrative.


That narrative is about Humanists as much as it is about Humanism. Centered around short biographical sketches of about 50 thinkers who can be considered representative of the Humanist tradition across the centuries, Humanly Possible is a distinctive blend of biography and intellectual history. Some of the figures Bakewell features are well-known, many less so. Among the 50, the following jumped out at me as Bakewell’s favorites, her most consequential Humanists: Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), David Hume (1711-1776), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).


Together, Petrarch and Boccaccio “more or less invented the way of life that would be, for the next two centuries, the humanist one – not that they used this label of themselves,” Bakewell writes. Neither attacked the Catholic Church directly, but each sought to revive the classical Roman tradition which they thought early Christianity had tried to suppress, especially the works of Virgil and Cicero. Boccaccio also became the first serious Dante scholar. Both were known for their prolific writing, and each engaged in book collecting, translating, and editing.


Bakewell describes the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus as one of the “most many-faceted of Humanists, the author of translations, dialogues, diatribes, technological tracts, writing manuals, study guides, proverb collections, amusing diversions, and astonishing quantities of letters.” Indeed, Erasmus almost singlehandedly gave Humanism a Northern European face in the 16th century. Michel de Montaigne, the subject of Bakewell’s first major work, How to Live, was the other major non-Italian humanist giant of the 16th century, whose most significant contribution to Humanism in Bakewell’s view was his belief that “all people share an essential, common humanity.”


Along with the usual personalities of the French Enlightenment, including Voltaire and Diderot, Bakewell highlights the contribution of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman, appearing at the height of the French Revolution in 1792, pushed the idea that to be fully humanized in matters of virtue, women too must have a humanizing education. But Bakewell gives special attention to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whom she describes as the “most intellectually merciless thinker of his time,” making him both the perfect Enlightenment figure and the perfect Humanist. Hume located the basis for morality in “sympathy,” or fellow feeling, then used the idea of sympathy to produce a comprehensive theory of ethics.


Amongst the many 19th century thinkers who could be considered Humanists, Bakewell focuses upon the Prussian educator Wilhelm von Humboldt and the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. The thinking of both helped lay the foundation for modern liberal democracy with the idea that the state should not impose any particular religion or dogma on society. For each, the role of the state was to step in only when one’s pursuit of freedom and experience damages others. Humboldt also developed ideas on education that were picked up by subsequent Humanists, while Mill became a 19th century champion of women’s rights.


Charles Darwin’s contribution to Humanism lies mostly in a work that appeared in 1871, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, rather than his most famous work, the 1859 On the Origins of the Species. The latter said little about man and nothing about human morality. In his 1871 work, by contrast, Darwin developed what Bakewell considers a quintessentially Humanistic view that morality entered the human world from social feelings and behavior, with no need to rely upon God.


The zoologist, educator, essayist and polemicist Thomas Huxley did more than anyone else in his time to promote Darwin’s ideas and, more than Darwin, was responsible for the rise of scientific Humanism. Good scientific training, Huxley contended, “protects us against a tendency to go storming off into foolish interpretations based on misunderstandings of the facts, or how matters of evidence or experiment work,” a perspective that Bakewell suggests could have prevented some of the waves of misinformation and superstition that the recent Covid-19 pandemic engendered.


The English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell stands out as arguably the 20th century’s most consistent and persistent proponent of Humanist values.  Born in the19th century, Russell lived long enough to protest not only World War I but also nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war. Russell’s strongest conviction was that accepting assertions based solely on authority is never good enough. Up to the end of his long and varied career as a thinker and activist, Russell maintained that progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom was still possible, urging fellow human beings to “remember your humanity and forget the rest”, despite the trauma of the century through which he lived.


In addition to these luminaries, Bakewell includes biographical sketches of approximately 40 others across the seven centuries who contributed to the humanist tradition. As in At the Existentialist Café, the sketches, written in her inimitable breezy style, dig into the “adventures, quarrels, efforts and tribulations” of the key humanist figures.  But given the broad scope of humanist thinking, readers may wish to challenge Bakewell’s omissions, asking why any number of luminaries were not among those meriting a biographical sketch.


My list includes two of the German language’s leading lights, poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and philosopher Immanuel Kant, who receive only scant attention. Novelists are almost by definition humanists in that they shed light on the human condition. Bakewell includes biographical sketches of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, and Thomas Mann but only mentions such consequential novelists as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust in passing, or does not mention them at all. Although Bakewell does not ignore the role of sexuality in all its dimensions in shaping Humanist thought, Sigmund Freud and his thinking are curiously absent. It is not difficult to imagine various Humanist societies around the world protesting vehemently to Bakewell about the omission or slighting of a particular figure or figures.


The 50 or so figures who anchor Bakewell’s narrative, moreover, are all European or North American, and almost all male. Recognizing that her narrative has a Eurocentric slant, Bakewell periodically includes non-Western contributions to the Humanist tradition. Although Johannes Gutenberg famously produced the first European printed book in 1455, for example, she makes clear that printing techniques had been pioneered in China and Korea long before.


Bakewell is also keen to mention the contributions of women throughout and includes an entire chapter dedicated to female contributions to the Humanist tradition, along with biographical sketches of both Enlightenment figure Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Augusta Ward (1851-1920).  Ward’s late-19th century novel Robert Elsmere shows a clergyman transitioning to religious skepticism on the way to becoming a Humanist who sets up an alternative organization to a church, “based on meliorism and reform of conditions for the poor.”


Bakewell also mounts a vigorous response to the criticisms that emerged in the aftermath of World War II, when the anti-Humanist disasters of the first half of the 20th century prompted some writers to dismiss humanism as antiquated, hopelessly naïve, and irrelevant. Among them, French philosopher Michel Foucault nonetheless offered what Bakewell considers a “valuable overhaul service” to conventional Humanist thinking by highlighting structural inequities such as racism and colonialism that European Humanists had hitherto been “inclined to think too little about.”


The post-war reevaluation of traditional Humanism was undoubtably healthy and useful, Bakewell acknowledges. But if critiques such as those of Foucault forced humanists to take more serious account of cultural diversity and structural inequities, they were all too easily flipped over into “something more like a total rejection of liberal, Humanistic and Enlightenment values, as if these values were to blame for their own negation.” Bakewell terms this a “bizarre twist,” comparable to the notion that “car crashes will occur despite traffic lights, therefore traffic lights are to blame.”


One early example of how cultural diversity could shape Humanism was the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which benefited from input and support from all corners of the globe.  By bringing the perspectives of non-Western as well as Western countries to bear on its task of balancing rights and duties, individualism and community, the declaration offered an answer to the question whether one could speak of “anything ‘universal’ in humanity at all.” The resulting text, both Humanist and practical, was far more inclusive and culturally sensitive than any similar document of its time.


After the Second World War, Humanist organizations emerged in many parts of the world. In India, Nath Roy, who in good Humanist style rejected the austere lifestyle of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, led a particularly strong organization. Today, sub-groups of Black, Latina and LGBTQ+ Humanists often form part of larger Humanist groups. More than ever before, today’s Humanist organizations work to become more approachable, building “better connections with wider communities – including some that may have a high level of distrust or dislike of humanism.” The wider range of traditions that nourish contemporary Humanism are captured in a 2022 version of the Humanist Manifesto, a text Bakewell considers comprehensive yet appropriately modest.


Along with its emphasis on human diversity, the recent manifesto rejects racism and ethnic prejudice far more explicitly than any of its predecessors. It further makes clear that Humanism does not define itself in opposition to organized religion, recognizing that if Humanists are “perceived mainly as anti-religious, they may be thought of as opposing the validity not just of specific beliefs but of the whole principle of meaning and identity.” But Humanist values are anything but firmly entrenched in today’s world.


Bakewell notes at the outset that Humanism is outlawed as a form of blasphemy in Pakistan, with Pakistani Humanists often killed by vigilante mobs, most recently in 2017. Human rights abuses recur with discouraging regularity across the globe, while democratic governments struggle to withstand nationalist and populist authoritarianism that seeks to undermine basic democratic – and Humanist – principles. Contemporary Humanists must also acknowledge the many ways that humans are “hardly a good influence on the planet, wrecking its climate and ecosystem, obliterating species with our crops and livestock” and “redirecting every resource to the production of more and more humanity.”


Although anti-humanist thinking and actions remain very much part of our daily human landscape, Bakewell counsels us not to despair.  History and the human world are “neither stable and good on the one hand, nor hopelessly tragic on the other.”  They are, she writes with emphasis, “our own work, so if we want it to proceed well, we have to exert ourselves to make it happen.” Keeping the humanist perspective vital and relevant requires “all the ingenuity we can muster,” she concludes.  In her illuminating account of that rich and complex perspective over the course of seven centuries, Bakewell’s own ingenuity is on full display.


Image credit: Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope [cover] (Chatto and Windus), Fair Use.

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