BOOK REVIEW: Sarah Bakewell’s HUMANLY POSSIBLE: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking and Hope

Reviewing a new study of humanist thought and humanist lives from the 14th to the 20th centuries, in a book which appeals equally to those familiar with the historical context and those seeking an introduction, Joan Givner makes a case for its embodiment of the traditional humanist values of humour, resilience and moderation.

Reviewing a new study of humanist thought and humanist lives from the 14th to the 20th centuries, in a book which appeals equally to those familiar with the historical context and those seeking an introduction, Joan Givner makes a case for its embodiment of the traditional humanist values of humour, resilience and moderation.

Although Sarah Bakewell’s twin interests are philosophy and biography, she declares at the end of her previous work, At the Existentialist Cafe, that she finds people vastly more interesting than ideas. Accordingly, her survey of humanism over the centuries focuses on humanISTS rather than ISMS. She tells her story through a sequence of vignettes and biographical anecdotes that, even when apocryphal, make it appeal equally to those familiar with the historical content, and those seeking an introduction.

She begins in fourteenth century Tuscany when exhaustion from chaotic tribal conflicts brought a reassessment of the Roman poets and orators whose works had been devalued and destroyed by church teaching. As Bernadino of Siena said, “Each time we read the ribald Ovid, we crucify Christ.” In spite of ecclesiastical threats, writers dared to create a new literature that valued good living based on friendship, virtue and the cultivation of language– studia humanitatis, human studies.

Bakewell relates this chapter through the lens of two figures with lasting influence on English literature–Petrarch and Boccaccio, both of whom defied parental guidance by choosing literary studies and book collecting over lucrative professions in law, business or the church. Theirs is an inspiring story of friendship and mutual support as well as prolific creativity.

In the fifteenth century, she selects a less familiar figure, her personal hero, Lorenzo Valla, a trouble maker, a provocateur and a man without fear–a sine qua non in the face of possible death sentences for those opposing religious orthodoxy. Valla’s major feat was to debunk The Donation of Constantine, a document which was the source of the false theory that Constantine gave Pope Sylvester and his successors dominion over all of Western Europe, including the Italian Peninsula. Valla, a brilliant Latinist, bolstered his exposure of the document’s falsehoods with linguistic analysis that proved the vocabulary was anachronistic.

. . . she declares . . . that she finds people vastly more interesting than ideas.  Accordingly, her survey of humanism over the centuries focuses on humanisISTS rather than ISMS.

In the same century a more familiar character, Girolamo Savonarola, was one of humanism’s most vicious antagonists. He started out promisingly as a writer of Platonic exegesis and Petrarchan poetry until he heard the voice of God urging him to abandon pleasure in the abundance of life and art for piety. Not content with private piety and self-flagellation, he became an extremist, organizing processions, book burnings, and the famous bonfires of vanities that included, not only the destruction of fine clothes and jewels but of harps, lutes, paintings and sculptures. His processions included bands of children who carried out brutal assaults on perceived sinners. The discouraging aspect of this episode was that his fiery rhetoric and fear-mongering also attracted humanists. He was so effective that even Machiavelli, who had heard him preach, studied his methods of whipping up crowds. Like many violent extremists, Savonarola came to a bad end. He was excommunicated by Rome for fabricating visions, tortured, hanged and his body desecrated.

A striking contrast in both life and death to such an unsavoury figure is David Hume, an eighteenth century philosopher who dared to question religion openly. He was resolutely rational, patient, and fearless, qualities that cost him an academic position and made him something of a local pariah, earning him the nicknames The Atheist and The Great Infidel. On the other hand, he was a large jolly man, so unflappably good humoured that an alternative sobriquet was le bon David. His placid deathbed scene (witnessed and recorded by the nosy and intrusive Boswell) was a model of serenity.

Hume epitomizes a paradox among humanists that has left them open to charges of weakness and ineffectiveness. Its adherents are often fearless in expressing their opposition to religious orthodoxy but reluctant to defend their opinions combatively. While Hume openly asserted his beliefs, he omitted from The Treatise of Human Nature one of his key ideas–his disbelief in miracles. Of such matters as the return of the dead to life, he asked, which was more likely–that such a bizarre event happened or that something went in awry in the reporting of it. He attributed the withholding of this commonsense opinion from the Treatise to cowardice. In fact, he shared with Montaigne, Erasmus and others a cautiousness of behaviour alongside an audaciousness of thought. Preternaturally well-mannered, he avoided conflict and confrontation.

Similarly when Darwin injected scientific thought into humanism by publishing The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, copies were eagerly snapped up. It was a featured title at Mudie’s lending library, a measure of success comparable to today’s Book-of-the-Month Club selection. And yet, Darwin avoided the attention and self-promotion that comes with such a dramatic publication. He was content to leave the lectures and public appearances to his friend T.H. Huxley. The two had bonded over Darwin’s collection of maritime creatures popularly known as sea-squirts. It was Huxley who became the explainer and chief defender of The Origin of Species, relishing bantering with critics and trading “monkey” jokes.

Also in the nineteeth century, humanism exerted a powerful influence on the field of education as evidenced by the work of the German philosopher, William Von Humboldt. He believed that education in the early years should be available to all social classes and geared to creating moral responsibility, eagerness for knowledge, life-long learning and a rich inner life rather than to practical skills. After his death his work was published posthumously, translated into English, influencing both John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold. His idea that university education should be largely unsupervised and should proceed through independent research prevailed in England well into the twentieth century. In his native Germany, his influence was curtailed by the Nazis, and replaced by an indoctrination machine.

Fascism, the quasi-religious conception in which the authoritarian state offers a sense of belonging in return for discipline and self-sacrifice, was a reversal of all humanistic values. Many humanists were killed, fled Eastern Europe, or carried their skills and publications to other countries, notably the United States. One rare outspoken survivor in Italy (albeit under house arrest) was the humanist philosopher and biographer, Benedetto Croce. Acknowledging that detours were bound to happen, he counselled waiting hopefully, rather than falling into despair because the long arc of history would eventually bend toward greater freedom. Nevertheless, he cautioned that believing “this too will pass” was no reason to sit back and wait for that to happen. Freedom must always be fought for. But what exactly were humanists to do?

For her exemplary character in this crisis, Bakewell chooses the novelist, Thomas Mann. He escaped with his family to the United States and found refuge there during the war years. He forcefully described the magnetism of extreme ideas in his short story “Mario and the Magician” and addressed them at greater length in his novel The Magic Mountain, which features extended conversations between a humanist and a proto-totalitarian who sees no problem in mass illiteracy. In his other writings and speeches, Mann mused on what he saw as an element of weakness in all humanism that might be its ruin. He blamed its tendency to being flexible, too ready to see the other side of any question and to make concessions.

In her introduction, Bakewell addresses the problem of defining humanism without limiting its diversity and individuality. With characteristic wit she quotes from a comic novel, David Nobbs’s Second from Last in the Sack Race. Here four students at the Thurmarsh Grammar School’s Humanist Bisexual (i.e. co-educational) Society each offer an understanding of the subject. These range from invoking the Renaissance’s attempt to escape the Middle Ages; being nice to animals and old people; rejecting supernaturalism; and one student wishes to include believers in God. Bakewell allows that each has some truth.

In her final chapter, she comes full circle with a chronological account of attempts by Twentieth Century humanists to form an organization. Initially, there was resistance by some to the very idea of organizing and of codifying its beliefs. It all seemed a bit too close to the creeds, commandments, and strictures of orthodox religions. But in 1952, after forty hours of discussion, the title International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU) was agreed on. The latest effort in 2022 was The Declaration of Modern Humanism, which Bakewell handily includes in an appendix. She praises its flexibility and willingness to accommodate different approaches, the very elements in which Thomas Mann saw the weakness of humanism.

Bakewell expresses her own preference for emphasizing ethics, values, and the duty of care for others over “matters of belief, irreligion, or even reason.” “Carping at the faithful” she finds alienating for many. This seems to me a false dichotomy since most religions subscribe to ethical standards and concern for the wellbeing of others. It is, in fact, its emphasis on science, reason and the rejection of the supernatural that is the crucial factor in differentiating humanism from orthodox religions. It can hardly be dismissed as “carping at the faithful,” especially since another defining feature is its unwillingness to proselytize. Her reluctance to press this most salient and contentious aspect of humanism seems to me to exemplify Thomas Mann’s charge of weakness.

Nevertheless, the author’s own writing practice incorporates into her work a strong manifestation of humanism’s virtues. Her foregrounding of the adherents’ lives affirms, better than any direct statement, the worth and dignity of the individual. Her many references to works of art and literature alongside philosophy speak to their equal value. Finally, her wit makes the case for the importance of humour, not only as a component in human happiness and well-being, but for its subversive power in the face of authoritarianism.