Humanly Possible : Seven hundred years of humanist freethinking, enquiry and hope : by Sarah Bakewell. Penguin Random House UK (June, 2023). 454 pages.

I chose to review this book partly because I’ve enjoyed Sarah Bakewell’s earlier books but also because I couldn’t say for sure what humanism actually is and since we say existential therapy fits into humanist philosophy it seemed time to find out!

I asked friends what they think it is and got responses about it being a nebulous concept, too idealistic, or simply ‘no idea’. A therapist colleague admitted, like me, to not having thought deeply about it and suggested it’s “a way of thinking about us lot putting humans/humanity at the heart of the thinking”.

Bakewell sets herself a considerable challenge drawing on ideas from different countries, cultures and traditions through a history of seven centuries to arrive at a current understanding. The 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of Humanists International attempts to provide a summary but compromise has created something rather bland and unsatisfactory, read it and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t set your heart racing but then that is the humanist way.

However Bakewell does tell a fascinating story with many engaging anecdotes and tit bits along the way. Setting the scene, she identifies three common principles: Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope. Freethinking being living by your own moral conscience rather than by reference to authority. Enquiry because humanists believe in study, education and critical thinking, evaluating any text or source considered as beyond question. Hope being belief that it is possible to achieve worthwhile things during our lives and to live as happily and fully as we can and not be constrained, despairing or fearful.

She describes a colourful extensive cast of characters who have lived these principles in various ways and how they have developed humanism to accommodate new ideas in response to significant events and discoveries. They have included manuscript hunters, explorers, printers, collectors, writers, philosophers and scientists.

While acknowledging humanistic thought’s deep history and touching briefly on Protagorus’ statement “Man is the measure of all things” (as my colleague suggested) as an important reference point, she begins her exploration in Early Renaissance Italy with Petrarch (1304 – 1374) whose life and challenges were typical of his time for an aspiring humanist. There were few books available for study and inspiration so each person had to find and develop a network of fellow bookfinders. Travelling far and wide, they borrowed, copied and (mostly but sometimes years later) returned originals. They saw themselves as retrieving lost knowledge to pass on to future generations and in the process achieved impressive collections and learning despite the perils involved. They were inspired by the ancients particularly Cicero for his intellectual scepticism, eloquence and wisdom while seeing themselves as living in a time of dark forgetfulness.

Another challenge was that few in Italy then knew Greek so although they collected copies of Greek manuscripts these mostly sat on shelves as treasured objects unless they could find someone to translate. Hence the saying ‘it’s all Greek to me’ where a copyist came across some Greek in a Latin text. Some Greek authors were available in Latin but had come via Arabic with mistranslations that had to wait for future generations to unravel.

Petrach’s life and views were hugely impacted by the devasting bubonic plague which swept Europe. He lost his son and many friends and concluded “Fortune will always let us down. A better plan is to turn to the comforts of study, reflection and friendship” (Pg 53). He was great letter writer including writing letters to the dead like Cicero, signing himself off ‘from the land of the living’, and with an eye to the future also wrote one ‘to Posterity’.

Printing arrived in Europe in the 15th Century, initially to print thousands of indulgences. Gutenberg printed the first major European book – the Bible. Aldus Manutius who’d had a humanist education became a virtuoso of printing style with 150 presses at work. His printshop became a magnet for humanist scholars living there as a commune while working on translating, editing and weeding out errors in previous copying and translations. Among them in 1507 was Desiderius Erasmus.

Disappointed and scarred by his brutal and rigid schooling, Erasmus proposed education should train a person to be home in the world, in tune with fellow humans, able to live peaceably and enjoy an intellectually satisfying life. A devout Christian he focused on living wisely and well in this world. He had a strong aversion to cruelty and intimidation at time when these were rife with religious wars raging across Europe and Britain, yet he was a great friend and correspondent of Thomas Moore, an enthusiastic burner of heretics. He has been criticised for not realising how many people are attracted to violence and fanaticism and actually yearn for something to fight about. But his legacy lives on in the ERASMUS programme that honours his quest for peace, educational innovation, knowledge sharing, free movement and ‘friendship among many’ (pg 153).

Montaigne (1533-1594) another great humanist, was born three years before Erasmus died. Famous for his essays which express his response to life as it’s happening to him, his state of mind, his health and his reflections on life and how to live it. He happily undermines several humanist sacred cows – if he gets bored with a book he flings it aside, he calls Cicero ‘nothing but wind’ (pg 137). His essays are comforting for their humanity, I particularly liked his thoughts on memory and the impossibility of remembering much of what he has just read which I encountered in Bakewell’s book ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’. He even mocked Protagoras saying “like all of us, he could not have achieved any definite measure of himself” (Pg 157). He said he wrote so much about himself because he was an ordinary example of a human being and that “you can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as a life of the richer stuff” (pg 159). He left no formal school of thought but the next century saw an explosion of personal essays written in his style – witty, sceptical, digressive, reflective and freethinking.

The devasting 1755 Lisbon earthquakes that killed tens of thousands marked a significant development in humanist ideas. The black death was thought to be God’s will, maybe punishment for bad behaviour but Voltaire said instead of a philosophy of despair, accepting what happens, we must ‘cultivate our garden’ meaning we must take control of our destiny and work to improve things through better reasoning, science and technology so enabling us to live more bravely and happily. This attitude became known as ‘meliorism’, making things better ourselves rather than passive submission to fate.

The 18th century also saw important humanist writers like Thomas Paine whose landmark book ‘The Age of Reason’ was banned in Britain for blasphemy and perhaps also because he promoted American independence! David Hume was famously a sceptic and atheist at a time when this was dangerous, there were still book burnings and executions, but he got away with it despite his meticulous arguments against mystical happenings like miracles and the dead coming back to life apparently because he was just so nice. He was also careful to avoid scandal and conflict.

Most of the humanists mentioned so far were only concerned with the lives of white heterosexual men. Enlightenment thinkers started advancing arguments that we are all united in our humanity and should respect and accept difference in others. So humanism expanded to include universality, diversity and moral connection to all. From the late 18th century arguments were taking hold against slavery. Female writers and some men started arguing for the rights of women. Mary Wolstencraft, Harriet Taylor and John Stewart Mill among others.

Another milestone occurred when Wilhelm von Humboldt was appointed to redesign the Prussian education system based on humanist ideals, aimed at unfolding the individual to reach their highest capacity. It didn’t turn out this way but his ideas inspired educators around Europe and Britain including Mathew Arnold who alongside working as a schools inspector wrote reports on the systems in other countries in an attempt “to improve the level of human unfolding” (pg 238). Arnold’s ideas influenced the founding principles of the BBC: to enlighten and inform as well as entertain and be accessible to all; and the founding of institutions for adult education.

Discoveries emerging in the 19th and 20th centuries in geology and paleontology along with Darwin’s theory of evolution were challenging the ‘one-off’ creation story and, together with more widespread education and freethinking, marked the dawn of ‘scientific humanism’ (pg 250) to co-exist with ‘humanities-humanism’ and ‘meliorist humanism’. Despite some disagreements over which is more important they have informed and enhanced one another and extended the scope of humanism.

Darwin speculated the general gaze of others had become, during evolution, identified with an all-seeing Deity. He lost his belief but chose to call himself agnostic rather than atheist. Several humanists wanted to keep the best of Christianity like Thomas Jefferson, a Deist, who removed all the ‘supernatural stuff’ to create the Jefferson bible which he said retained what was the “most sublime and benevolent code of morals” (pg 269). There are still today religious humanists, not mentioned by Bakewell, who are like Erasmus focused on ‘living wisely and well in this world’ while viewing scientific discoveries with awe.

Her tenth chapter identifies several ‘heroic hopers’ such as Ludwik Zamenhof who invented a simple common language Esperanto in the hope it would inspire connection and friendship among people of different cultures and languages. It didn’t take off but crops up here and there including a commemorative plaque in Esperanto near Petrarch’s home.

Another Bakewell ‘hopeful’ Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 and still optimistically rebelling when he died in 1970. He was traumatised by WW1, by the descent into barbarism and by friends becoming German haters. He proclaimed “this is our world and it rests with us to make it a heaven or hell” pg 290. He opposed Vietnam but supported WW2 saying that Hitler and Nazism had to be stopped, to take arms against them was the lesser of two evils. He supported the anti nuclear campaign and after a speech in Hyde park corner was convicted of inciting public disobedience. He was now 81 and the judge tried to let him off for a promise of good behaviour but he would promise no such thing and went to prison.

I think it helps to clarify what humanism is by looking at its opposites such as: Fascism, Nazism, fanaticism, communism and all belief systems that deny personal freedom of thought and behaviour, and that control through fear.

When Hitler came to power he launched a totalitarian education programme aimed at producing children incapable of imagining anything beyond nation and race. Classes habituated them to ideas of war. It was much the same in Fascist Italy. The humanist project was actively put aside but returned afterwards and inspired organisations like UNESCO, its Erasmian founding text stating that as wars begin in human minds, peace must start there too. Notable also was the remarkable survival from the Nazis by transfer to England of the Warburg library filled with works by humanist writers including Petrarch.

There have always been gainsayers to humanist ideals. Thomas Mann being one who said in humanism there is always a weakness, it is too flexible, too easily stunned, intimidated, ignorant of what is happening ‘out there’ and too eager to see the other side of any question which isn’t helpful when dealing with murderous fanaticism (pg 312). All true but as this book makes clear the ideal of a humanistic way of life has shown impressive staying power in the face of active opposition to its rebellious authority-challenging adherents and ideas. We can hope it will continue to inspire, flourish and evolve in spite of those who would destroy it in their pursuit of power and control.