Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope by Sarah Bakewell


Review by Walter Cummins

Sarah Bakewell begins Humanly Possible by delineating the characteristics of humanism and then goes on to describe how these ideas emerged and were developed through the writing and thinking of authors from Petrarch and Boccaccio through Erasmus and Hume to those of the Victorian age and the present. But in the final pages her purpose shifts to defending—almost pleading for—the values and goals of humanism when much of the current world is hostile to its tenets.

Humanism, according to Bakewell, always had its foes in the established power structure; most often, throughout history, they were embodied in religious authorities and more recently the central economic-political system. Writings had to be kept secret, often for decades, because they promoted ideas that those in control felt compelled to suppress as threats to their dominance.

From one perspective, humanism appears to have prevailed in much of the Western world. Individuals enjoy far greater freedom of expression, religious orthodoxies have waned, women possess rights beyond voting, sexual preference is far more open. Yet large areas of the world have never accepted humanist assumptions and have become more aggressive in combating them. Even parts of Europe and the United States have seen a populist backlash that targets humanist principles. The decline of the humanities in education reveals a growing indifference to humanist concerns. Bakewell is worried.

A self-identified humanist, Bakewell considers this the essential principle of the movement: “the individual is kept at the top of the list of concerns, not subordinated to some grander concept or ideal.” She denotes these concepts as fundamental: the focus on the here and now and our lives’ meaning found in bonds with each other. We should not live by the rules of a greater authority, sacred or secular. She holds E.M. Forster’s “only connect” as the focus of human existence. Humanists believe in free thinking, study and education, and hope for worthwhile accomplishments.

To me these seem benign, not doctrinaire or domineering, with no set agenda, just offering latitude for people to pursue goals and interests in their quest for a better world. In one sense, humanism isn’t against anything other than oppression. Yet those protecting the established system consider the ability to inquire and express implicit dangers to the rules and ends underlying that system. An emphasis on the individual threatens some grand plan or goal. That fear serves as the basis of anti-humanism.

Humanists throughout the book’s seven hundred years were aware that they had to be careful, that there were boundaries they could not challenge. Some were imprisoned and even executed for their ideas. Others were aware of subjects they could not address publicly, as with manuscripts they kept secret and did not publish in their lifetimes. For example, David Hume at the last minute withdrew sections on suicide and the immorality of the soul from a new book. E.M. Forster withheld his homosexual novel, Maurice, from publication in his lifetime.

Yet, as much as she endorses humanism, Bakewell is aware of its limitations, specifically its overly optimistic assumptions about human nature and the human ability to accomplish social, political, and economic progress. She does not dwell on this limitation but allows it to slip into her study, for example, when admitting our propensity for warfare.

In her consideration of Erasmus, she approves his definition of a life of peace as “friendship among many,” but then asks why people “keep unleashing the furor of war and its ugly consequences,” in effect, “murder among many.” Erasmus blames war on bad government, foolish or irresponsible rulers stimulating the worst of human emotions. In addition, lawyers and theologians who should be correcting these errors exacerbate them instead. The answer for Erasmus, an ideal humanist, is education that will provide people with the skills to create and maintain a happy, peaceful society. Bakewell suggests that Erasmus’s temperament led him “to underestimate the real depth of human attraction to violence, unreason, and fanaticism.”

Erasmus is not unique in this failure to grasp the depth of the attraction of violence. Yet Bakewell attempts to seek a potential positive in human reactions:

Other humanists have had a similar blind spot, in other times, and many are thus left helplessly wondering again and again why everyone around them seems to have gone mad. But then, they are not always wrong: sometimes the Erasmian spirit does return, at least for a while, and when it does, it is often a reaction against the episodes of suffering caused by its opposite.

It’s the “for a while” that speaks to an essential limitation of humanism, one Bakewell would like to wish away, perhaps because she cannot find a meaningful alternative to pursuing the goals she endorses.

Whatever the weaknesses and limitations of humanism, however, the opposing forces are much too dangerous not to be opposed:

…for our own time: a whole breed of authoritarian, fundamentalist, illiberal, repressive, war-mongering, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, nationalist, and populist manipulators, some of whom claim devotion to traditional religious pieties, whether or not this is sincere. They show contempt for actual human lives yet promise—always!—something higher and better. As enemies of humanism, and of human well-being, they must be taken seriously.

As Bakewell sees the world we live in, the principles of humanism are our most crucial response to the enemies of humanity.