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

Sarah Bakewell
Published by Penguin Press in 2023

Originally published in The Journal Gazette on August 4, 2023.

By the measure of history, the cycle of cynicism gripping our culture is not fatal. While painful, we are not the first to grapple with such a plague of the heart, mind and soul.

In “Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope,” Sarah Bakewell offers a moving, albeit limited, account of how many of our predecessors turned to humanism as a source of hope. While those details prove informative, their greater value may be how they implicitly ask us how we will respond in our own age.

Bakewell, a former library curator turned professional writer, splits her time between the United Kingdom and Italy. Her previous books include the award-winning “How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”: and “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.”

As with “Humanly Possible,” Bakewell draws from the well of Western philosophy in these works as a means of offering readers in the present the hope of ages past.

The ability of readers to resonate with the hope Bakewell details in “Humanly Possible,” however, may be determined by her definition of humanism.

An all-too-often misunderstood way of viewing the world, some understand humanism as investing hope in the material. Others, however, understand humanism as investing hope in the material because of an appreciation for the spiritual. Bakewell’s view of humanism is reflective of the first understanding – what is often referred to as secular humanism.

In that sense, the hope humanism offers is derived from 1) a focus on the here and now; 2) connections with other persons; and 3) the cultivation of human potential.

One may understandably challenge Bakewell’s focus on the here and now. One is unlikely, however, to challenge the importance of connecting with other people and the cultivation of human potential. With those commitments in mind, anyone who values the role of schools in a community, for example, is a humanist.

Secular and religious humanism may not be completely reconcilable. The commitments they share, however, may provide common ground.

The 700-year long excursus on which Bakewell takes her readers is at its best when the figures whose humanism she highlights match most cleanly her definition. Populated by an introduction and 12 chapters, Bakewell begins by reaching back to the ruinous Italian culture of the 14th century and exploring the life and legacy of Petrarch.

Few, if any, reasonable individuals would argue the social and political challenges we face exceed the challenges Petrarch and his contemporaries faced.

As part of the antidote, Petrarch “derived a sense of purpose from his calling to the life of literature.” In essence, Petrarch was convinced the hope of ages past as housed in any number of repositories could inspire hope in the present age.

For Petrarch, reintroducing the thought of Cicero was one such stream of hope. Absent any more efficient means of doing so, Petrarch would spend long hours in any number of repositories copying manuscripts by hand. Such sacrifices were worthwhile as “The ancients make just as good companions as people who consider themselves alive.”

Bakewell’s recounting of these stories only strengthens as she brings readers closer to the present day. Her familiarity with the nuances of their lives seems greater, as does her personal affinity with how they ordered their commitments.

One of those individuals, for example, is the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Few individuals had greater faith in the power “of formal logical reasoning — logic and mathematics becoming his great (and interconnected) loves.”

Whatever naivety Russell possessed about those abilities was tested against atrocities such as World Wars I and II. Regardless, he persisted not only as a logician and mathematician, but as a “polemicist, political activist, sexual liberationist, feminist, rationalist, atheist, ban-the-bomb campaigner, and much else.”

As the stories Bakewell recounts strengthen, they also grow more limited by how they represent her understanding of humanism.

For example, Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher and contemporary of Russell, merits but one passing reference in Bakewell’s book. Maritain, an avowed Christian humanist, is arguably the 20th century’s leading Catholic philosopher and the one Pope Paul VI, the pontiff who brought Vatican II to a successful conclusion, referred to as his mentor.

The only consideration Bakewell grants Maritain is being one who “argued that humans should no longer trust themselves to work toward a better world on their own, and instead should return humbly to the old theologies.”

While limited, the message arcing across Bakewell’s history of humanism should offer some measure of comfort to anyone seeking to escape the cynicism presently plaguing us.

Will fear continue to define the stories we tell ourselves? Or, regardless of where we invest it, will hope define those stories?

Marshalling the wisdom of ages past, history confirms the cycle of cynicism that grips our culture is not fatal. While well-resourced, however, Bakewell leaves us to answer those questions.