Humanly Possible by Sarah Bakewell review – the meaning of humanism

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

“Man was formed of dust, slime and ashes … conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the … stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin.” So wrote Pope Innocent III in his 12th-century On the Misery of the Human Condition. In 1452 Giannozzo Manetti answered Innocent point by point in his own On the Dignity of Man. But as early as the 1300s, Italians were enthusiastically quoting Psalm 8: “Man is only a little lower than the angels.” The passion for finding, collecting and imitating ancient Greek and Roman texts had readjusted moral priorities – away from arduous obedience to supposedly God-given rules and towards celebrating and fostering human happiness. Increasingly, morality’s concern was to alleviate suffering, not to justify God for inflicting it.

To date the rise of “humanism” to the early Renaissance is, strictly speaking, anachronistic; there was no such term until the 19th century. But Humanly Possible traces a lineage, less of theories than of kindred spirits, over seven centuries in Europe. This runs from medieval umanisti (students of humanity), who remained Christian even while resurrecting “the flowering, perfumed, fruitful works of the pagan world spring” (as John of Salisbury called them), to today’s (more secular) self-declared humanists.

Along with intellectual developments, Sarah Bakewell gives us their material background – books, book-selling, printing, corpse dissection, plagues and sprezzatura (courtly nonchalance). Among figures both well known and not are Christine de Pisan, with her redoubtable defence of women’s worth; Erasmus, praising the “folly” of love; the erudite Montaigne, wondering what on earth he knew; Spinoza, challenging the accuracy of biblical narratives; Voltaire, lampooning “the best of all possible worlds” and ridiculing the notion that “whatever is, is right”; Thomas Paine, who deemed religion “irreligious” in its claustrophobic gloom; John Stuart Mill, with his incisive analysis of the oppression of women; and Bertrand Russell, sent to prison for opposing war.

Free thinking, inquiry and hope – these, says Bakewell, are perennial humanist principles. Petrarch rejoiced in “the former pure radiance” transmitted through rediscovered classical texts, but the authority of these would in its turn need to be questioned. Studying Aristotle’s arguments was “not doing philosophy but history”, said Descartes. In 1543, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius would “marvel” at the “blind faith” he had placed in the once-liberating Galen. Books should be signposts, not destinations, wrote EM Forster (he is referenced often and affectionately).

While exalting education, humanists have differed over how much it should consist in implanting knowledge, or in fostering innate “seeds” so “the inner life of the soul” could unfurl; and similarly over how much morality needs to be instilled, how much it is simply the extension of natural “sympathy”, as David Hume maintained. Joseph Stalin might agree with Innocent III that humanity should be remodelled, but (Bakewell quotes a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian) revolution is often so “pure” it leaves “no room for humans”.

Having achieved the death of God, and taken on ‘the task of the murderee’, now we are threatened with the death of man

What actually is a “human”? In the 14th century, Humanitas (being human) implicitly involved refinement, civility, erudition and being articulate. And certainly, says Bakewell, we “occupy a field of reality that is neither entirely physical nor entirely spiritual”, which includes talking, drawing, telling jokes, passing on memories, trying to do the right thing, worshipping in temples, building pyramids, art, literature, culture. People often, and sententiously, quote the line from an old Roman play: “Nothing human is alien to me.” Bakewell makes it a running motif, but it is surely an ambivalent one. Those who quote it are usually vaunting their urbanity and open-mindedness, but aren’t they being smug and overoptimistic? After all, shouldn’t much that is human be ostracised? Pico della Mirandola, in the 15th century, like the existentialists in the 20th, celebrated our “indeterminate nature”. He called us chameleons – able, as “maker and moulder” of ourselves, to become “whatever shape [we prefer]”. But, he admitted, we are therefore free to “become brutish”.

Bakewell quotes William Golding’s line “Man produces evil as a bee produces honey”, and perhaps he does this more easily than he secretes sympathy. Humanly Possible is not just sweetness and light. It shows how often humanist attempts to counteract war, oppression, persecution and censorship have been in vain. LL Zamenhof’s invention of Esperanto, a universal language that would bridge division, turned out to be a touchingly “quixotic fantasy”; his children and other relatives were murdered by the Nazis. Attempts to end the slave trade were for decades pitifully inadequate. The “human” that humanism trumpets has for too long been essentially white, male, able-bodied and educated, with females and people of colour omitted, or sidelined. Far from triumphalist, Bakewell nonetheless urges that humanism is a work in progress, and its advocacy more necessary than ever. Having achieved the death of God, and taken on, as she says, “the task of the murderee”, now we are threatened with the death of man.

Like Bakewell’s previous two books, Humanly Possible skilfully combines philosophy, history and biography. She is scholarly yet accessible, and portrays people and ideas with vitality and without anachronism, making them affecting and alive.

• Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope by Sarah Bakewell is published by Chatto & Windus (£22). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.