Review | Sarah Bakewell takes us on a 700-year tour of humanism

Sarah Bakewell, our premier popularizer of the history of philosophy, just keeps going bigger. Her breakthrough 2010 smash, “How to Live,” was an innovative exercise in writing the life of a sole subject — in that case, essayist Michel de Montaigne. Her 2016 follow-up, “At the Existentialist Café” (2016), looked at the enduring influence of a handful of 20th-century thinkers. Now, with “Humanly Possible,” she attempts a group biography with a cast of dozens, from antiquity to now. Her topic is humanism, and she’s given us a chatty, discursive survey of way more than the “seven hundred years” of “freethinking, inquiry and hope” that her subtitle promises.

Bakewell is interested in describing the nontheistic tradition that urges us to be happy in the here and now, rather than waiting for an afterlife, and to seek that happiness through good works and kindness to others. She begins in the fifth century B.C.E., when Democritus formulated his atomism, locating the ultimate nature of things in matter rather than divinity. Before it’s all over, she has roped in literary humanists like Petrarch and Montaigne (naturally); Enlightenment skeptic David Hume; the utilitarian John Stuart Mill; Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Ludwik Zamenhof (inventor of the international language Esperanto), Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell and Zora Neale Hurston, among many others.

Her goal is to offer them up as models, reminders us that there have always been alternatives to religion, fascism and other forms of idol worship; her method is to introduce us to a favorite thinker, put him or her in context (that context usually being Europe, mostly from 1300 to 1950 or so), and then sprinkle some anecdotes, like fairy dust (too religious a metaphor?), to make them come alive. Some humanists are explicitly interested in alternatives to religion; others, like Leonardo da Vinci, are important to the humanist project because of their avid attention to the glories of man.

Bakewell is not blind to the failings of humanists, who can be racist, sexist or just more generally stupid. They can be quixotic and daft, like the post-Revolutionary Frenchman Auguste Comte, who tried to create a godless religion, replacing the Virgin Mary as an object of veneration with Clotilde de Vaux, a freethinking French intellectual who died in 1846, at age 31, and on whom Comte had a big crush. Comte also briefly considered making himself the pope of this new religion. (Somehow, it never caught on.) Bakewell has fun at her subjects’ expense, as when she describes how 16th-century physician Vesalius wrote an anatomy textbook in which he mislabeled the clitoris.

But often enough, Bakewell believes, humanists have acted with courage and integrity, in societies that have often believed that only Christians can be trusted. In 1961, at the age of 89, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, lifelong atheist and activist, accepted a jail sentence for “inciting the public to civil disobedience” at an anti-nuclear demonstration rather than make a promise of “good behavior.” He spent a week in Brixton Prison.

But do these diverse thinkers really have that much in common, other than Bakewell’s admiration? “It all seems gently foggy,” Bakewell writes at the outset, “and yet I do believe that there is such a thing as a coherent, shared humanist tradition.” Not all of her subjects are atheists — the Dutchman Erasmus (1466-1536) was a Christian humanist, and there are to this day Jews, Christians and other religious people who see the human being as a wondrous creation, to be exalted and respected, rather than simply as a natural sinner.

Halfway through, Bakewell pauses to offer the four principles she says humanists have in common: a belief in shared humanity, a respect for human diversity, the valuing of critical thinking and the belief that moral lives “are best served by looking for ways of connecting.” I find this persuasive. By elevating universalism alongside diversity — she returns many times to E.M. Forster’s fixation on “connection” — Bakewell implicitly argues that our current polarization is not some sort of inevitable natural state. And although she mostly steers clear of contemporary politics, it’s impossible to read this book without concluding that Bakewell laments the fashionable obsession with individual identities (racial, national, religious, sexual) at the expense of all that humans have in common.

At times, I was troubled by the utopianism running through this work, a preference for monks and eschatological dreamers over people who make an actual difference. I would have replaced Zamenhof, whose Esperanto never conquered the globe, with his fellow Jew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who did more than anyone to make Hebrew a living language for millions — one of the great humanistic achievements ever. I was perplexed by the omission of Freud, who is mentioned once, in passing. His critique of the religious impulse, his deep interest in the human mind and his compulsive correspondence with peers, building connections, are all humanistic activities par excellence.

Bakewell’s treatment of the contemporary humanist movement is cursory and inadequate. There is no mention of the famous atheists of the last century: no Madalyn Murray O’Hair, no Christopher Hitchens. Both could be famously unpleasant, so perhaps she does not want them at her party. She overlooks the weird infighting and persistent misogyny that have characterized contemporary humanist associations in the United States. And while this may be beyond the scope of the book, humanism can be distorted into the sci-fi human-potential nonsense that infects Silicon Valley and will almost certainly, with artificial intelligence, continue to make human life worse. When I think about who is pushing back, offering alternative models, I think of religious people, like Sabbath-observant Jews and those in Catholic religious orders. They would say they love God above all, but in practice they love humans far more than most secular computer scientists.

Still, “Humanly Possible” is a terrific invitation to argument, to conversation, to all the fun people make together, on their own. Bakewell is particularly fond of Erasmus, who was “repelled by the aggression of Luther,” his fellow Protestant reformer. “Courtesy, of course, was everything” to Erasmus, she writes. It was not “just a social veneer,” but “the very basis for all mutual respect and concord.” The United States is increasingly irreligious, but until we relearn — on social media, in our politics, in person — that Erasmian courtesy, we shall not deserve to call ourselves humanists.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.”

Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope

Penguin Press. 454 pp. $30

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