About Sarah Bakewell’s Book Titled “Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry and Hope”

From a New York Times book review by Jennifer Schuessler headlined “For Sarah Bakewell, Nothing Human is Alien”:

What does it mean to be human? It’s an ancient question that’s hard to answer, but easy to ask.

Each year, a steady stream of books and podcasts explain how to be human at work, in relationships, in a changing (or technical, or warming, or whatever) world. Meanwhile, in some intellectual quarters, “humanism” is seen as a mask for elitism, bourgeois complacency or worse — when it isn’t dismissed entirely as a uselessly squishy concept.

Enter Sarah Bakewell, who is no stranger to the art of applying sophisticated philosophical thinking to the urgent business of daily life. In 2010, she had a breakout hit with “How To Live,” an experimental biography of the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne that brought a cheeky, self-help-inflected wit to the subject. (Step One: “Be born.”)

Next came “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails,” her 2016 group portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other thinkers who wrestled with the intertwined philosophical and political crises of the 20th century.

Now, she’s back with “Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry and Hope,” a history — and defense — of the grand humanist project, from the first stirrings of the Italian Renaissance to today’s debates about technology, artificial intelligence and transhumanism.

That might sound big and, well, blobby. And even Bakewell acknowledges, in characteristically understated — and British — fashion, that the whole subject can be “gently foggy.”

“Humanly Possible,” published by Penguin Press, aims to bring some clarity to the issue, while also connecting two kinds humanism that are often seen as separate: the tradition of learning and inquiry that in the West goes back (at least) to the umanisti of Renaissance Italy, and the lineage of religious freethinkers who have tried to create a God-free system of ethics.

“I was interested in the big question: What is the relationship between these two kinds of humanism?” Bakewell said in a video interview from a small town in the Marche region of Italy where she spends part of the year. “I am very immersed in both of these traditions, which are often referred to as if they had nothing to do with each other, and it’s just an accident they share the word.”

Even today, she said, overtly nonreligious humanists are sometimes viewed with suspicion, and seen as too aggressive, too negative. For Bakewell, hopefulness, connection and good cheer are central to all humanist enterprise.

“My idea was to take what’s presented as negative thing — ‘I don’t want to be associated with that lot’ — and turn the whole investigation into a positive thing,” she said. “What do they have in common? And what’s interesting about the shared parts?”

Bakewell’s books are anchors on the growing shelf of recent popular books exploring complex philosophical ideas, from historically-grounded narratives like Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” and Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” to newer entries like Regan Penaluna’s “How To Think Like a Woman” or Julian Baggini’s “How to Think Like a Philosopher.”

But the particular charm and power of Bakewell’s writing, admirers say, is the way she focuses on “-ists” more than “-isms,” treating ideas as grounded in the idiosyncrasies of individual lives.

Asked to sum up Bakewell’s approach, Eric Banks, the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, where Bakewell was a writer in residence in 2015, paused a moment, then offered a tentative “Bakewellian?”

“The generosity you can feel on the page, the enthusiasm — that’s her personality,” he said.

He added: “There’s the old joke about eating your vegetables. But with her, you never get a sense you’re being told to read something that’s good for you.”

Bakewell, 59, was born in Bournemouth, England, to bookish parents who ran a small hotel. On her website, she recalls how they would “bundle me into a well-padded drawer and load me into the back seat of the car, then head off to Switzerland or Russia.”

When she was around 6, the family spent two years wandering through India in a Volkswagen bus before settling in Sydney, Australia, where her father ran a university bookstore and her mother worked as a librarian. They moved back to Europe, taking off regularly for family backpacking trips through Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

At the University of Essex, in Britain, Bakewell started studying literature, then drifted to philosophy, spurred by the school’s unusual mandatory curriculum for all first-year students, which was grounded in Continental philosophy, rather than the analytic, language-focused variety dominant in most Anglo-American universities.

She enrolled in the Ph.D. program, and planned on writing a dissertation about Martin Heidegger (whose tilt toward Nazism she discusses in “At the Existentialist Café”), but got disillusioned. “The wind really went out of my sails on that one,” she recalled.

Instead she moved to London to become a writer, working a series of “really awful” day jobs, including one in a tea-bag factory. After doing a postgraduate degree in artificial intelligence, she got a job as a librarian and then a curator and cataloger of early modern books at the Wellcome Trust, a London-based charitable foundation dedicated to the relationship between health, culture and medicine.

Her first book, “The Smart,” an 18th-century true crime story involving an infamous courtesan, was based on an obscure pamphlet she came across in the collection. It was followed by “The English Dane,” about Jorgen Jorgenson, a 19th-century adventurer who founded the first European colony in Tasmania.

“How to Live” was inspired by another moment of serendipity. About 30 years ago, she was in Hungary, looking for something to read during a train ride, when she picked up a copy of Montaigne’s essays. She was enthralled.

Montaigne pops up again in “Humanly Possible.” Bakewell describes how he “trashes all the humanistic pieties on the subject of reading,” defending, for example, the right to unapologetically toss a dull book aside.

“What he looks for in a book is to make some kind of contact with the person who wrote it, that sense of the personality of the author,” Bakewell said. “I feel that too.”

The pyramid of exemplary humanists featured on the cover of the U.S. edition includes Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass. But Bakewell takes a primarily European perspective, looking at the familiar, and often unfamiliar, dead white guys with fascination and sometimes irreverent intimacy.

Among her personal heroes, she says, is Lorenzo Valla, the 15th-century Italian humanist who exposed as a forgery a 4th-century text, “The Donation of Constantine,” that was believed to cede the Italian peninsula to papal rule.

Valla “is a kind of philologist-hero,” she said, with a laugh. “I like his fearlessness, the way he just attacks everything he thinks wasn’t right, using a lot of humanist tools — killer philology, but also historical argument. And all this massive rhetoric! ‘You dolt,’ ‘You idiot’ — he did like to lay it on thick.”

Bakewell also confesses “a soft spot” for the early 20th-century Cambridge philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell and for the Victorian literary critic Matthew Arnold, hardly fashionable figures these days.

Today, Arnold’s vision of culture as “sweetness and light” is often mocked as elitist hokum. But Bakewell sees in Arnold a democratizing spirit, as well as a “cheeky humor” that surprised her when she got around to actually reading his 1882 book “Culture and Anarchy.”

As for Russell, she acknowledges his less savory sides — he was likely a “sex addict,” she writes, a relentless womanizer. But she admires his prickly humor and unflagging activism, from his pacifism in World War I to his support for nuclear disarmament in the 1970s.

“He really urged people to live with more hope and less fear,” she said.

Bakewell, who mostly lives in London, did the bulk of her research at repositories like the British Library. But at one point, she thought she might need to supplement her French, Italian and German sources with some Esperanto. She only got so far as downloading lessons on Duolingo, but its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, gets a chapter in the book.

Today, Esperanto may seem like little more than a colorful historical oddity. But Bakewell sees the dream of a universal language, and Zamenhof’s less well-known effort to create a universal religion called “Homaranismo” — Esperanto for “humanism” — as connected with the centuries-long humanist project.

Bakewell also discusses the many critiques of humanism, from figures like the postcolonial writer Frantz Fanon and the philosopher Michel Foucault. She said she sees them as offering less a repudiation than “a valuable overhaul” of humanism.

But “Humanly Possible” is a fundamentally sunny, companionable, let’s-get-along book, in keeping with Bakewell’s own temperament.

While working on the book, she got involved with Humanists UK, founded in 1896, which advocates for “a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail.” The updated Declaration of Modern Humanism, adopted in 2022 by Humanists International, is included in an appendix.

But unlike the so-called New Atheists, with their caustic dismissals of religion, Bakewell is hardly spoiling for a fight.

“Religion is itself a very distinctively human activity,” she said. “And if you’re trying to put human culture, human activity, at the center of your thinking, there’s something very odd about turning your back completely on religion.”

For Bakewell, the essence of humanism lies not in grand ideas but the idiosyncrasies of individual experience — and the joyful strangeness of language itself.

Take “thitherward,” a word Bakewell stumbled upon, delightedly, thanks to Arnold, who urged everyone to work “to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream sweeping thitherward.”

“I just love that word,” she said. “We should bring it back.”

Jennifer Schuessler is a Times culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas.

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