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

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

Sarah Bakewell. Penguin Press, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-735-22337-0

NBCC Award winner Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly tracks the development of humanism over seven centuries of intellectual history. Humanism, she concedes, isn’t easy to define, though it fundamentally centers “the lives and experiences of people here on earth.” Drawing on the usual suspects (Erasmus, Voltaire, Bertrand Russell), as well as less expected luminaries (Ludwik Zamenhof, who invented Esperanto in hopes that a universalized language might promote multicultural understanding), Bakewell takes readers through the evolution of central humanistic concerns—whether life can be understood without God (“humanism warns us against neglecting the tasks of our current world in favor of dreams of paradise”); human interconnectivity (the South African concept of “ubuntu” for human relationality; the interconnectedness in E.M. Forster’s writing); and the importance of education (which Erasmus believed “should train a person to be at home in the world”). She also discusses humanism in philosophy, politics, and medicine, the latter of which centers the humanist goal of “mitigating suffering” even if some early interventions harmed more than helped. On the flipside, Bakewell unpacks antihumanism, which “point[s] out the many ways [humans] fall short,” though she notes humanism and antihumanism have historically worked to “renew and energize each other.” Erudite and accessible, Bakewell’s survey pulls together diverse historical threads without sacrificing the up-close details that give this work its spark. Even those who already consider themselves humanists will be enlightened. (Mar.)