Humanly Possible

Humanly Possible coverHumanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope
Sarah Bakewell
Penguin Press (March 28, 2023), 464 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $27.00

I rarely buy a Kindle book where I don’t first download and read the sample. Humanly Possible is one of those exceptions. Not only did I want to read the book because of its subject matter, but the author made the book all the more appealing to me. I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, so I knew this book would be good reading as well.

Bakewell covers a lot of territory here. She begins with Petrarch, who was born in 1304 and takes us up to the present day. The book is arranged by topic, and is roughly chronological, but not entirely so: there is some overlap with respect to time periods.

The author is firmly in the humanist camp and is quite upfront about the fact. She is, however, not at all hostile to religion. She ungrudgingly discusses the role of the church in preserving knowledge and learning during the Middle Ages. She writes about how Petrarch, when he found a manuscript in a monastery that he wanted would sit down and copy it by hand.

In some respects Bakewell covers similar territory to that which Martin Puchner discusses in his recent Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop, but while Puchner takes a global perspective, Bakewell stays strictly in the West. This makes sense because she is documenting a certain way of thinking that is peculiarly Western.

Although Bakewell generally maintains a positive outlook, she does not shirk from addressing the unpleasant in her account. In particular she documents the thought and philosophy behind the fascist movement in both Germany and Italy in the years before World War II. It’s a part of that time period with which I was not familiar, and it is disturbing, to say the least.

Bakewell documents the “God is dead” movement, and despite that famous Time magazine cover from the sixties that distorts our perspective of this line of thought, it was not of twentieth century origin. Charles Swinburne wrote about it in 1870.

The author devotes a good deal of space to Bertrand Russell, and rightly so. He lived to be ninety-seven and was active right to the end. In addition to his work in philosophy and in political and social causes, Russell had quite the busy personal life and was not a believer in monogamy.

I have one minor quibble with Bakewell. She refers to the Unitarian movement as “quasi-religious.” In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association is fully recognized as a church. I spent several years in the Unitarian Church in the eighties, and I know from personal experience that there is a wide range of thought within the organization: from atheist to agnostic to fully believing in God.

The final chapter is a sort of rundown of various humanist organizations currently in existence and reads rather like an advertisement. That aside, Humanly Possible is a valuable contribution to the subject of humanism. It is both readable and informative.

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