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In Man We Trust Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist

Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope

By Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus 464pp £22)

The Festival of Reason in Notre Dame, 1793, as painted by Charles-Louis Müller

To be a humanist in the early 21st cen- tury might seem to require as least as much faith as to be religious. Belief in either a benevolent deity or the fundamental goodness of humankind does not sit well with knowledge of what we have done over history to ourselves and the planet. The hor- rors of colonialism, Nazism, Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution, the mass abuse of animals in factory farms, the destruction of the natural environment, indifference to the coming catastrophes of climate change – all these and more could be cited as evidence against the idea of humanity’s progress.

This dim view of humanity has become the new common sense, at least among those who fancy themselves to be intellectuals. As Sarah Bakewell says, ‘The idea that humans somehow oozed evil took up residence in the cultural atmosphere. Any seemingly civilised or cultured behaviour … now looked like a mendacious veneer.’ Ye t i n Humanly Possible, Bakewell sets out to show that this fashionable pessimism is deeply misguided. She argues that for seven centuries, the humanist values of freethinking, enquiry and hope have inspired the best that European culture has had to offer.

Humanism is such an amorphous idea that Bakewell’s project risks a lack of focus. But she embraces the concept ’s heterogeneity, arguing that humanism’s diverse forms are ‘ linked by multicoloured but meaningful threads’. For her, the key criterion for being a humanist is that you focus on human well-being, not on any kind of transcendental good.

Bakewell identifies three main families of humanism, the adherents of which have all pursued this goal with different emphases. First, there is ‘humanities-humanism’, most closely associated with the Renaissance, which emphasised the importance of literature, history, philosophy and other humanistic studies. At a time when theology dictated the terms of most learning, this was revolutionary. Then there is the ‘meliorist humanism’ of the Enlightenment, which emphasised the possibility of improving human welfare through the reform of society and the advancement of knowledge. Finally, there is ‘scientific humanism’, which came to prominence in the 19th century and posited that natural science provided the best basis for social, political and ethical progress.

Bakewell’s humanist tent is more accommodating than most of today’s equivalents. The term ‘humanism’ has been capitalised and claimed by various secular humanist organisations around the world as their exclusive property. Humanism is, in their view, inherently atheistic, or at least agnostic, and its historical mission is to smash the follies of faith. Bakewell certainly has numerous examples of those. One of the most absurd is that the parents of the great Renaissance humanist Erasmus lived together happily but could not marry because his father was a priest.

But Bakewell is much more ecumenical. The only difference between religious humanists and secular humanists is that the former’s focus on human well-being comes ‘within the context of a faith’. For instance, many philosophers of the Islamic golden age, although devout, refused to allow religious dogma to distort what their reason and observations told them about the world. The ninth-century Islamic thinker al-Kindi, Bakewell says, ‘has every claim to be a considered a humanist ’.

Bakewell’s book is not a dispassionate history of humanism, but nor is it a love letter, written in blind infatuation. Hers is a more mature affection; she sees all the flaws in the beloved and accepts it nonetheless. This generosity of spirit is largest when it comes to the widespread misogyny found among humanists. Women rarely got to participate in the humanist project, and for all their love of wisdom and learning, few of the men were enlightened enough to encourage them to do so. Rousseau was an all too typical case in point. His Emile espoused the virtues of a humanistic education but he didn’t think girls should study philosophy or science because all they needed to learn was how to please their husbands. Bakewell shrugs this off, sighing, ‘On the whole, these Enlightenment authors were just carrying on an older tradition of mixing brilliance about some matters with daftness about others.’

As a woman, Bakewell has licence to laugh at such follies. She does not have march 2023 | Literary Review 13

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