The instant New York Times bestseller!
A New York Times Notable Book of 2023
Named a Best Book of 2023 by Publishers Weekly
“A book of big and bold ideas, Humanly Possible is humane in approach and, more important, readable and worth reading. . . Bakewell is wide-ranging, witty and compassionate.” –Wall Street Journal
“Sweeping… linking philosophical reflections with vibrant anecdotes.” — The New York Times
The bestselling author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café explores seven hundred years of writers, thinkers, scientists, and artists, all trying to understand what it means to be truly human
Humanism is an expansive tradition of thought that places shared humanity, cultural vibrancy, and moral responsibility at the center of our lives. The humanistic worldview—as clear-eyed and enlightening as it is kaleidoscopic and richly ambiguous—has inspired people for centuries to make their choices by principles of freethinking, intellectual inquiry, fellow feeling, and optimism.
In this sweeping new history, Sarah Bakewell, herself a lifelong humanist, illuminates the very personal, individual, and, well, human matter of humanism and takes readers on a grand intellectual adventure.
Voyaging from the literary enthusiasts of the fourteenth century to the secular campaigners of our own time, from Erasmus to Esperanto, from anatomists to agnostics, from Christine de Pizan to Bertrand Russell, and from Voltaire to Zora Neale Hurston, Bakewell brings together extraordinary humanists across history. She explores their immense variety: some sought to promote scientific and rationalist ideas, others put more emphasis on moral living, and still others were concerned with the cultural and literary studies known as “the humanities.” Humanly Possible asks not only what brings all these aspects of humanism together but why it has such enduring power, despite opposition from fanatics, mystics, and tyrants.
A singular examination of this vital tradition as well as a dazzling contribution to its literature, this is an intoxicating, joyful celebration of the human spirit from one of our most beloved writers. And at a moment when we are all too conscious of the world’s divisions, Humanly Possible—brimming with ideas, experiments in living, and respect for the deepest ethical values—serves as a recentering, a call to care for one another, and a reminder that we are all, together, only human.
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 out the many ways 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.
A History of Human Potential
Sarah Bakewell is one of the best philosophers and synthesizers of philosophical thought. She doesn’t just meander from one Humanist philosopher to the next but creates a steel thread through history that underscores the almost inevitable and organic wellspring that is Humanist thought. By the end of the first chapter you will be hooked.
I want nothing more than to lean unapologetically into my Humanist views after reading this foundational work on the topic. I wish that my professors in college had offered up even more classes on Humanism. What Bakewell shows us is not that Humanist thought is some optimistic frivolity but balm against the human experience. A philosophy that Bakewell demonstrates is about the unbreakable bond between us all and the boundless potential of individual capacity.
It makes you wonder if some of the growing extremism and cultish tendencies are not just cries for something more human centric. Something that capitalism, the hedonic treadmill, technology, and religion cannot fulfill. Our universities offer a humanities education but do not mandate it. Maybe that should change.
Furthermore, Bakewell reminds us through historical precedent that Humanism is a struggle with no end. So long as fascism and other evils exist. Humanism can also not be passive if it is to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. She demonstrates not just by upholding Humanism’s ideals but exemplifying the countless times the thought leaders and philosophy failed the larger mission.
And how fitting a time to review Humanism; in the end, Bakewell highlights that we are on the precipice of AI becoming integral to existence. A moment that could challenge the meaning of what it means to be human. I highly recommend this book as a great primer for anyone interested in Humanism. From here you can identify additional reading based on the great Humanist thinkers covered by Bakewell. Or, you can be so enthralled by this book alone that you end up buying multiple copies to give out.