Humanism Is a Frail Craft: On Sarah Bakewell’s “Humanly Possible”

By Robert ZaretskyMay 17, 2023

Humanism Is a Frail Craft: On Sarah Bakewell’s “Humanly Possible”

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

IN 1998, A BOOK of modest size and immodest ambition appeared in France. Written by the late Franco-Bulgarian intellectual Tzvetan Todorov, Le Jardin imparfait took its title from the 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who happily compared his life to an unfinished or imperfect garden. This image, Todorov suggested, captures the essence of humanism. To be a humanist, Todorov observed, is to be a gambler: “Men are free, [humanism] says; they are capable of the best and the worst. Better to wager that they are capable of acting willfully, loving purely, and treating one another as equals than the contrary. Man can surpass himself; this is what makes him human.”

Twenty-five years later, it is easy to conclude that humanists were suckers for taking this bet. The Taliban has (again) imposed their rule in Afghanistan while Russia has (again) turned Ukraine into the bloodlands; the world’s meteorological temperature continues to rise while its ideological divisions continue to deepen; and the new technologies meant to bring us closer together have instead driven us further apart, stoking the very passions that humanists believed we could master. Rather than tending, even imperfectly, the garden we share, we seem intent on rending it beyond recognition.

But what, exactly, is a humanist—beyond, that is, someone who gambles that human beings are free to act for the good, not the bad? This is hard to say, in part because so many people professing such wildly different convictions nevertheless describe themselves, or are described by others, as humanists. Platonists and Aristotelians, revolutionaries and reactionaries, traditional Catholics and atheist existentialists would all leap from their chairs were you to ask the real humanist to stand up. No wonder historians of humanism apologize for the slippery—or what philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch called the “flimsy”—character of their worldview.

Sarah Bakewell agrees that humanism is hard to pin down, but she devotes her new book to a dazzling effort to do just that. Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope (2023) follows Bakewell’s critically acclaimed 2010 biography of Montaigne and her 2016 account of the French existentialists. Whereas the first book portrays an individual and the second a handful of individuals, Humanly Possible captures the lives of dozens of people across more than a half-dozen centuries. The result is a model of sprezzatura—the Italian Renaissance ideal of making the epic look easy.

Humanism is hard to define, yet Bakewell knows it when she sees it. In her introduction, she describes it as a “gently foggy” concept, but one held together by “meaningful threads” that she will trace. Trace them with insight and intelligence she does, and yet at the end of more than 300 pages, Bakewell refuses to tie them together into a compact ball. She does not propose one answer to the question “What is humanism?” This stance will frustrate those seeking precision but not those fine with the provisional—a stance that, it seems, is itself deeply humanistic.

In effect, Bakewell gives us an account not of humanism but instead of humanists. Her itinerary is largely limited to Europe—though there are side trips to India and China—and the timeline stretches from early modernity (the age of script and print) to postmodernity (the age of the internet). There is something of Plutarch’s Lives to her approach, which at times pairs humanists, and at other times matches a humanist with an anti-humanist.

For example, Bakewell deftly sets the friendship between Petrarch and Boccaccio against the backdrop of the Black Death. While Petrarch was mostly traveling in France, Bocaccio lived in Florence, where he estimated that more than 100,000 of his fellow Florentines died during the initial burst of the bubonic plague in the mid-14th century. In his remarkable Decameron (1353), whose storytellers have the means to flee the disease, Boccaccio surveys the lot of those who remained. It is a grim scene that beggars our understanding, the very trait that defined the Renaissance. As Boccaccio sighed, “[A]ll the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing.”

And yet, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and their fellow umanisti—in the first and most narrow definition, a humanist pursued the “human studies” of history, literature, art, and philosophy—sought to connect not just with one another. They also sought to connect the past and future. Petrarch believed, Bakewell writes, that the task of humanists was to span what was and what was to be. Just as “the ancients lit up their world with their eloquence and wisdom […] future generations may illuminate their world afresh.” His rather immodest goal was to bridge the gap “long enough for the lamps to be relit.”

Generations of humanists have since tried to keep these flickering lamps lit. In the book’s loveliest (and perhaps longest) account, Bakewell reintroduces us to the seminary dropout and footloose wanderer who depended on the kindness of strangers who invariably became friends, Desiderius Erasmus. The bastard offspring of a doting priest from Rotterdam, Erasmus devoted his life to stubbornly defending the causes of reason and moderation in an age of shockingly cruel civil and religious strife. Taking as his motto “I yield to no one,” Erasmus lambasted the kings and princes who loved war—because, as he dryly noted, they do not experience it—in his best-known book, In Praise of Folly (1511). He also managed to write dozens of scholarly studies, as well as primers like On Good Manners for Boys (1530), reassuring his young readers that “it is no part of good manners to bring illness upon yourself” by retaining gas. Just cover it with a cough, he added.

Another of Bakewell’s heroes, Voltaire, also spent much of his life on the road, mostly to keep one step ahead of an angry king’s emissaries. Like Erasmus, Voltaire was a prolific author not just of treatises but also of satires, most famously Candide (1759), in which he too blasted the idiocy of war and the inhumanity of slavery. Unlike Erasmus, though, Voltaire also attacked Catholics—as well as Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, though he had a soft spot for Anabaptists—and adopted the rather bellicose motto “Écrasez l’infâme,” or “Crush the loathsome thing” (i.e., religious fanaticism), as his motto. From Ferney, his estate in eastern France (conveniently close to Geneva in case he needed to slip over the border), Voltaire won immortality not by his now-forgotten writings, but instead by galvanizing public opinion in the Calas affair. In this rehearsal for the Dreyfus affair a century later, Voltaire launched an epic campaign of letter- and pamphlet-writing to clear the name of Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant tortured and executed by a Catholic court for the false charge of murdering a son planning to convert to Catholicism.

Bakewell presents other remarkable though lesser-known humanists like Wilhelm von Humboldt, the 19th-century Prussian official who revolutionized the country’s schools and devoted his life, as he wrote, to taking “the measure in feeling of everything human, to have emptied to the lees what fate offers, and to remain quiet and gentle, allowing new life freely to take shape as it will within the heart.” Additionally, there is his contemporary, the American Robert Ingersoll, who devoted his life, despite facing hostile audiences that would often shower him with rotten vegetables, to spreading the gospel of secular humanism. Ingersoll distilled his creed into four lines: “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” Or, again, there is the inventor of Esperanto, the Russian Jew Ludwik Zamenhof, who believed that a single language could help unite a divided humankind. Tellingly, and perhaps tragically, he adopted as his pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto,” or Doctor Hopeful.

Inevitably, Bakewell’s portraits miss a feature here and there that another portraitist might have captured. For example, Bakewell rightly suggests that Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (1980) is a stirring defense of humanism, but she should also have suggested that Grossman’s career—he flourished by remaining silent under Stalin before being silenced when trying to speak out under Khrushchev—raises as many questions as it answers. Bakewell further misses an opportunity in her portrayal of Scottish philosopher David Hume, when she cites Adam Smith’s moving obituary of his friend. The work by Smith she does not cite is The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which offers a more persuasive account of human sympathy than does Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Similarly, although she cites Jean-Paul Sartre’s public lecture in 1945 where he rattled off the principles of “existentialist” humanism, she slights Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, published two years later, which depicts more convincingly how such humanism worked in practice.

Yet other portraits are entirely missing. Remarkably, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who plays an immensely pivotal role in the history of humanism, appears just once in Bakewell’s book, only to be (rightly) dismissed for his dismissive treatment of women in his novel Émile (1762). At the same time, this novel invented a pedagogical model that inspired generations of humanists (including Humboldt). And speaking of women, while nearly all the large portraits in Bakewell’s gallery are of men, the second sex is oddly and mostly limited to miniatures. Bakewell deftly sketches figures like the Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan and the Enlightenment radical Mary Wollstonecraft, but they are mostly overwhelmed by the larger canvases given to their male contemporaries.

Nevertheless, Bakewell gets the big picture right. In an age variously described as posthumanist, transhumanist, or anti-humanist, an age where inhumane rulers hold sway over large swathes of the globe, an age where artificial intelligence threatens to render humanism a quaint relic from the past, Bakewell makes clear what we risk losing should we fail to connect with our humanist heritage. She distills this credo into three principles: freethinking (which emphasizes our moral conscience and duty to others), inquiry (which privileges reason over dogma as a guide to our lives), and hope (which insists that, though our lives are brief and fallible, we can achieve meaningful things).

It so happens that Todorov also proposed a triad of humanist tenets in Imperfect Garden: the autonomy of the I, the finality of the you, and the universality of the they. By this, he meant that each of us is the source of our actions, that the goal of those actions is another human being, and that they all belong to the same race endowed with the same rights. Like Todorov, whose values were wrought by his experience of life under a communist regime, Bakewell embraces imperfection: not as the goal we must strive for but as the condition we must accept. And just as Bakewell’s faith, like Todorov’s, is rooted not in a god but in her fellow human beings, so she also insists that we have no choice but to make the wager he described.

It is fitting that she concludes her book with an observation Todorov made shortly before his death: “Humanism is a frail craft indeed to choose for setting sail around the world! A frail craft that can do no more than transport us to frail happiness.” But as there are not more suitable options, far better to commit to this uncertain voyage in the company of Todorov, Bakewell, and the others they invoke in their writings and who have given their lives to this frail philosophy.


Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His previous book was The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (2021), and his newest, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague, was published last year.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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