In recent decades, the term “humanism” has generally appeared with the adjective “secular”.
Indeed, most people today who call themselves humanists say their worldview excludes religious or supernatural interpretations of reality.
But as British writer Sarah Bakewell points out in… humanly possibleHumanism as a philosophy is a strangely impressive work of popular history, and it is much broader than simply denying the existence of a personal God–and some humanists haven’t even done so.
She explains that the movement is centered around an idea that goes back 2,500 years to the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who wrote, “Man is the measure of all things.”
Being a feminist in the 21st century (and she happily injects herself into her narrative on many sites), Bakewell would replace the noun “man” with something more inclusive. But she also believes that Protagoras provides a practical framework for getting started.
Bakewell aims entirely at the European sphere. It’s a shame, because the Near and Far Easts have a rich parallel philosophical history.
Using accessible, non-academic prose, I began in fourteenth-century Italy, with the poet Petrarch and writer Giovanni Boccaccio, author of Decameronwho you call the fathers of modern humanity.
These men would not have held the title, she admits, because the term humanism was not used until the nineteenth century.
It passed from Italy to Renaissance France in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and then to England and America during the Industrial Revolution and the modern era.
They describe dozens and dozens of writers, philosophers, scientists, and artists, so many that it can be hard to keep them all straight.
It is also difficult to shake skepticism, because the term humanism is so flexible that Bakewell claims it is retrospective of all European thinkers who espoused progressive social and political views.
The book’s subtitle addresses what Bakewell considers to be central values of humanity: free thought (or the rejection of authoritarian control); inquiry (the pursuit of knowledge and education); and hope (in the sense that humans can make their world a better place).
With this last notion, Bakewell acknowledges anti-traditional “anti-human” claims. I argued, with good evidence at his disposal, that the land would improve once the endemic species left the scene.
humanly possible provides an overview of some of the ideas Bakewell has already covered in greater depth. She published an award-winning biography of French writer Michel de Montaigne in 2011 (how do you live(And I followed that up with a history of existentialism in 2016.)In the existential caféH).
Here they cover a wide range of famous figures – from Leonardo da Vinci and Denis Diderot to Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell. But it also focuses on many less well-known thinkers.
One of his favourites, the 15th-century Italian rationalist Lorenzo Valla, debunked Catholic truths with the fearless zeal of Christopher Hitchens.
He calls the Treaty of Valla of 1440 On the donation of Constantinewhich attacked the Church’s claims to power over Western Europe, “one of the great human achievements”.
The most genius of all was the 19th-century American atheist Robert Ingersoll, famous for his doctrine of happiness:
“Happiness is the only good. It’s time to be happy. The place to be happy is here. The way to happiness is to make others too.”
It’s a big book that resists easy summaries. By the way, there is no reference to any of the Four Horsemen of atheism in the late 20th century – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Hitchens.
but humanly possible Yet full of scholarships and information. It will broaden the horizons of anyone who considers themselves a simple secular humanist.
Retired free press writer and editor Morley Walker is an atheist activist.
If you enjoy covering the Manitoba art scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25, or more will allow Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music, and galleries while ensuring that our arts journalism reaches the widest possible audience.
Arts and journalism support
Click here to learn more about the project.