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


In her latest book, Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope—out this year from Penguin Press—Sarah Bakewell jumps right in on the first page by asking “What is humanism?” She shares the mix of responses provided by the Thurmarsh Grammar School Bisexual Humanist Society in David Nobb’s 1983 comic novel Second from Last in the Sack Race. One response invokes humanism’s roots in literary and cultural revivals, another focuses on its direction to care for all beings and act ethically, and another insists it must be defined by rejecting supernaturalism and promoting the scientific method. This provides a perfect introduction to the many humanist perspectives, contributions, and challenges that Bakewell excitedly explores in future pages. While she doesn’t leave readers with a definitive answer as to what humanism is, she does embolden us to develop our own personal answers—as humanists have throughout history—and stresses that how we engage with and support others is more important than how we describe ourselves.

Just as personal definitions of humanism may change due to life experiences, Bakewell reflects on how organizational statements have been updated over time to acknowledge advancements in humanism. The Humanists International 2022 version of the Amsterdam Declaration—which originated in 1952—puts more emphasis on the wide range of humanist traditions by recognizing that humanist values “have a history in most societies around the world” and hopes for “the flourishing and fellowship of humanity in all its diversity and individuality” without injustice. It also recognizes humanity’s connection and duties to the rest of life on Earth by including all sentient beings and future generations. Bakewell shares her appreciation of the Declaration’s new tone by writing:

I like the modesty and inclusiveness, alongside the older elements. . . . All versions … focus less on religious doubt than on wider human questions of fulfillment, freedom, creativity, and responsibility. They make it clear that humanism is not primarily about carping at the faithful—an activity that can be alienating for many, and that is anyway not the most cheerful way of spending one’s time on Earth. (Carping at those in authority who insist on imposing their faith on others, on the other hand, seems to me an excellent way of spending one’s time.) Instead, this is a manifesto for something deeper: a joyful and positive set of human values.

As the title implies, Bakewell proposes three principles to connect all humanists: Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope. Freethinking empowers us to live our lives based on moral conscience and responsibility to others rather than by dogma imposed by an authority figure. Inquiry directs us to seek education in various fields and practice critical reasoning. Hope encourages us to improve the well-being of ourselves and other living beings despite challenges and setbacks. She argues that these principles could be added to all aspects of life, including institutions and occupations, to ensure that people’s needs and well-being are a priority over money, power, and harm. As a New York City kid, I enjoyed the story of how Jane Jacobs saved Washington Square Park from demolition and advocated for humanistic city designs that make parks and bustling neighborhood streets more accessible. The humanist worldview mustn’t be limited to only being an alternative or contradiction to religion. It can be a way toward solutions to society’s problems and helping people recognize our shared humanity.

Inspired by E. M. Forster’s guidance to “only connect,” Bakewell seamlessly narrates a story of humanist connection spanning seven centuries with characters from around the globe. We hear of friendships and loves, budding ideas and impressive successes, professional annoyances and harrowing tragedies. We see how historical figures connect, overlap, and inspire each other; emphasizing that there is great opportunity in relationship and community no matter our differences. While predominantly focused on Europe and North America due to their rich documented humanist history and overlapping timelines that make it easy to see growth, she does dip into Asian and African stories and expresses interest in learning more. The book aims to incite additional explorations rather than try to be conclusive in only 368 pages.

These pages are organized into chapters, each with a captivating title summarizing its theme, a year span, and a teaser of the concepts and people to follow. Chapter titles like “Provocateurs and Pagans,” “Marvelous Network,” “Human Stuff,” and “Unfolding Humanity” pique our interest in which individuals and stories will follow. Playful descriptions—like the one below for Chapter 10: Doctor Hopeful—give us a hint:

Another trio, this time of humanists with a positive attitude in an era of hope—Ludwik L. Zamenhof invents a language—Robert G. Ingersoll believes in happiness—Bertrand Russell looks around himself in an energetic way.

Some readers may be disappointed that Bakewell doesn’t include their favorite freethinkers or more current famous humanists. For example, “the four horsemen”—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—are not mentioned at all. Critics have noted that she gives uneven exposure to her subjects, repeating some while glossing over others. She names several humanist organizations and acknowledges that humanist communities exist but could have expanded that treatment if she had been able to dive more into contemporary progress. Of course, this would have made it difficult to determine when to stop writing and begin to prepare for publication, since influential events keep occurring that inspire and require action from humanists.

Going into Bakewell’s book with no expectation of who I wanted to see represented, I appreciated her range of examples and plethora of quotes, allowing the reader to directly hear from those who have strongly shaped humanist thought. I enjoyed her welcoming tone and humorous personal additions, especially when she proudly states why humanism is essential in her life and how she lives it. I look forward to more from her and hope to also hear from other authors able to offer more perspectives and stories so we can understand how wide- and far-reaching humanism has been and is becoming.

Meanwhile, Bakewell reminds us that humanism is always a constant and continuous work in progress. “History and the human world are neither stable and good on the one hand, nor hopelessly tragic on the other. They are our own work, so if we want it to proceed well, we have to exert ourselves to make it happen.” Sarah Bakewell’s Humanly Possible is available here.