Can Humanism Save Us? (2023)


In her new book, Sarah Bakewell champions an intellectual tradition that might be just what we need today—if only we could properly define it.

By Franklin Foer
Can Humanism Save Us? (1)

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One of the quirks of book publishing is that a finished manuscript can sit around for nearly a year before it finally appears in hardcover. For most authors, this long liminal existence is a source of agitation, but substantively meaningless. And it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that a book exploring seven centuries of humanistic thinking wouldn’t go stale during its prepublication wait.

But between the time that Sarah Bakewell shipped her final draft of Humanly Possible and received finished copies of the book, her subject began to stare squarely at its demise. What her book set out to defend is an intellectual tradition, admittedly ill-defined, that stands for reason, the ennobling potential of education, and the centrality of the “human dimension of life,” as opposed to systems and abstract theories. But in the intervening months, advanced chatbots descended; so did the possibility that they might soon imperil the whole of that enterprise. Automation stands poised to displace the production of essays and scholarly inquiry. It’s suddenly plausible to imagine that freethinking, that tradition of poking and prodding at all fixed ideas and institutions, will drift into obsolescence, because an oracular machine will instantly spit back answers to life’s questions with an aura of scientific authority.

Even if there wasn’t a digital sword hanging over the humanistic project, flesh-and-blood threats abound. Progressives in the academy have bludgeoned humanism’s fundamental precepts. Gone is the old motto “I am human, and consider nothing human alien to me,” replaced by the fetishization of “lived experience.” Meanwhile, STEM’s conquest of the university has wrecked old humanistic homes. As Nathan Heller’s recent article in The New Yorker documented, the English department is now an unpopulated, undesired version of its former self.

The confluence of these crises should make Bakewell’s defense of this tradition a necessity. That her book doesn’t feel terribly urgent perhaps speaks to a fundamental weakness within humanism.

Bakewell’s writing inspires immense pleasure. She is a warm, engaging, and clear explicator of dense ideas. Her breakthrough book reassembled Michel de Montaigne’s essays as a rarefied self-help guide. Her next, At the Existentialist Café, was a jaunty tour of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir, which made their not-terribly-fashionable philosophy feel vividly relevant. Translating phenomenology for the book-club set is a feat, a form of middlebrow writing that is rarely attempted these days—and that even less frequently succeeds.

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What makes these books so enjoyable is that Bakewell writes with the gusto of an enthusiast. But her history of humanism suffers from this tendency. Bakewell self-identifies as a stalwart of humanism, but even she concedes that this is an elusive label. “Humanism is personal, and it is a semantic cloud of meanings and implications, none attachable to any particular theorist or practitioner.” Without a pithy definition or clear doctrine, she can manage only to narrow humanism down to three characteristics: freethinking, hope, and inquiry. These tendencies, she argues, are the antidote to religion’s strictures. By setting aside all thoughts of the afterlife, the humanist can focus on making the most of earthly existence, pursuing happiness and mitigating suffering. At both the beginning and the end of the book, she quotes Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century American freethinker:

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.

I have always considered myself a humanist, with a bemused affection for the flawed species the philosophy celebrates and the belief that people can feel genuine solidarity for one another, despite their differences—but this is a paper-thin morality that hardly survives the skepticism that Bakewell celebrates.

Part of the problem is that, despite her stated desire to avoid a sweeping thesis statement about her subject, she would clearly like humanism to be more substantial than it actually is. The ism suffix in Bakewell’s subject is, in fact, a bit of misdirection, because it implies a political idea or perhaps a coherent worldview. But that’s not the case. Humanism is not a synonym for liberalism or philosophical pragmatism. It more accurately describes a temperament. Her book, at its best, does a splendid job of honoring it, beginning with the poets and scholars who anticipated the Renaissance, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio. She recounts their joyous scavenging of monasteries in search of lost manuscripts and epistolary musings, which were literary and philosophical masterpieces, especially on the subject of death. What Bakewell treasures most in her heroes is how their healthy questioning of all dogma lives comfortably with good humor.

Her garden is overcrowded with potted biographies. The humanistic canon she constructs sprawls to include the likes of David Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thomas Mann. It can sometimes be a struggle to see the commonalities, other than some degree of skepticism about religion, an underlying decency, and a general cheeriness in the midst of dreary struggles against the prevailing politics of their times.

During the Renaissance, one of the humanistic virtues was sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance. It’s a characteristic that Bakewell possesses in abundance. Her writing goes down easy. But she tends to brush past the shortcomings of her subjects. Voltaire’s anti-Semitism and Hume’s racism, for instance, are neatly bracketed. There’s little curiosity about how this undertow of hatred might have reflected on the rest of their thoughts. Bakewell is so keen on painting a charming characterological portrait of her collective—“He was just so nice,” she writes of Hume—that she neglects her humanistic duty to meaningfully wrestle with its weaknesses.

What’s her primary reason for stringing together these sketches? She seems conspicuously reluctant to engage in the culture wars roiling intellectual life and global politics, which is strange, because her book keeps returning to themes at the core of the conflicts. But at the beginning, she does note that she is writing in a time of ascendent populism and nationalism, when despair is an understandable response to events, which is the closest she comes to providing a hook for her efforts. While it’s true that freethinking is the enemy of authoritarianism, humanism suffers from a tendency to oversell itself. It doesn’t have a good track record of effectively standing up to fascism, for one thing. Italy was, after all, the birthplace of humanism. Thanks to Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of Bakewell’s many subjects, Germany had the model of a humanist education system in the early 20th century. We don’t have to detail what happened in those two countries. And in the current American context, right-wing ethno-nationalists have cynically draped themselves in the trappings of humanism. The likes of Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson present themselves as the true defenders of freethinking and open inquiry.

One of the weaknesses in the humanistic temperament is a tendency to flail in the contest for power. Self-doubt, a cheerful disposition, and a joyous pursuit of knowledge are qualities that might make for wise leaders, but can also produce hapless political combatants. Or, as Mann once declared: “In all humanism there is an element of weakness, which … may be its ruin.” Bakewell’s subjects are for the most part critics who write on the fringes. Or, like Bertrand Russell, her primary 20th-century protagonist, a serial proponent of doomed causes.

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During dark times, this weakness can become humanism’s source of strength. Historically, humanism has functioned as a form of countercultural resistance, preserving values and aspirations shunned by the prevailing zeitgeist. In a sense, humanism is more like religion than Bakewell is prepared to admit. At its best, it is a secular faith. Its universalist spirit and open-mindedness are ethical stances. Its wishful optimism about human possibility can provide spiritual nourishment in a fallen world.

This makes it a style of dissidence well suited for the age of AI. The humanist becomes the contrarian who insists on maintaining that which automation seeks to render obsolete: the faculties of the independent mind, the very core of intellectual personhood. If Bakewell’s humanists of the past preserved the life of the mind from the incursions of theocrats of their day, their successors might be the ones to protect it from the technological zealots of our own.

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