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.
Sarah Bakewell had a wandering childhood, growing up on the “hippie trail” through Asia and in Australia. She studied philosophy at the University of Essex and worked for many years as a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library, London, before becoming a fulltime writer. Her books include How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the Duff Cooper Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2016. Bakewell was also among the winners of the 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize. She still has a tendency to wander but is mostly to be found either in London or in Italy with her wife and their family of dogs and chickens.
“Bakewell exemplifies the thirst for life and learning of humanism at its best.” —Literary Review
“NBCC Award winner Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly tracks the development of humanism over seven centuries of intellectual history . . . 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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Engagingly written as well as richly informative . . . every thinker, every book, every movement is located lightly and precisely in relation to its past and its influence on the present day. I can’t imagine a better history of humanism, nor one that is so vividly persuasive. Bakewell is a wonderful writer.” —Philip Pullman
“Sarah Bakewell's books are always a joyous education . . . She combines a keen intellect with a lightness of touch and one always feels that she delights in sharing what she has learned. That delight is contagious . . . the world looked different when I finished this book.” —Robin Ince, co-host of The Infinite Monkey Cage and author of The Importance of Being Interested