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

Humanly Possible (2023) traces the roots of humanism in literature and science back through history. While telling the stories of the great humanist thinkers, it sheds light on humanity today as well as how we can better relate to our lives and environment through humanist beliefs and pursuits.

Introduction: Learning what makes us human

Humanism is a philosophical stance with a long tradition. It emphasizes what makes us human – our rationality, dignity, and the value of the good things we are capable of doing and creating. It does so without relying on religious beliefs. We’re going to talk about the evolution of this idea by looking at the lives of several key humanists over the past seven hundred years: Petrarch, Boccaccio, Pizan, Erasmus, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Thomas Mann.

In the end, you’ll know a little bit about history and a lot about humanism. You may even find out that you want to embrace the philosophy yourself.

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

Thinking freely

In 2017 a young Pakistani named Hamza bin Walayat, who had been living in Britain for some years, applied for asylum to remain in Britain on the grounds that his humanist beliefs could get him killed in Pakistan. In his interviews with the UK’s Home Office, he was asked to define humanism. He did so by talking about the freethinkers of the Enlightenment era, but the assessors were not convinced he was a true convert to whatever this humanism thing was.

The problem Hamza ran into was that there is no flag or creed or church of humanism. It’s a philosophical stance or choice that can be traced back many hundreds of years. The truth Hamza told was that humanism, like any belief that isn’t officially approved, is indeed punishable in Pakistan, and many other countries. They don’t care whether it’s a “real” religion or not – they only care that it goes against the prescribed rules. Nations and societies with conservative religious leadership may feel threatened by humanism, which suggests that moral behavior doesn’t need scripture – just a conscience.

Humanism is, at its core, the ability to explore and value the humanness of our species. Humanists believe in freethinking – in asking questions, studying, learning, discovering, and preserving all things related to humanity. And above all, they are filled with the hope that occurs whenever we step back and acknowledge the technological progress, magnificent works of art, and empowering acts of benevolence that humans are capable of.

You might say it’s no wonder that Hamza was unable to explain humanism to the satisfaction of his assessors. After all, an institution designed to decide who is and isn’t worthy of staying inside an imaginary boundary line between one country and another is inherently not humanist. But his story has a happy ending. The organization Humanists UK stepped in and petitioned the Home Office to reconsider. In the process, they were able to help develop new training for assessors on how to properly interview non-religious asylum-seekers. Soon after, Hamza was elected to the board of trustees of the institution that had helped him find safety in the UK.

While it’s unlikely that anything short of mentioning Greek philosophers who weren’t even humanists would have convinced Hamza’s assessors, it is still valuable to understand the threads of humanism that have existed for the past 700 years. We can reach this understanding not by describing organized movements – there really weren’t any specific humanist movements – but by learning about the humanists who have shaped our world through art, science, and culture.

Saving books with Petrarch and Boccaccio

In the fourteenth century, two men created the template for what we consider humanism today: Francesco Petrarca, commonly referred to as Petrarch (1304–1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). And they did it as the most normal act of teenage rebellion you could think of. Petrarch’s father was a notary, and Boccaccio’s father was a merchant. Both fathers demanded their sons take up their professions. And both sons rejected their fathers’ demands to pursue literature.

This all-in devotion to seeking knowledge, and to unburying the works of the past, is a key characteristic of humanism. Petrarch became obsessed with recovering and collecting manuscripts to the point where he would send wish lists with friends who were traveling in case they came across some rare work that might look good on his shelves.

Petrarch wrote extensively, from letters to scholarly works to poems. You may recognize his name from the Petrarchan sonnet, a form he invented that is used by poets to this day. Likewise, Boccaccio was also an avid student of life and history. He is most famous for his work The Decameron, a book of one hundred stories told at the time of the Black Death.

Both men lived through the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century, watching many of the people they loved succumb to the terrible illness. The effect of that time on both writers can be seen in their works, particularly in Petrarch’s letters to friends, in which he sends copies of various manuscripts on grief from throughout history, as well as expressing empathy for what they are going through.

Studying these humanists of the past allows us to see parallels to our own times and to see the value of being a little more human in our approach to things like work and relationships as well as collective traumas.

Petrarch and Boccaccio teach us that the ability to write or orate is nothing without a human reason behind it. On the other hand, the ability to communicate our humanity to one another is the core of all human studies.

Because of Petrarch and Boccaccio, following generations produced many artists, writers, explorers, scientists, teachers, librarians, and collectors who sought to recover and preserve the past achievements of humankind and contribute their own work to the growing archive.

One characteristic most of these humanists shared was that they were men. We’ll now look at an exception.

Making a mark with Christine de Pizan

In 1984, a historian named Joan Kelly-Gadol wrote a paper entitled “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” And the answer was, well, mostly, no. During the fifteenth century there was more opportunity for women than there had been before, but the majority of families still saw little reason to provide their daughters with a substantial education. However, there were some notable women humanists who made a name for themselves at this time.

Christine de Pizan, born in Venice in 1364, lived an exceptional life. She ended up living in France, and as a result learned to speak and read both French and her native Italian. Some speculate that she also learned Latin.

At 15, she married. She had three children. And then tragedy struck. Both her husband and her father died within a year of each other, leaving her alone to support her children and her mother. Christine decided to make her living producing writing under the patronage of wealthy, noble people.

She wrote on subjects ranging from ethics to politics to war. She also wrote love poetry. But most notably, she penned The Book of the City of Ladies, which was both an imitation of and a response to Boccaccio’s Decameron. Christine’s book was also a compilation of stories, but ones in which women’s abilities were on display.

Other ladies who took up the humanist way of Petrarch and Boccaccio include Laura Cereta, who compiled her letters as literature, like Petrarch, and Cassandra Fedele, who did the same. Fedele even sent her letters to a respected tutor to the Medici family. He praised her in a condescending way and then ignored her. Eventually she became prioress of an orphanage, and at the age of ninety was invited to give a welcome speech in Latin when the Polish queen visited Venice in 1556.

These exceptions aside, humanism as a rising philosophy largely lacked diversity of voice, and was primarily happening out of Italy. But that would change.

Being kind with Erasmus and Montaigne

In 1480, a Dutch humanist named Rudolf Agricola spoke at a school in the Netherlands. He talked about the value of education – but not the kind you get at school. He urged the students to pursue their own education in things like history and philosophy and poetry. Rather than have material handed to them, translated by others, they should seek out primary sources on their own.

One young boy in the audience was deeply affected by the speech. His name was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536), one of the greatest humanists of all time. Erasmus wrote in a wide range of styles, from dialogues to theological tracts to collections of proverbs.

Having been regularly punished and beaten throughout his school years, he grew to hate cruelty and intimidation. In his mind, human nature was made for peace and love. He believed the clues to this were in the human body. All animals have physical traits that hint at their capabilities and nature. For example, birds have feathers and wings, so we know they are made to fly. Likewise, humans have eyes that display emotion, arms to embrace, and soft bodies to thrive in safe, peaceful environments.

In addition to his belief in human kindness, Erasmus also proclaimed the importance of having a rich education and diverse connections. He is well-known for using the term “diversity” and encouraging people to move freely, make many friends, share knowledge, and consider the world from other points of view.

In 1987, an organization was formed that helps facilitate student educational opportunities abroad so European students can study and earn credits in other countries. This organization is called the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, or ERASMUS+. The acronym is not an accident.

Closely following in Erasmus’s footsteps, this time in France, was Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). Montaigne’s father was a humanist and chose to raise his son in the humanities. As such, Montaigne was endowed with a varied and deep Latin education.

Like Erasmus, he abhorred violence. During his time, France was in a constant state of civil war, and people were often burned at the stake for suspected connections with the Devil. Montaigne despised all of this. He approached humanism with a mind to put his own stamp on it. He tended to deconstruct the things he read and then put them back together with his own special twist.

We have Montaigne to thank for the form of the personal essay. Montaigne was writing in stream-of-consciousness long before the modernist movement of the twentieth century. He seemed to enjoy living in a space of inquiry, open to and comfortable with change.

Montaigne freed humanist thinkers from religion without doing away with religion. He simply chose to leave religious writings to others and to write only of human things. In Montaigne’s mind, life and humanity were gifts from God, and to spend our lives hating ourselves was an affront to that gift. He preferred to focus on writing about his love for and appreciation of that gift.

And not least because of the work of these two men, humanism took a new shape in the form of the Enlightenment.

Empathy and progress with Voltaire

In 1755, an earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal while a large number of citizens were at church. Many of the people who survived the earthquake were killed in a tsunami triggered by that earthquake. The death total is said to have been around 70,000.

This tragedy reached deep into the continent, affecting people all over Europe. At the time of the earthquake, the prevailing wisdom doled out by the Church was that everything is for the good: God had created the world in the best form possible, which surely meant that any other world would be far worse than this one. Therefore, human suffering aside, everything that happens in this world must be okay.

People of that time were encouraged to set their personal feelings aside and think of the grander scheme of God’s plan. But humanists all over the continent began rejecting this philosophy. One of the most famous of those was Voltaire (1694–1778).

Voltaire’s famous work, Candide, was written in response to the Lisbon earthquake. It follows two men who initially believe in the “all is good” ideal. Throughout the story, one bad thing after another happens to the men. Candide starts off firm in his belief, but starts to doubt. Candide realizes that the “all is good” idea is only optimistic on the surface. In reality, it’s kind of a cop-out. It suggests that people have no responsibility or ability to improve the world they live in. In the end, Candide and some others move to a patch of land together and focus on cultivating their own gardens, a metaphor for doing your part to make the world a better place.

Voltaire lived, along with many other humanists, at the intersection of humanism and the Enlightenment. This humanist idea of enlightenment meant considering the human situation to be as valid as the divine one. Many humanists of this time became so-called deists, choosing to believe that there probably had been a God at one point, but that he, she, or it no longer took an active interest in humankind.

Humanist enlightenment moved to embrace the power of humans to shape their lives and the world. Sure, earthquakes would happen – but perhaps humans could construct buildings that could hold up to them. Maybe nothing could be done about illness, but perhaps scientific research would uncover ways to mitigate their severity. And in terms of morality, enlightenment humanists took the stance that human empathy was the best guide for a moral world.

Fleeing fascism with Thomas Mann

Critics of Erasmus cited his refusal to acknowledge the evil inherent in mankind. There wasn’t a note of Machiavelli in anything he wrote, nor an acknowledgment of man’s darker side as a question unanswered by humanism. The twentieth century saw that dark side come to life in the form of fascism and subsequent anti-humanist sentiment.

The German writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955), who was a student of humanism and interested in the failings in Erasmus’s beliefs, started out believing that authors should remain apolitical. But when Hitler and Mussolini began doing away with humanist education and replacing it with whatever they wanted in order to shape citizens for their own ends, Mann could no longer remain silent. He spoke out against fascism in speeches and in fiction, forcing him to move to Switzerland to preserve his life and the lives of his family.

In 1941, Mann moved, for a time, to California, where he wrote Doctor Faustus and produced radio addresses to the German people to help them understand what was happening in their country. In one of those broadcasts, Mann implored people to reject the evil and violence around them and to embrace hope.

Once the war ended, Mann encountered a new source of frustration in the form of McCarthyism – a political campaign that spread fear of communism. He returned to Switzerland. The world looked very much anti-humanist at this point. William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, portrays a nihilistic sentiment of despair born of witnessing so much horror in the modern world.

The response, in 1952, was a humanist manifesto by a group that is now called Humanists International. The manifesto was revised in 2022 and focuses on the ethics of humanism. It outlines humanist beliefs in different societies and promotes the importance of the humanities, including art, music, and literature.

Today, we can see new versions of old battles in the form of religion-based laws, bigotry, discrimination, and fear of diversity. As long as there are humans, there will be a humanist response. The goal is the same now as it always was – to live, feel, and be human by asking questions, posing new ideas, connecting with others, growing in our knowledge and diversity, and ultimately embracing kindness.


Humanism can be traced back at least seven hundred years. It is a stance that asks us to preserve those things that are unique to humanity.

Petrarch and Boccaccio show us how to pursue a love of research. Christine de Pizan shows us that women throughout time have had something to say about humanism. Erasmus and Motaigne taught us to embrace kindness. Voltaire taught us to make use of our capabilities. And Mann showed us how to navigate the world even when the world is unfriendly to humans.

About the author

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.


History, Philosophy, Nonfiction, Religion, Biography, Spirituality, Cultural, Politics, Biography Memoir, Psychology, Humanism, Intellectual Movements, Philosophical Positions and Movements, Humanist Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, Philosophy of Ethics & Morality

Table of Contents

1 The Land Of The Living 25
2 Raising Ships 55
3 Provocateurs and Pagans 86
4 Marvelous Network 120
5 Human Stuff 136
6 Perpetual Miracles 163
7 Sphere for All Human Beings 195
8 Unfolding Humanity 220
9 Some Dream-Country 248
10 Doctor Hopeful 278
11 The Human Face 304
12 The Place to Be Happy 342


The book is a historical and philosophical exploration of humanism, a tradition of thought that values human dignity, reason, and creativity. The book traces the origins and development of humanism from the Renaissance to the present day, highlighting the contributions of various writers, thinkers, scientists, and artists who challenged the dogmas and prejudices of their times and sought to understand what it means to be truly human. The book consists of four parts:

  • Part One: The book introduces the concept of humanism and explains why it is relevant and important for living a meaningful and fulfilling life. It also outlines the main characteristics and principles of humanism, such as curiosity, skepticism, compassion, and optimism.
  • Part Two: The book explores the different aspects and expressions of humanism, such as science, art, literature, politics, ethics, and spirituality. It also provides some examples and exercises to help readers apply humanism to their own lives.
  • Part Three: The book examines the challenges and opportunities that humanism faces in the modern world, such as globalization, technology, diversity, and environmental issues. It also offers some suggestions and strategies to help readers promote humanism in their communities and societies.
  • Part Four: The book concludes with some reflections and questions on how to live a humanist life, such as finding one’s purpose, cultivating one’s talents, building one’s relationships, and contributing to one’s world.


The book is an informative and engaging resource for anyone who wants to learn more about humanism or enhance their own humanist worldview. The book is written in a clear, concise, and friendly tone that makes it easy to read and understand. The book also uses vivid examples, anecdotes, humor, and emotion to convey its messages and invite its readers to reflect and relate. The book does not impose any judgments or prescriptions on its readers but rather encourages them to explore their own paths and perspectives.

The book is not only a guide but also a source of inspiration and enlightenment. It helps readers understand the essence and spirit of humanism, and how it can help them live longer and happier lives. It also helps readers develop their skills, abilities, and potential, and achieve their goals. It motivates readers to pursue excellence, seek challenges, and overcome difficulties. It also urges readers to share their knowledge and experience with others who may benefit from them.

Overall, I think the book is a valuable addition to the literature on humanism and personal development. It is suitable for anyone who wants to learn more about humanism or enhance their own humanist worldview. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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