The bestselling, prizewinning author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café explores 700 years of writers, thinkers, scientists and artists, all trying to understand what it means to be truly human.
If you are reading this, it's likely you already have some affinity with humanism, even if you don't think of yourself in those terms. You may be drawn to literature and the humanities. You may prefer to base your moral choices on fellow-feeling and responsibility to others rather than on religious commandments. Or you may simply believe that individual lives are more important than grand political visions or dogmas.
If any of these apply, you are part of a long tradition of humanist thought, and you share that tradition with many extraordinary individuals through history who have put rational enquiry, cultural richness, freedom of thought and a sense of hope at the heart of their lives.
Humanly Possible introduces us to some of these people, as it asks what humanism is and why it has flourished for so long, despite opposition from fanatics, mystics and tyrants. It is a book brimming with ideas, personalities and experiments in living - 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. It takes us on an irresistible journey, and joyfully celebrates open-mindedness, optimism, freedom and the power of the here and now - humanist values which have helped steer us through dark times in the past, and which are just as urgently needed in our world today.
'I enjoyed HUMANLY POSSIBLE enormously. Bakewell's previous book about the existentialists and phenomenology was brilliant, and this one is just as good. Her survey of the history and development of humanist thought is engagingly written as well as richly informative; her knowledge of the field means that 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. She is a wonderful writer' - Philip Pullman
'In this fascinating, well-organized journey through the evolution of humanism, Bakewell, award-winning author of At the Existential Café and How To Live, introduces us to the men and women who have resisted religious dogma and fixed ideologies to carve out a way of thinking in which individuals occupy center stage… A wonderfully learned, gracefully written, and simply enjoyable intellectual history of humanism.'- Kirkus, starred 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
‘I've long admired Sarah Bakewell's extraordinary talent for breathing life into philosophy, making vivid the historical circumstances that give birth to new ideas. And this book is her best yet – a fascinating, moving, funny, sometimes harrowing and ultimately uplifting account of humanity's struggle to understand and fully inhabit the state of being human.’ – Oliver Burkeman
‘As in her previous books on Montaigne and the existentialists, Bakewell manages to transform raw material that is dense and complicated into prose that is light and clear. She works hard so that the reader does not have to […] Avoiding any temptation to research-dump, she carefully selects only the most interesting and revealing details of her subjects’ lives and works […] Bakewell exemplifies the thirst for life and learning of humanism at its best.’ – Julian Baggini, Literary Review
‘In this exhilarating handbook Sarah Bakewell explains that a humanist philosopher is one who puts the whole living person at the centre of things. […] Bakewell finishes this bracing book by urging us to draw inspiration from these earlier men and women as we try hard to live bravely and humanly in what sometimes seems like an aridly abstract and loveless world.’ – Kathryn Hughes, Sunday Times
Five stars – ‘A story of spiritual and intellectual triumph […] an epic, spine-tingling, and persuasive work of history.’ – Simon Ings, Daily Telegraph
‘A book of big and bold ideas, Humanly Possible is humane in approach and, more important, readable and worth reading. . . Bakewell is wide-ranging, witty and compassionate.’ – Wall Street Journal
‘Like Bakewell’s previous two books, Humanly Possible skilfully combines philosophy, history and biography. She is scholarly yet accessible, and portrays people and ideas with vitality and without anachronism, making them affecting and alive.’ – The Guardian
‘Readers will feel assured that they are in the company of a gifted guide’– The Economist
‘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, author of The Infinite Monkey Cage / The Importance of Being Interested
'Lively. . . [Bakewell’s] new book is filled with her characteristic wit and clarity; she manages to wrangle seven centuries of humanist thought into a brisk narrative, resisting the traps of windy abstraction and glib oversimplification. . . She puts her entire self into this book, linking philosophical reflections with vibrant anecdotes. She delights in the paradoxical and the particular, reminding us that every human being contains multitudes.'—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
'An intimidatingly impressive work of popular history [..] packed with erudition and information. It will widen the horizons of anyone who thinks of themselves as a mere secular humanist.' – Winnipeg Free Press