Humanism through the centuries: interview with author and humanist Sarah Bakewell

24 February, 2023

Ahead of Sarah’s upcoming Rosalind Franklin Lecture on International Women’s Day on 8 March at Conway Hall, London, we sat down with our 2023 Rosalind Franklin Medallist, author Sarah Bakewell, to discuss the themes of her new book Humanly Possible, namely: how humanist values have underpinned human progress centuries.

Hi Sarah! We’re really looking forward to your Rosalind Franklin Lecture! What are the core humanist values found throughout history, and how they have inspired generation after generation of artists, scientists, writers, and activists?

Funnily enough, my starting point in Humanly Possible was to say how far-flung and diverse the many forms of humanism were, but then I was amazed how quickly a shared core of values and ideas emerged. The same elements kept cropping up. A key one was the humanist fascination with how we human beings are always connected to one another, through culture, arts, communities, mutual responsibilities, technical knowhow, creativity, everything that binds us together in our social world. Out of this comes a further idea: that we can base our ethical lives and our sense of meaning on this human web of concern, instead of referring them to religious or political authorities of any kinds, or to a dream of some transcendent order beyond ourselves. Other humanist themes emerged too, but these for me were the most powerful and inspiring.

Tying in with international Women’s Day, you’ll be sharing your research on the humanist women who have changed the world. Please could you tell us a bit more?

I’ll be talking about some of my other favourite humanists in the book, women, who are memorable as much for their personalities and wit as for their scholarship and philosophy. The earliest one is Christine de Pizan, born in 1364, and the first woman we know of to make a living as a professional writer: she supported her family by writing for patronage in the French court. She wrote poetry, autobiographical pieces, serious studies of politics, ethics, education and war, all traditionally masculine subjects, in short, she was a typical literary humanist, although she’s rarely described in those terms. In 1405, she wrote a Book of the City of Ladies, in which the figure of ‘Reason’ tries to cheer up a narrator who has become depressed by reading men’s accounts of women’s failings. Reason reminds her of all the great achievements and skills of women in history, and advises her to build a ‘City of Ladies’ in her mind, filled with such inspiring examples.

The later women in the story include Mary Wollstonecraft, a famous 18th century feminist, of course, but I argue that she is also a great humanist because she based her argument on deeply humanist ideas. She appeals to reason and critical thinking; she emphasises the value of individual self-determination and self-respect. She asks why women should be expected to have separate moral virtues (all very negative, like modesty and silence) rather than the universal human ones as shared by men. She calls on women to improve their educational level, as well as their political status, so as to attain a kind of moral adulthood – taking up their full birth right of humanity.

You mentioned before that there are many humanisms in history which express ‘the same core values and ideas’. That’s something we’ve tried to inform people of through our own education work, too. Can you tell us a bit more about the different philosophies, modern and ancient, that inform the humanist approach to life today?

Humanism provides such a fascinating weave of ideas. You start pulling at almost any thread and it turns into a line reaching far back into the past, and out into a huge variety of global cultural traditions, too. For example, here is a paragraph I love in the autobiography of the American writer Zora Neale Hurston: she says that, because she feels connected to all existence, she needs no belief in a personal god or afterlife. She asks, ‘Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? …I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.’ This is very personal to her, yet it also connects us two-and-a-half thousand years back to the Greek philosopher Democritus, who thought that we are composed of clouds of atoms which, at our death, simply dissolve and float off to form other things.

This makes us one with the universe, and also saves us from having to fear any hellish personal afterlife or the vengeance of gods. Democritus found this such a cheering thought that he was known as ‘the laughing philosopher’. Long before him, members of the Cārvāka school of philosophers in India explored similar ideas. Leap ahead again, and you see it in the line so wonderfully displayed on the side of buses in London and elsewhere in 2009, devised by Ariane Sherine and supported by Humanists UK: ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Or the happiness creed of the 19th-century American humanist Robert G. Ingersoll: ‘The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here.’ To which he added – another great humanist principle – ‘The way to be happy is to make others so.’ That has its connections too: it reminds us of the idea summed up in southern African thought with the Nguni Bantu word ubuntu. Such strands and connections are all over the place, opening up an immensely rich tradition behind modern humanism.

What motivated you to go about researching Humanly Possible?

I was motivated by my own conviction that humanist thought is important and often misunderstood, and by suddenly realising that almost everything I’ve written about in recent years has had some link to the humanist tradition. I wanted to explore those links, and see where else they might lead me.

How has the humanist approach to  ‘what it means to be human’ changed over the centuries? 

As for ‘what it means to be human’, there has been a huge shift in responses to this question through the centuries, in Europe. The biggest change is an ever-increasing tendency to look for less exclusive notions of what full humanity is. Here is an example: early humanists were besotted by reports of a speech given by Pericles in Athens, in the fifth century BCE, praising the Athenians for living in harmonious, wholesome freedom, with each person engaged in the public life and politics of the city. The humanists of Renaissance Florence deliberately set out to emulate this ideal. But neither Pericles nor they said anything about their cities’ many unfree, enslaved people, upon whose labour the harmonious ones depended. And Pericles only briefly mentioned women, as an afterthought to the speech, saying to them: obviously I don’t mean you when I speak of freedom and political life. Your only virtue is never to be talked about at all, by anyone, whether for good or ill. In Florence, too, women of respectable families were expected to be invisible and unmentioned, rarely leaving their homes.

Humanist voices started to be raised, over the centuries, questioning these omissions and assumptions behind the classical human ideal – notably, some outspoken, challenging, and often very witty voices of women. I’ll be talking about some of these in the Rosalind Franklin Lecture. As a result, the idea of what it is to be human did start to become more inclusive, less founded on an exclusive and unitary ideal. One thing I find very interesting, however, is how these questioning voices also drew on aspects of the humanist ideal and the humanist tradition to fuel their case. They brought in all the key principles: those of human interconnection, of the importance of individual well-being, and of the importance of thinking critically – and used them to make humanism something stronger and more generous.

As a humanist, what about the humanist approach to life appeals to you most?
In the end, it’s the idea – not just that we are all interconnected – but that, if we want a better world, it is our own ingenuity, effort, intelligence, and sense of moral purpose that will make it so. There is no other grand source of meaning beyond us, to which we can refer to all our problems. There is, of course, an endlessly fascinating universe out there, which goes way beyond our little lives, and which is modestly explorable by scientific methods and by our informed imagination. I love that desire to explore, imagine, and understand a far greater reality. But there is no meaning there to discover, only the very rich and valuable world of meanings that we work out for ourselves. This human ability to create meaning is everything to us: it is what we are. For me, there is nothing negative or limiting about that thought; on the contrary, it is exhilarating.

Book your tickets now to see Sarah Bakwell deliver her Rosalind Franklin Lecture: Humanly Possible: 700 Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry, and Hope, in London or online on 8 March.