Review: Humanly Possible talk

Talk by Sarah Bakewell at Blackheath Halls on 12th September

Sarah Bakewell discussed her recently published book Humanly Possible with journalist Suzi Faey. She said that it was difficult to answer Suzi’s first question – what is humanism? It is a philosophical attitude that places the human at the centre of attention rather than some kind of supernatural god or the promise of a second life. It emphasises human reason, value and empathy. Humanists believe that we only have one life and we each have a responsibility to act for the general good. She admitted that this all sounds terribly worthy and nice but rather wishy-washy. 

Her book seeks to illustrate these characteristics and give substance to the definition with portraits of a variety of people who we would now describe as humanists. These include such well known historical figures as Boccaccio, Petrarch, Erasmus, Voltaire, JS Mill and Bertrand Russell. Asked if she has any favourite humanists she listed Christine de Pizan and Mary Wollstonecraft, who both campaigned for women’s rights, the modest and sceptical philosopher Michel Montaigne, and the bon viveur Robert Ingersoll.

After completing her own questions Suzi invited questions from the audience. Several people identified themselves as either paid-up humanists or at least humanist sympathisers. The questions ranged from the influence of Eastern religions on humanist philosophy to the ability of humanism to withstand the impact of artificial intelligence.

It was an interesting and entertaining session but, ultimately, I think it failed to answer the question that, for many in the audience, was the most important one – should I read this book?

Review by Tony Brewer

Plenty of conversation in the bar afterwards as well; here are a few of us joined by Sarah and Suzi…