Meaning Lab
#108: Humanism and the conversation of the ages (feat. Sarah Bakewell)

#108: Humanism and the conversation of the ages (feat. Sarah Bakewell)

The latest book from the author of At The Existentialist Café surveys seven hundred years of humanist thought.

Ludwik Zamenhof was born in 1859 in a small city in Poland. His family was Jewish, and the area he grew up in also had factions of Germans, Russians, and Poles, all of whom mutually distrusted one another. During his childhood, Zamenhof developed a theory: these groups would never get along without a common, neutral language to communicate with people in the other groups. Zamenhof considered the possibility of using existing languages for this purpose—such as Latin and Greek—but decided that the cost to learn them was too high. So he invented his own.

Esperanto, as Zamenhof’s language came to be known, sought to take familiar Indo-European root words and cast them in a language without verb conjugations, cases, gender, or any of the elements that make a language like German or Russian so difficult to learn. He was nineteen when he first unveiled the language to the public. Zamenhof’s goal was not just to create a language that was easy to learn, but to create a language that would put the different peoples of Europe on a footing of mutual disadvantage—and therefore, he hoped, equality.

As far as invented languages go, Esperanto has enjoyed more success than most. You can study it on Duolingo. It’s a staple of popular culture; for example, I recently saw in an episode of the TV show Billions, where it is being learned by the character Michael Wagner. But mostly, this success has been on the linguistic front. People find the language interesting. But it hasn’t been especially useful as a basis for utopia.

In a way, Zamenhof’s Esperanto is a microcosm of the system of values more generally known as “humanism.” There are many shades of humanism, but at their core lies a belief that understanding, connection, and even mutual admiration among different kinds of people is not only possible but paramount to a meaningful life. If we could all converse with one another, understand one another—then maybe we’d stand a chance of constructing the kind of society we all want to live in.

But while Esperanto embodies the aspirations of humanism, it also is emblematic of its tensions. In theory, getting people to celebrate the many ways of being human is an ideal worth striving for. In practice, it is a difficult one to achieve. When it comes to the ways of being humans, what all humans have in common is that they prefer their own.

The fundamental impulse of humanism is to grapple with this tension, and it is the subject of the latest book by author Sarah Bakewell. In it, she surveys 700 years of humanist thought—with each thinker bringing a personal perspective to the shared problem of what it means to value human life and society in an abstract sense. The experience of reading Bakewell’s book is to hear the echoing conversation of the ages. One of the ways of reading humanism is to see it as a means of participating in this conversation. It’s a notion I think is rather beautiful.

Her book is Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope. It’s available now.

[This conversation has been edited and condensed.]

One of the big questions I'm interested in that I'd like to hear your take on is what is humanism's theory of meaning?

It has very much to do with our social nature—our moral and personal and cultural and social connections to other people and to other living things as well. That would be the answer to two different questions. One is how do we find meaning in the world and the other is how do we find a foundation for moral life in the world. I think a humanist is inclined to answer both of those questions by pointing to our sort of bundle of connections with each other.

There's an idea which is found in various forms in southern Africa but in Nguni Bantu it's “Ubuntu.” It's become a word that’s quite well known outside that area because it was used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe one of the motivating ideas behind his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid in South Africa. He defined Ubuntu as meaning that we're part of a bundle of life—that I am human through you. We are human through each other and we're all part of this web or bundle of life.

You find a similar idea in Confucian thought, in the Chinese tradition. You find it throughout the European tradition—that the source of meaning, the source of morality is that web, that bundle of life.

Another way of putting it, which would be a bit harsher, would be to say that we, as humans, sort of create our own meaning. When I look out at the universe on a dark night with stars—which I'm happy to say where I am at the moment we have some wonderful night skies—you feel this tremendous sense of awe and interest and fascination and desire to attempt to imagine just how vast that universe is and where we might fit into it—all those questions which for a person with a certain sort of religious faith would suggest some kind of divine presence in the universe that there's something looking back at us. I don't feel that sense of that anybody is looking at us from that vast, vast realm but I do feel a very strong sense of connection to it and that it's an incredible thing to be here and to be part of this however tiny and that we'll only have it while we're alive. For me as a humanist, the world is absolutely rich in meanings both in my connections with other people and in my connections with the rest of life on this planet and in my connections with the entire universe.

I mean, what more could you want than that?

Something that I want to touch on up front here is that in the introduction to your book, and then throughout all of the different thinkers that we meet, you come back to a lot of these great refrains of humanism. One of them you mentioned in Ubuntu, I am human through other humans.

But another one that I think resonates with a lot of people comes from Terrence: “I am human, nothing human is foreign to me.” This is something that I've been thinking about because, to me, this is one of those aphorisms that is so patently worth accepting that it almost seems like a self-evident aspect of the good life.

Yet there's a part of me that's starting to question it in a way that I didn't previously. The more I live and interact with different kinds of people, the more I start to feel like the best I can do is appreciate them and the way they live in an abstract sense. Their version of humanity, what it's like to be them, when you really get down to it, maybe actually is more foreign to me than I give it credit. Does that make sense to you? How does it square with the humanist thinking you survey in your book?

My guide in interpreting that has been Montaigne. That was a favorite quote of his. He had it painted in pride of position on the wall of his study, where he put a lot of his favorite quotes. He wrote in the Essays that each person bears the entire form of the human condition; therefore you can write about anyone, and it'll be a glimpse into the human condition. But on the other hand he also wrote—it's the closing sentence of the first version of his essays—that his ruling principle is diversity. He was endlessly fascinated by the diversity of human customs, human lives, human practices, human ideas, human individuals.

There's a bit in the book where I sort of reflect on those principles of seeing a kind of universality among humans, seeing a universal thing that we can all connect to— the principle of diversity, of acknowledging and respecting diversity—and it seems to me that they might be seen sometimes as opposites. But the key is that when you get a repressive regime, which gives no respect to one of those principles, it tends to also give no respect to the other one. It's like if you get a regime that has no respect for the diversity of people's views or practices or ideas or ways of thinking, very often they also are not accepting the principle that all people share some essential human quality that brings them together.

To me they work very well together, and it's a clue I think that that an attack on one tends to end up being an attack on the other.


Let me try and pick up on something that you said, and try to rephrase it in my own words. There's a distinction here between the aspirational version of that phrase (nothing human is foreign to me) versus the descriptive version of it. The descriptive version is saying “I personally right now understand all human things”—that's pretty tenuous and probably just flat-out wrong. Very few people would endorse that in a blatant way. And the humanist version of it is not that every human situation is something that I'm very happy to be in and find myself completely comfortable with, but more driven from a place of curiosity, love, and aspiration to connect with humanity in its various forms, some of which may be more familiar and comfortable to you, some of which may be ini tially more foreign, but something that you still seek to appreciate. Does that seem like a distillation of some of the important stuff that you put down in your explanation?

Definitely. I think that's a very good point.

Let's talk about some specific figures in your book, which is sort of a novel of 100 characters. A few of them have appeared in the cast of characters of your previous books, but I'm curious for this one: which thinker were you most surprised to learn about or find yourself connecting with their work on a deeper level than perhaps you had before or had expected to?

Yeah, great question because there was there were several I was really fascinated by who I didn't know a great deal about except names and a vague idea of what they did.

The first part of the book concerns the humanist scholars and literary practitioners of the humanities in Italy and other parts of Europe from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. One of those people who absolutely fascinated me was Lorenzo Valla. He was primarily a translator. He had very good Latin, as most people in the educated sort of part of society did, and also very good Greek, and he taught the principles of eloquence.

Valla really wrote about a whole range of literary subjects, but he did these investigations into texts. The one that was most surprising and fascinating to me was he investigated the veracity of a document called the Donation of Constantine which supposedly had been written in the 4th century to record Emperor Constantine giving dominion over the whole of Western Europe—basically to the church, to the papacy. And he showed from analysis of the usage of Latin in it, that it couldn't possibly have been written in the fourth century, it must have been written much later, about 400 years later in the eighth century. So he did that using these intellectual tools of really looking closely at words and thinking about them historically. Some people thought that Latin was this eternal thing that never changed: that's why it was so marvelous and so wonderful. He pointed out that it had changed and that there were certain words that just couldn't have been used before a certain date. So it was a challenge to church authority.

It was a challenge to their reasons for claiming such dominion even in his own 15th century. He wasn't afraid of anything. He wasn't afraid to antagonize the church. He wasn't afraid to antagonize fellow scholars, he was always taking issue with them. He's a sort of good counterexample to the idea that humanists are always nice and cuddly because I don't think he was. He was really a model for using those intellectual tools to question authority and to point out the inconsistencies of the church.

Jumping way ahead in time there were other figures in the later parts of the book who again I didn't know very much about but who were quite a surprise to me. One of those in the 19th century was Matthew Arnold, who was a poet, but he also wrote a book called Culture and Anarchy. I think I've had it on my shelf since I was about 20 or something and had never really looked at because I always assumed it would be very very Victorian and stodgy and very conservative and stuffy. I mean, it is very Victorian actually in many ways but it's also a great read. He argues for the improving value of culture—how culture improves lives. He defines culture as the best that has been thought and said. He argues for widespread access to this kind of culture and believes that it'll bring what he calls sweetness and light into our lives.

I mean it all sounds pretty unfashionable by today's ideas but in fact what he's saying is that it's important that the best culture, the fullest, the richest cultural experiences should be available to everyone. He worked as an inspector of schools, so he was specifically thinking about education, including education of working-class children, disadvantaged children, and saying they shouldn't just be given something second rate that will sort of tide them over. They should have access to the best.

I want to touch on a theme: dead people. This is something I think that’s important to both of us. For instance, your books are populated almost exclusively with people who are long dead. I'm interested in how that plays out in what humanism is.

So on the one hand, you know that if you sort of gather up every the contributions of the majority of the people that you talk about in your book, they're men and women of letters. Most of them have something that they are doing in the here and now, but there's this big theme that they are invested in this massive conversation across the ages and looking at the best of culture or texts from a previous era, such as the thoughts of the ancients or someone who came 200 years before them. And part of me looks at that and thinks, well, that's where so much of humanism's meaning comes from. On the one hand, people like you and me find this so compelling: the idea of being able to commune with people like Montaigne and all of the great thinkers and scholars that you survey in your book. What a special thing to be able to sort of connect to that great conversation throughout the ages.

And then there's another part of me that looks at that and thinks, well, maybe if you were really serious about a humanism, instead of focusing on long dead individuals who will never answer your letters no matter how kindly you write them and how much eloquence you put into them instead be on the here and now of concrete needs of actual living human beings?

I don't know exactly how to express this, perhaps, but there is a certain devotion to the abstract notion of human beings. So I don't know if that entirely makes sense, but I'm wondering, does that sort of tension there strike you as a real thing?

I think you're sort of presenting a strange dichotomy, as if there's hose two things and somehow you've got to choose between one or the other. I think with almost all of the humanists in the book, reaching back into the past to read, to understand, to have this meeting with other minds in the past to—you know, I mean, that's what literature is. It is something that's been written. Even if it was written yesterday, it still was written before the present.

You see this theme of reaching back to make contact with these other minds everywhere in humanism. They say it again and again, beginning with Petrarch. specifically, it is the hope of reinventing, reworking, being enriched by this knowledge, being morally reborn by this wealth of wisdom from the past for the future.

It is the creative process of using all this material and all this cultural richness from these long dead people, and using it to build something for the future. I think really everybody in the book is emphatic about the application of this great cultural communication with the past for building a wiser future or building new human ways of thinking about culture and doing culture and building relationships with each other and doing the right thing—building better societies, all the rest of it. They're all really quite focused on the future.

Again I'm jumping forward in time here, but for example Bertrand Russell was incredibly erudite about the philosophers of the past. But he always spoke about the need for hope. He believed that to philosophize or to take part in political life or to be a human being at all should be more about hope for the future than fear. To me, there's a very direct line between this interest in all the people who have left records of their lives and reflections from the past and a desire to have an impact on the future—to use that to build a better future.

There's a quote by Robert Ingersoll that I use several times in the book. He was a 19th century free thinker, a sort of non-religious traveling preacher of the humanist and free thinking cause. He came up with what he himself called a creed:

Happiness is the only good,

the time to be happy is now,

the place to be happy is here,

and the way to be happy is to make others so.

So again, it's that connection with those around us.

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One final question: What are three books that have most influenced the way you think?

One of the books that was very influential on me as a life writer, as a biographer, was The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons. He was a very eccentric writer and novelist.

What's interesting in the way that A.J.A. Symons tells his life story is that he makes the process of discovering what happened the highlight of the story. So he includes all the letters that he wrote to people and what people said. And of course one person will tell him something about Corvo and then a few pages later it'll come out that that that was a complete fabrication—not by the person telling it by Corvo himself, who was a sort of self-mythologizer. So it's fascinating for the reader because you're finding your way through this complexity of false starts and different views of things. It’s exactly what we were talking about diversity of stories and perspectives.

It's a completely engaging read. And definitely I think that that's how I try, in a less dramatic way, to do in writing: to capture what different people thought about things without trying to make it into a unified whole.

I was very influenced by a novel that I've read many, many times, and I still reread it and discover new things in it: Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. It is a fairly massive novel written over a period of many years. It describes a young man going up to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. The mountain air was supposed to be helpful and he goes to visit his cousin who's got TB for three weeks but he ends up staying for seven years and developing TB himself. A lot of it is just sort of composed of all the dialogues with the people that he meets up there of whom some are trying to convince him of various world views and they're all in contradiction with one another.

It's also a love story, and it's full of irony. There's this young person who is trying to understand the world around him, but a lot of the fascination of the novel is just in the density of the actual material. There's so many there's things in there that are about science, about atoms, about all kinds of different political ideas. There's a lot of humanist versus anti-humanist stuff in there because one of the characters is a kind of caricature of a flitty flighty high-minded humanist. And then there's a much more ominous figure who doesn't agree with any of that.

To finish with I'm a great admirer of Janet Malcolm, who wrote for the New Yorker and wrote books. In the Freud Archives was the first book of hers that I read, and it stands for all of her books. Really I think for me her style is a kind of model of clarity and constantly questioning both herself and everybody around her which I try to achieve in my own writing.


Meaning Lab
Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.