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26 March 2023

The limits of humanism

How do we reconcile our capacity for good and evil? Humanist thinking does not have all the answers.

By Rowan Williams

Three years ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement was gathering momentum, a statue of the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire, near the banks of the Seine in Paris, was daubed with red paint and subsequently removed – supposedly for cleaning and restoration. The red paint testified that Voltaire, patron saint of Enlightenment ethics, was no less complicit than the Bristolian Edward Colston in the slave trade: an investor in slave ships, a shareholder in the French East India Company, and a man who believed that white humans were as much superior to black as the latter were to monkeys.

The statue’s future is unclear. The paint-daubing and the subsequent removal provoked predictable outrage in France, with some recalling that the last time Voltaire had been “cancelled” was during the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War. But there is no lack of clarity about Voltaire’s views on non-white communities, and indeed on Jews. Ironically, Hitler had at one point taken an interest in Voltaire for precisely this reason. The philosopher was no advocate of genocide, and he was eloquently critical of brutality towards enslaved workers, but his monumental blind spots might give us pause before we too enthusiastically clamour for his statue’s return. Sarah Bakewell, in this superbly readable, witty and attractive survey of the history of “humanism”, affirms that “it was thanks to humanistic beliefs in reason and meliorism that Voltaire argued for tolerance of different religions” – and this is true as far as it goes. But it is not easy to make Voltaire a champion of anything like human rights as we understand the term.

Bakewell does not mention Voltaire’s racial beliefs, but she does note that the same tension can be found in that other paragon of emancipatory reason, David Hume, and that for most of the earlier figures in her story “humanity” was primarily the white (and, in practice, prosperous and educated) male. It was Jeremy Bentham who most decisively broke the mould, and Bakewell rightly gives him credit for pushing “humanistic” universalism to its logical conclusion (in respect of sexual minorities as well as race and gender). But it leaves the reader with a substantial question: how and why does “emancipatory reason” get itself into ethical messes as embarrassing as those of any religious system?

[See also: Is this the best of all possible worlds?]

Part of Bakewell’s aim is to show how the umanesimo of literary scholars, poets and antiquarians in Renaissance Italy mutated into the more sceptical philosophies of the 16th and 17th centuries and acquired a more overtly moral and social dimension. In turn, Enlightenment philosophies steadily shook off their racial and class limitations and began to generate a more robustly pluralist understanding of human community. Both Humean or Voltairean racism and the obsession with eugenics of late 19th- and early 20th-century “freethinkers” reflect a worrying insensitivity to the facts of social and cultural otherness, and a powerful tilt towards the idea of a fully managed social and genetic environment. The modern humanist is likely to be a far more passionate defender of cultural variety than their predecessors.

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In the course of Bakewell’s narrative we meet a range of memorable characters – spiky late medieval intellectuals, urbane polymaths on the edges of royal courts, courageous defenders of the rights of women or LGBTQ groups in some very inhospitable environments. We are given a very sympathetic account of the mission of Ludwik Zamenhof, with his visionary project of creating a universal language; most readers will probably not have registered the quasi-religious impulse behind the development of Esperanto, and Bakewell’s pages on this curious adventure are among the most intriguing in the book.

Illuminatingly, she also traces the very different ways in which humanistic thinking was shaped by both scientific and literary developments in the 19th century, taking Darwin’s fierce defender Thomas Huxley and the rather less angular Matthew Arnold as typifying the interwoven strands of post-religious Victorianism. Arnold’s faith in literary culture as the vehicle for a new sense of social possibilities had its remote roots in Renaissance aspirations, but it was combined with a radical commitment to educational reform. His legacy has proved durable – think of FR Leavis in mid-20th-century Cambridge, with his messianic passion for the study of English literature as the core of moral insight, and also of the persistent trope of imaginative literature as the last refuge of the sacred in our society. Bakewell gives us a fine summary of the contribution to this strand of humanism made by the work of George Eliot and that of Arnold’s niece, Mrs Humphry (Mary Augusta) Ward, whose 1888 novel, Robert Elsmere, the story of a conscientious liberal cleric leaving the Church to work for social justice and popular education, became a minor classic. Eliot’s conviction that “the extension of our sympathies” by way of literary art was the key to human maturity and collective improvement aligned her with Arnold as an authority for morally serious and socially compassionate agnostics.

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Bakewell concludes her book by repeating the summary of the humanist creed first drafted by the endearingly enthusiastic 19th-century American Robert Ingersoll (a travelling orator with an irrepressible style): “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

It is a seductively simple account of the essence of humanism, but it has only to be stated for the harder moral questions to arise. It is obvious enough from the lives of some of Bakewell’s heroes and heroines that many thought it clearly right to defer their own happiness by taking risks for the sake of conscience. It is equally obvious that for many of these heroes “making others happy” proved a much more tangled matter than they expected. Bakewell mentions Bertrand Russell’s attempt at one stage of his career to run a completely non-hierarchical and discipline-free school. He and his wife discovered that this left the more vulnerable children exposed to those others whose idea of enjoyment was unchallenged bullying.

“Happiness”, whether for myself or others, cannot sensibly be restricted to scratching whatever itch happens to be most pressing for an individual at any one moment. Some will claim happiness in ways that fundamentally damage others, and what it might mean to “make them happy” is by no means simple. Sooner or later, most discourse of this sort is driven to make at least some normative statements about “happiness” that help us not to confuse it with plain gratification; and then we are on the road to something a good deal more metaphysical, and Ingersoll’s cheerful statements turn out to be no more self-evident than the Nicene Creed in Christianity or the Shema in Judaism.

[See also: Free speech means supporting the right to criticise the monarchy]

In fairness, Bakewell is sensitive and irenic about religion. “Why would humanists wish people not to have such (highly humanistic) forms of satisfaction in their lives?” she asks, and grants that the human landscape is enriched by symbol and tradition and not easily reducible to rational functionality. A religious reader might just feel as though they are being moved into a granny flat and the shades drawn. Bakewell also grants that the boundaries between religious and non-religious readings of the world are more porous than either side often supposes. What is odd is the rather bland phraseology about the “satisfaction” that religion is supposed to offer – something also reflected in her language about how some, like herself, “do not choose” to believe. I’m not sure that any traditional believer of any faith would say that they had “chosen” to stand where they do – any more than someone would claim that they had chosen to love their partner.

Wittgenstein famously observed about religious belief that what drove people into faith was “experience at a certain level” – not conclusions to an argument, and not lifestyle choices. The formidably unconventional Dutch diarist Etty Hillesum, describing her reconnection with inherited religious practice after a fairly secularised Jewish upbringing, writes about finding herself compelled to kneel, even if she does not know quite what she kneels “to”; and she writes this in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with the prospect of deportation and death ever-present for her (she died in Auschwitz in 1943). Choosing to believe? Not quite.

Mention of mid-century Europe takes us to Bakewell’s comments on the “anti-humanist” strains in modernity, with some prompted by the horrors of war and Holocaust, and some (like aspects of the philosophy of Heidegger) complicit with those horrors. She quotes William Golding’s grim aphorism, “Man produces evil as a bee produces honey”, as an instance of the cultural drift towards suspecting human achievement and cultivation as a “mendacious veneer”. But the most important disjunction is perhaps not that between a belief that humanity is “naturally” evil and a belief that it is “naturally” good. The problem is that humanity is damaged; something utterly extraordinary, creative, resplendent, free and loving has been lethally infected with delusions and compulsions.

For a Christian like Augustine, humankind has inherited an addiction to destructive behaviours designed to protect our security and self-images. For a Buddhist, we have fallen victim to the myth that we possess a fixed inner identity that operates simultaneously by “acquisition and aversion” – by greed and fear. Reason itself is habitually instrumentalised by our vulnerable, fantasising selves to reinforce radical delusions about who and what we are.

The history of “freethinking” shows, among other things, that religious language and institutions readily turn into vehicles of the very same delusions. But a serious and critical account of what Bakewell disarmingly describes (after a visit to Chartres Cathedral) as “a (slightly nervous) faith in humanity” – a slightly Pollyannaish looking on the bright side – needs to say something about how we prevent “reason” being co-opted by an ego that is both voracious and ingenious. Back to George Eliot, perhaps, and to many other figures who have anatomised the tragic contradictions around the idea of human dignity. Bakewell has written a wonderful book on Montaigne, and his essays were an essential part of what Shakespeare brought to the writing of Hamlet, but that play’s sustained exploration of conflict and failure and misdirected passions did not come from Montaigne alone.

The late Geoffrey Hill mused in his lectures on a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson about how art reflects back to us our own thinking and living in the form of an “alienated majesty”. We have to see and hear ourselves as strange before we can properly come to be at home with ourselves, and art presents us with that strangeness – with what we are without knowing it. It captures both our squalor and our radiance – “majesty” – in all the ways Bakewell celebrates and more.

There is more be written about art as a deeply critical ally of humanism, as of religious faith. I don’t think Bakewell is averse to such a perspective, and her critique of the bizarre fantasies of contemporary “transhumanism” (just upload the contents of your brain to a more reliable bit of hardware) is acute. But what she signs off with here, in the form of Ingersoll’s cheery prescriptions, would have a dash of bromide in the hands of a writer less gifted and alert. I wonder whether she could be persuaded to write more about Eliot and Mrs Ward and, for that matter, Tolstoy or Camus; about alienated majesty as the category we need for a more troubled and conflicted but perhaps less nervous faith in humanity.

Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a New Statesman lead reviewer

Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope
Sarah Bakewell
Chatto & Windus, 464pp, £22

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[See also: Free speech means supporting the right to criticise the monarchy]

This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special