Moral good taste

Reading Humanly Possible by Sarah Bakewell for the Telegraph, 15 March 2023

In 1362 Western literary culture took a swerve when Petro Petroni, a monk from Siena, told Giovanni Boccaccio of his recent vision: that if Boccaccio didn’t stop collecting non-Christian books (never mind writing them), God was going to kill him. Boccaccio, somewhat rattled, told his friend, the poet Petrarch, and Petrarch, being a bibliophile, was unimpressed: if Boccaccio did decide to take Petroni’s advice, would he mind giving him first pick of the discards?

Humanly Possible is an anecdotal history — witty, warm-hearted (here and there, gratingly matey) — of the Western mind’s seven-hundred-year effort to ignore priestly and sectarian blarney, so as to nurture its own voice, its own conscience, its own good. Humanists believe that we each of us have a spark of good will and that, fed on charity, education and civic effort, all these sparks can together enlighten society.

Bakewell acknowledges that such civilising efforts are traceable in many traditions, and have probably been going on for ever. (And I do mean forever. I remember the relief I felt once, walking through Athens’s Acropolis museum, as I left behind the dead-eyed, fatuously grinning statues of the Archaic period (550 BC) for the dignified, melancholy, humane creatures of the Classical era that followed.)

Bakewell’s is story of spiritual and intellectual triumph, beginning in Italy around 1300 and which, thanks to that bloody Twentieth century — its two world wars and litany of totalitarian atrocity — ends with a hideous and disturbing twist.

Organising Europe’s humanists into a “tradition” is rather like herding cats. Bakewell’s organisational ability deserves applause. Here, bibliomanes like Boccaccio give way to physicians like Vesalius, then, via memoirists like Montaigne and philosophers like Paine and Hume, to novelists like E.M. Forster, with his impassioned plea that we “only connect!” with each other. It’s an epic, spine-tingling, seamless account.

Bakewell, who used to look after early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London, has a melting love of all those joyful 16th-century recitations of human excellence, and does a terrific job of communicating the ethical achievements behind such apparent fripperies as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s “Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit”, which would replace stern religiosity and unthinking obedience with nothing more than “a kind of moral ‘good taste’”.

I was reminded here of Kenneth Clark, in the 1969 TV series Civilisation, trying to explain why the paintings of Watteau (of all people) represent some sort of ethical high-water mark for western civilisation. In both cases, the point is well made, and well received, but at the same time, both assertions feel a bit underwhelming. All that cultural effort, all that struggle and invention, suffering and heroism, led up to — good taste? (Bakewell, fully aware of the problem, quotes the Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh: “There’s also a banality of good; and an everydayness of good.”)

The argument against humanism goes like this: an unbeliever, guided purely by their own conscience, is a person without morals. If society tolerated such people, breakdown would ensue.

And the awful thing is that this argument is not altogether wrong. Sometimes, breakdown is exactly what happens. Josef Stalin didn’t see to the deaths of 20 million of his own people by being an anti-humanist. Not at all: he was one of the best-read men of his generation, obsessed to the point of madness with constant intellectual and (though he wouldn’t have called it this) spiritual self-improvement. All fascism’s John-the-Baptist figures — from Maurice Barres to Martin Heidegger — were humanists maddened by the alienations of heavy industry, looming automation and evident democratic failure.

It’s not that the humanist idea is flawed, so much as it is no defence against our self-fulfilling belief in our own badness (and that’s a switch that’s frighteningly easy to throw: Bakewell mentions Savonarola and “his bonfire of the vanities”, but, generously, turns a blind eye to Greta Thunberg).

In his autobiography, quoted here, the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig talked of the humanists’ “beautiful error” — believing that “better learning, better reading and better reasoning would be enough to bring about a better world.”

Bakewell is too clear-eyed an historian, and too honest a writer, to gloss over the weakness of this pose. But she’s clear enough about the alternatives, too. They’re all species of harshness in Bakewell’s chatty and persuasive book — one form or another of force or war or slavery. We may feel jolly silly at times, waving Oscar Wilde’s love of curtain fabrics in the face of the world’s barbarity — but that might be as good a weapon as we’ll ever get.