Humanly Possible

From The Wall Street Journal:

Humanism was born in Renaissance Italy as an approach to reading Roman literature. It later turned into an Enlightenment philosophy for reorganizing society along rational lines, especially in France. No one called it “humanism” in English until the 19th century. Our humanism is a Euro-American ideology, and its keynotes are progress, liberal individualism, agnosticism or atheism, and trusting the science.

The British historian Sarah Bakewell has previously deciphered the complexities of Montaigne (“How to Live”) and given a droll and chatty account of the Existentialists (“At the Existentialist Café”). Her latest book, “Humanly Possible,” traces the abstract ideal of humanism through the lives of its exponents and the hopes of its adherents, from Petrarch’s Florence to present-day Glasgow, where the Humanists International group recently issued a “Declaration of Modern Humanism.” A book of big and bold ideas, “Humanly Possible” is humane in approach and, more important, readable and worth reading, whether you agree with it or not.

For the Romans, Ms. Bakewell writes, the word humanitas meant being human, “but with added overtones of being refined, knowledgeable, articulate, generous, and well mannered.” Her first humanists are the umanisti of 14th-century Italy, literary scholars specializing in studia humanitatis, or human studies, rather than Christian theology, for instance. Not that religious concerns were ignored: Dante may have been a “cosmic visionary,” but his cosmos was Christian, so much so that he invented a Hell for his enemies and had to leave the pagan Virgil in Limbo.

After Dante came Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio. Petrarch (1304-1374), a poet and scholar, relished the peripatetic “literary life.” He was a bloodhound in the library, hunting down fragments of Livy’s Roman history, and discovering Cicero’s “Pro Archia,” in which the Roman statesman argued that the Greek poet Archias merited citizenship for his “human and literary studies.” His biggest find was three of Cicero’s letters in the cathedral library of Verona. These showed the private Cicero, the “informal writer and friend who reflected on human dilemmas and emotions,” and mixed observations on current affairs with anecdotes from philosophy and literature. When Petrarch emulated Cicero in his letters, he revived the voice of humanitas.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that, once again, Big Publishing (Penguin in this case) got a positive review in the largest-circulation newspaper in the United States, has posted the book for sale on Amazon but has not enabled Look Inside on Amazon so the millions of ardent readers can examine the book in more detail to decide whether to buy it or not.

Modern intelligent and cultured readers have a huge offering of interesting writing about nearly any subject available online. At least some of these potential customers are like PG, flitting from flower to flower. PG has already read the WSJ review and looked up the book on Amazon.

Between today and the release date, March 28, PG will have scanned hundreds of online pages, read at least two hundred pages of ebooks and forgotten all about the nice review the publisher scored in The Wall Street Journal.

PG is on the verge of emailing the WSJ editors to request that they not publish a book review until the book itself is on sale. His email may or may not have any impact on the WSJ review policies at all, but PG will have let off a bit of steam.

19th Century marketing and promotion is still with us in traditional publishing.


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