The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One: Antiquity to Enlightenment

Brooke Horvath

The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One: Antiquity to Enlightenment, by Dale DeBakcsy, illus. Count Dolby von Luckner (Washington, D.C.: Humanist Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-931779-70-1) 122 pp. Softcover. $24.99.

First, let’s get something straight: there is no person improbably named Count Dolby von Luckner; there is only polymathic Dale DeBakcsy, familiar to readers of Free Inquiry for his contribution to its Great Minds column and a frequent contributor to Philosophy Now, Skeptical Inquirer, and American Atheist. The first volume of his Cartoon History of Humanism collects and arranges chronologically thirty-two of the forty-
four “episodes” or chapters that have been appearing for the past few years on

Let’s get something else straight: the description “cartoon history” is perhaps misleading insofar as only thirty-three of the book’s 122 pages are in cartoon format, one to open each episode with an appetite-whetting encounter between DeBakcsy’s time-traveling hero, Dave, and one or another humanist luminary. One pleasure of these opening cartoons is trying to figure out what’s on Dave’s T-shirt and what the joke is; another is the goofy portrayals of the likes of Albertus Magnus and Johannes Gottfried Herder. Though the light of several of these “thinkers and doers” has dimmed over the centuries (with the author intent on relighting their lamps), each is included because he or she “did something extraordinary to expand the intellectual horizons and freedoms of humanity.” The choices are “completely idiosyncratic” (some more than others), and I shan’t list them all, for part of the fun is not knowing whom you (and Dave) will meet with the turn of the page.They run from the familiar—Lucretius, Giordano Bruno, Voltaire—to the largely forgotten: Arnold of Brescia (“the man so important you’ve never heard of him” but who in the twelfth century made the pope a “flickering shade desperately seeking relevance”); Pietro Pomponazzi (who in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries “wrote the first rigorous critiques of personal immortality, prayer, miracles, and theological morality”); and Fra Paolo Sarpi (“Europe’s first atheist in the modern sense of the word,” who held “religion a ‘medicine’ to be administered to those too sick to deal with life as it is”). Not surprisingly, DeBakcsy, also the author of The Illustrated Women in Science, has thought to include several female rabble-rousers here, from Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Grazida Lizier to Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood (the last turning out to be something of a disappointment).

Each cartoon is followed by two to four pages of concise, informative, entertaining prose biography, historically contextualized and emphasizing those thoughts and doings that earn each figure a place in DeBakcsy’s pantheon. One will sometimes balk at what gets told: Cicero has secured a spot thanks to his privileging skepticism in On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), but that is to ignore Cato the Elder on Old Age, written a year later and professing belief in divinity and the immortality of the soul. Nor is it easy to accept Robespierre as a poster boy of Enlightenment thinking. Still, what one learns is largely trustworthy and provocative: we are told why Aristotelianism is not bad although its “teleological explanations” halted scientific progress; how Thomas Hobbes’s view that one’s happiness depends on the relative unhappiness of others, a thesis that has recently received statistical support from studies of Facebook users; why, after Anthony Collins (1676–1729), “prophecy and miracles” could no longer stand “as sure testaments to the truth of Christianity.”

DeBakcsy has a gift for clear summary, as in these lucid outlines of Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670): “The God of Spinoza does not act in the world, does not have emotions, does not support one people over another, does not wish for things, and does not ask for worship. He is, rather, the substance which underlies the universe, a completely indifferent source of natural law to whom prayers and sacrifice are nothing whatsoever.” Further, “Spinoza offered the sober reality that, if even the authors of the Bible couldn’t clear away their local historical prejudices in interpreting God’s nature, a man coming thousands of years later, with an incomplete knowledge of the base languages involved, and a totally different historical context, had no chance of saying anything except the pre-existing content of his own religious fancy. Good and evil are just what we call things. . . .”

However, quoting these passages does DeBakcsy a disservice, for they miss his frequent slides into slangy, breezy humor, as though Will Durant were morphing into Stan Lee. The cartoon that opens “Reason Strikes Back: Baruch Spinoza, the Most Dangerous Man in Europe” finds the Dutch lens grinder arriving on the scene with “Hey, rock stars!” To the question “What’s up?” B. S. replies, “Oh, just creating the cohesive foundation for the next four centuries of humanism. So, you know, Thursday.” The work of Anthony Collins is introduced as “an out-and-out, single-bulb-hanging-from-a-wire-in-a-back-room interrogation of Christianity,” and the Archpoet (“Yes, that is objectively the coolest name of anybody we’re going to be visiting”) is characterized as a “delightful” twelfth-century “gangsta” who “belies the standard history of Europe” (for “let’s face it, we like our Dark Ages, well, dark”).

Examining Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), DeBakcsy describes it as “a massive catalogue of humanity’s myths, thoughts, and foibles, recounted by a master of deep criticism. . . . Bayle let the full content of his amassed wisdom flow in the pages of the Dictionary, directed by his overriding principles of toleration and universal skepticism.” Something similar might be said of The Cartoon History of Humanism. Like Bayle, DeBakcsy is “simultaneously profound, amusing, and ever fresh.” He will doubtless prompt many of his readers, as he did me, to find out more about some of the thinkers and doers he ably introduces. Toward that end, I should mention that each chapter closes with sometimes quirky but carefully selected suggestions for further reading. It pleased me to see that DeBakcsy is fond of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship, which, despite its limitations (given the relentless advancement of knowledge), generally possesses a charming earnestness and accessible if sometimes florid prose.

Why a cartoon history of humanism? The obvious answer, roughly put, is “Why not?” Why Boccaccio’s Decameron? Why Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist? But I suspect DeBakcsy and his invisible friend the Count also wish to remind readers that with the gibbet and rack safely behind us, we ought to be having at least as much fun as the Archpoet managed more than eight hundred years ago. Humanism: no shirt or shoes required.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.

“Why a cartoon
history of humanism? The obvious answer, roughly put, is
Why not?’”

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