The Ends of Life Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern EnglandKeith ThomasOxford University Press, $24.95, 416 pp.
Keith Thomas is an important British historian whose work should be more widely known in America. He writes about how early modern people—from the aristocrat to the laborer—conceived of life’s purposes. Terry Eagleton has written that “as far as society is concerned, I as an individual am utterly dispensable.” Why don’t I “join a circus or take an overdose”? Eagleton uses the idea of “centering”—ideology that makes one feel significant—to overcome such dread and despair. In The Ends of Life, Keith Thomas takes the long historical view and shows how people in England between the Reformation and the American Revolution transcended their fears and fashioned various means of fulfillment. In wonderfully lucid and entertaining prose, he discusses some of the staples of the good life they aspired to. He deals with military prowess, work, possessions, honor, friendship, fame, and the afterlife. And he manages to serve up this serious fare with grace and dry wit.
Thomas is a phenomenal researcher. He reports on what a little boy of five thought honor was, why Quakers disapproved of tombstones, how London rowdies proved their significance by rioting, and when the English first came to prize eccentricity. A work of this kind could be a bit of a chore for the nonhistorian; this one isn’t. Thomas is famous at Oxford for collecting quotations and storing them in envelopes, and here he provides lively voices and colorful incidents on every page. The result is a remarkable literary delight, as pleasurable as it is instructive.
The past, according to Thomas, is exotic territory. Early modern people appear at first to be quite unlike us in some ways. They valued public life more than domesticity; they went to great lengths to defend honor; they enjoyed publicly humiliating the disreputable; they most often regarded work as drudgery, and never talked of job satisfaction; they were just beginning to feel that friends were precious quite apart from their practical or moral value. If some of these differences seem more different than others, if they leave room for hints of things to come, Thomas has accomplished his purpose. He aims to show us early versions of ourselves, people in the process of abandoning ancient values and taking up new ones. In the early modern period, people drifted away from several classical ideas—such as that everyone has a fixed place in the social hierarchy, that being “singular” is dangerous, that being a woman consigns you to posthumous oblivion, that wealth and possessions are dangerous to one’s character. This is also the period when people began to conceive of hell and heaven differently, as inner torment rather than fire and torture; the period when Protestants denounced purgatory, commemorating the dead but refusing to pray for them. And it was the period when banking and formal trade agreements and “reasons of state” made a gentleman’s word of honor count for less.
The world was becoming less dependent on the deeds of popes and princes and more dependent on impersonal forces. At the same time, social life was becoming much more highly valued as a source of personal satisfaction. Light conversation—once considered a form of idleness—was “the grand business of our lives, the foundation of everything,” according to novelist Henry Fielding. Diaries, memoirs, individualized literary portraits, and novels were competing with epics, heroic dramas, and systematic works of theology and philosophy. Painters were commissioned to render individual likenesses, not simply the marks of a subject’s rank and occupation. “The great motor behind the sense of individual identity was the growth of a market economy,” Thomas maintains. He himself was inspired to become a historian by reading Max Weber on the Protestant ethic and R. H. Tawney on Puritanism and capitalism; but, as Thomas acknowledges, the idea that wealth can be an instrument of virtue goes back at least as far as Aristotle.
One of the most admirable features of Thomas’s book is its way with ideas that seem to pull in opposite directions. He lets them pull. Is luxury good and conducive to variousness and high civilization, or does it lead to dissolution? Is honor a form of honesty, or just an excuse to slaughter other men in duels and wars? In the early modern period, much as in 2010, everyone was talking at once: humanists, traders, aristocrats, clergy, women writers. Thomas gives a hearing to the hitherto unheard—working people. But he also deals with the pronouncements of the great.
As a historian, Thomas is a “lumper” who sees big similarities, not a “splitter” who wants to emphasize every difference. But he spends an inordinate amount of time on military prowess and skims over two or three features of his period that are of crucial significance. The texture is thick when it comes to aggressive aristocrats and rank-conscious people generally. But where are the scholars, the lovers, and the devout? We are told in the chapter on work that dons killed themselves with study in order to be the best, but this is pretty thin as a depiction of an age when Renaissance humanism and book culture flourished. Dr. Johnson praised Shakespeare for not overdoing romantic love; Keith Thomas hardly acknowledges its existence. Nor does he have much to say about the rakes and voluptuaries who were so conspicuous and articulate in the seventeenth century. He speaks of “theological debate,” but there’s little of its fire and excitement in evidence here. Learning, love, and yearning for God, ends for which many early moderns lived, are roads to fulfillment Thomas has decided to leave mostly untraveled. Why?