Keith Thomas has written a far bigger book than he claims to have attempted. The full title of the book is The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England, but although the subtitle is accurate it suggests a goal far narrower than the one Thomas actually achieves. As is the technique Thomas uses (and apologizes for), stringing together exerpts taken from a wide range of writings spanning the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, but focusing mostly on the years 1530-1780. What might have been a dry recitation of facts about English history ends up painting six rich and detailed pictures of what people thought made for a fulfilling life, and in particular how attitudes shifted as a result of the shift from medieval to modern living.
The style of the book—an endless stream of carefully selected quotes, organized not only by topic but chronologically so as to show shifting attitudes, glued together with just enough additional text to make clear what Thomas thinks should be concluded from it all—makes it difficult to choose representative passages, so I won’t try. Instead I’ll just say that the reading was easy, and without effort I found myself reading closely through the sections that interested me most, and skimming the ones that didn’t have much new to teach me.
Thomas’s own writing is a pleasure, and quite often it was his organization of the material that kept me awake and intrigued. On one subtopic I thought he had pretty much made his case, but suddenly he began a section that seemed to be making the opposite point. And the synthesis came when it became clear that the first position was the public, ideal position while the second was the private, actual position—not exactly a case of hypocrisy, but more an inability to live up to a certain standard that was nevertheless clearly superior to how people largely lived in practice. Had Thomas begun by announcing the conclusion, I wouldn’t have worked so hard (under his guidance) to reach my own conclusion; had a lesser writer tried Thomas’s approach I probably would have just ended up confused.
The six possible ends of life that Thomas examines are partly obvious, partly curious: military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honor and reputation, friendship and sociability, fame and the afterlife. That’s it? But after reading the book I’m confident that Thomas is not leaving anything out, at least when it comes to the actual concerns of actual people. And I was also surprised at how little a Christian nation seems to have considered Christian living as a worthwhile end—not that they lived godless lives, but just that they were driven by concerns other than godliness. Even heaven and hell get short shrift in Thomas’s account, only nine pages of a forty-page chapter on fame and the afterlife, but not because Thomas has any lack of understanding of Christianity or a prejudice against it—he handles all the Christian material well, and sympathetically. It just doesn’t seem to have been on the average Englishman’s radar, at least anywhere from the high middle ages through the Enlightenment.