The Ends of Life, by Keith Thomas

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.

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5 thoughts on “The Ends of Life, by Keith Thomas

  1. This sounds really interesting, and you’ve got me curious to read it. Mostly I’m just interested in daily life, but I also find it amazing that the average Englishman could have had so little interest in religion during the Reformation and through the Cromwell era. Do you think Thomas’ contention would be that the strife of that era was mostly political or opportunistic and not deeply religious? In a way, that could explain what prompted people to behave in what we now would now consider a very unChristian manner in the name of Christ.

  2. Laura,

    I wouldn’t say that they had little interest in religion. It is a central part of English life for the entire period, and a healthy percentage of the quotes Thomas uses come from preachers and pastors. But when it comes to actually pursuing the ends that Thomas identifies, religion does not play much of a part. I hadn’t thought about it until I reached the immortality chapter and found that, not only does Thomas spend far more time discussing graveyard monuments and literary accomplishments than heaven and hell, but according to him life after death was largely something that was publicly espoused (for its social utility) but privately doubted. Which got me wondering how seriously Christian England took the rest of Christian living.

    But then I had another thought, namely that the pursuit of godliness might be something of a different order than that of the other ends. An analogy would be happiness, something that (contra Jefferson) cannot be pursued in itself but arises from the proper pursuit of some other goal. Nothing is as important to me as living a godly life, but it is not something that I pursue—instead, it accrues as I pursue other things.

    My own end is to raise my children well, in large part because I’ve found it to be a reliable path to godliness, especially the dying to self part. I’m puzzled that there is no place for this on Thomas’s list (I don’t count immortality, since I am not concerned about perpetuating my memory), but Thomas’s list is derived not from theory but from how people actually behave, and maybe my own end is a rare one. I certainly don’t think of it as superior to other possible ends. (But I highly recommend it.)

  3. Laura,

    I didn’t actually answer your question. Thomas doesn’t directly address it, but it’s telling that when discussing public attitudes to how life should be lived, he freely intermixes the quotes from preachers and pastors with quotes from politicians and nobles. And the quotes from preachers and pastors have little biblical basis (many of their claims would be rejected today, even by conservative Christians), but are just the same kind of conventional moralism that secular authorities were pumping out.

    Also, in the section on heaven and hell he makes the emphatic point that dread of the Last Judgment was viewed as an excellent tool for motivating the lower classes to behave themselves. One book disproving the existence of hell was written in Latin, and concluded with an exhortation to fellow preachers to keep this knowledge from their parishioners, for the sake of maintaining the social order.

  4. I think maybe you’ve got part of the answer there, that godliness was something on a different order, perhaps pursued through all these means.

    Curious about the clergy using the afterlife as a conscious tool for social order!

  5. That’s not really new. I was reading “On the Nature of Things,” by Lucretius and in the dedication to Venus he said that men are powerless to resist the abuses of religion and seers because they fear the promised eternal punishment after death.

    That was, I dunno, fifty or a hundred years before Christ, and I suppose it was going on before that, too.

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