The Ends of Life

Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life grew out of a series of talks he gave in early 2000 under the rubric of the Ford Lectures in British History at the University of Oxford. The book retains the accessible tone of the original lectures, and each of the chapterswhich are based on separate lecturesis capable of standing alone as a coherent study. Together, though, the chapters contribute to Thomas’s overall investigation of the sources of satisfaction available to those living in England in the early modern period (roughly between the English Reformation and the American Revolution). As the hundred pages of references indicate, Thomas has drawn on an encyclopedic range of written sources to illustrate people’s thinking. Since the majority of people living during this period were illiterate, however, their thoughts and desires must be inferred from the texts left by their better-educated countrymen and women.

Thomas’s list of possible sources of happiness could be prolonged indefinitely, but he has chosen to focus on six: military prowess, work, money, reputation, personal relationships, and the afterlife. In Saturae (100-127; Satires, 1693), the Roman poet Juvenal devised his own list of the things people asked of the gods. Along with the wealth and military success that Thomas discusses, Juvenal included political power, learning, beauty, and long life, all of which Thomas ignores. To exhaust the list of human wants, however, would require a library rather than a volume, and Thomas shows through copious quotation that his choices loomed large in people’s minds during his period of study.

Before considering each element in turn, Thomas explains that the very idea of self-fulfillment was once revolutionary. For Plato and Aristotle, eudaimonia, a sense of well-being, derived from philosophical contemplation and hence was accessible only to the elites who had leisure for this pursuit. In the Middle Ages, the words “ambition” and “singularity” had only negative connotations. Contentment was to come from fulfilling one’s role in the Great Chain of Being, a role determined by birth. Individual happiness was less important than social harmony and public welfare. Thomas recognizes that not everyone accepted this orthodox view, but in the early modern period the individual pursuit of happiness came to be more widely accepted.

One path that Englishmen took in that quest was military. Chivalric romances enjoyed popularity, and real people imitated their fictional heroes. Thomas notes that, when the earl of Oxford arrived in Palermo in 1572, he issued a general challenge to the inhabitants. At the siege of Rouen in 1591, the earl of Essex invited the French governor to single combat. The earl of Newcastle in 1643 similarly challenged Ferdinand, Lord Fairfax, leader of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War. Thomas Nashe in 1592 commented on the popularity of William Shakespeare’s portrayal of brave Talbot’s battles against the French in Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598), and Henry V’s exploits were similarly extolled. Henry VIII, Charles I, William III, George I, and George II all led armies in the field.

Thomas acknowledges a countermovement that criticized the waging of war, at least for personal glory. Writers John Gower, Thomas Hoccleve, and John Lydgate, as well as theologian John Wycliffe, rejected militarism. The humanist Roger Ascham, tutor to Queen Elizabeth, objected to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) because it glorified combat. The denizens of Sir Thomas More’s perfect society in De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551) avoid combat whenever possible. In Paradise Regained (1671), John Milton’s Christ rejects military glory. In any case, as armies became more professional, the opportunity to achieve individual military distinction declined. Thomas argues that by the end of the eighteenth century most English people no longer aspired to success in combat.

Whereas warfare lost its appeal as a means of satisfaction, work began to be perceived as a means of self-realization. The classical ideal had stressed leisure, and the Church had long treated labor as a curse. The Reformation, however, rejected monkish contemplation in favor of the active life, if only because work left less...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)