The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas

The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England

How should we live? That question was no less urgent for English men and women who lived between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries than for this book's readers. Keith Thomas's masterly exploration of the ways in which people sought to lead fulfilling lives in those centuries between the beginning of the Reformation and the heyday of the Enlightenment illuminates the central values of the period, while casting incidental light on some of the perennial problems of human existence. Consideration of the origins of the modern ideal of human fulfilment and of obstacles to its realization in the early modern period frames an investigation that ranges from work, wealth, and possessions to the pleasures of friendship, family, and sociability. The cult of military prowess, the pursuit of honour and reputation, the nature of religious belief and scepticism, and the desire to be posthumously remembered are all drawn into the discussion, and the views and practices of ordinary people are measured against the opinions of the leading philosophers and theologians of the time. The Ends of Life offers a fresh approach to the history of early modern England, by one of the foremost historians of our time. It also provides modern readers with much food for thought on the problem of how we should live and what goals in life we should pursue. 4.5 out of 5 based on 8 reviews
The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Religion & Spirituality
Format Hardback
Pages 384
RRP £20.00
Date of Publication February 2009
ISBN 978-0199247233
Publisher OUP
 

How should we live? That question was no less urgent for English men and women who lived between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries than for this book's readers. Keith Thomas's masterly exploration of the ways in which people sought to lead fulfilling lives in those centuries between the beginning of the Reformation and the heyday of the Enlightenment illuminates the central values of the period, while casting incidental light on some of the perennial problems of human existence. Consideration of the origins of the modern ideal of human fulfilment and of obstacles to its realization in the early modern period frames an investigation that ranges from work, wealth, and possessions to the pleasures of friendship, family, and sociability. The cult of military prowess, the pursuit of honour and reputation, the nature of religious belief and scepticism, and the desire to be posthumously remembered are all drawn into the discussion, and the views and practices of ordinary people are measured against the opinions of the leading philosophers and theologians of the time. The Ends of Life offers a fresh approach to the history of early modern England, by one of the foremost historians of our time. It also provides modern readers with much food for thought on the problem of how we should live and what goals in life we should pursue.

Reviews

The Independent on Sunday

Jonathan Wright

The themes he chooses, the ways in which early modern people pursued the "life well lived", are these: the glory of military prowess, the dignity offered by the world of work, the craving for wealth and reputation, the succour of friendship, and the hazy hope that everything would turn out as it should in the afterlife. At first blush, most of these goals might seem familiar. The great strength of Thomas's book is that it reveals just how differently our forebears tackled them. As Thomas puts it, the historian has to approach the past "in the way an anthropologist might approach some exotic society"... a brave and sensitive book.

05/04/2009

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The Literary Review

Peter Marshall

Thomas sets about his task with immense, though lightly worn, erudition, and with a command of the sources that few other scholars could hope to attain. The writing is lucid and elegant, peppered with a dry wit, and overseen by an infallible eye for anecdotes. I was delighted to learn about the Suffolk rector, complained of by puritan parishioners for 'eating custard after a scandalous manner'... [A] triumphal demonstration that one of our leading historians is still at the height of his powers.

01/02/2009

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The Scotsman

Michael Kerrigan

The changes over time – traced here through to the end of the 18th century – are every bit as intriguing as the continuities. A "broad-brush" study by Thomas's own admission, this is at the same time an exhilaratingly illuminating one in its subtle, sensitive readings of a wide array of sources.

07/02/2009

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The Sunday Times

John Carey

...his new book is in effect a collage of thousands of quotations, drawing on every kind of record and every level of society from peer to ploughman. The hubbub of dead voices - personal, opinionated, contradictory - is a revelation, as if he had managed to access the internet centuries before it was invented... What this fascinating book reveals is how variously and how tenaciously people have felt the need to seek reasons for living.

08/02/2009

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The Financial Times

Lisa Jardine

The sheer wealth and diversity of material in The Ends of Life makes it a fascinating read. So too does the recurring echo of the same struggle between worldly pleasure and lasting fame with which we still grapple today. But we search in vain here for the connecting threads that might tell us why in some areas there is historical continuity, while in others there have been dramatic shifts in beliefs and values.

09/03/2009

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The Guardian

Graham Parry

The range of opinion cited here, from philosophers such as Bacon and Locke to tavern moralists, provides excellent social coverage, but Thomas can overfurnish the evidence, and sometimes his case histories read like the breathless lists of examples that swamp the pages of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Thomas writes best about the ideal of friendship, and the many ways people sought to remember their friends can be heartwarming even at this distance in time.

21/02/2009

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The Independent

DJ Taylor

The section on "taste" and its more enigmatic cousin sensibility are, as one might expect, the best in the book..There are perhaps two criticisms to be made of this mighty endeavour. One is the remorseless procedural garnish of half-a-dozen notes a paragraph... The other has to do with the vagueness of the historical frontiers [how to define "Early Modern" England]... Where Thomas excels, as ever, is in his eye for luminous supporting detail...

13/02/2009

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The Spectator

Ferdinand Mount

[An] enchanting but also maddening book. As you would expect from the author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, there is never a dull page, nor a paragraph without a piquant fact or quotation. Yet each chapter dances a minuet of contradictions in which the dancers, flushed and nicely exercised, end up in their starting places. Every time Thomas takes us through the conventional differences between the Early Moderns and us, the facts tug him back to admit, with the scrupulosity of a great historian, that, no, the contrast isn’t really quite so sharp and that in some ways, some of them behaved and thought much as we do.

18/02/2009

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