The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, By Keith Thomas

What did the pursuit of happiness involve for Britons in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries?

Keith Thomas, who has always been wonderfully adventuresome, wants to talk about big ideas and about how they evolved over long stretches of time. He leaps between centuries and he gleefully stacks up quotations from far-distant sources. He knows this way of writing history has its flaws, and he knows that people will carp about his "bringing together evidence culled from very different social and intellectual milieux", but he does it anyway and we should all be very grateful. It takes phenomenal learning and scholarly chutzpah to pull off a book like this. Happily, Thomas has deep reserves of both and, while the book will make some historians gnash their teeth, it will fill others with admiration. No, you can't write a satisfactory history of such a huge subject. There are always going to be too many generalisations and unconvincing comparisons, but someone has to try and Keith Thomas is the best man for the job.

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".

Modern-day notions of individuality and autonomy did not play very well in early modern England, and the border between the public and private spheres was still in the process of being drawn. Novelty and idiosyncrasy were frowned upon, marriage was more often about social advantage than love, and even a word like "friend" often had more to do with kinship, or a network of neighbours and acquaintances, than with the ideal of intimate companionship. The taproots of present-day personal happiness (my authentic self, my loving spouse, my coterie of bosom buddies) were certainly starting to emerge, but they had to fight their way through a layer of centuries-old and very different conceptualisations of the summum bonum.

That, at any rate, is how it looked on paper, in the writings of theologians and moralisers. Thomas points out that there was sometimes a stark difference between "official thinking" and how people actually lived their lives. Work, for instance, was routinely stigmatised as an unpleasant duty: having to make bread by the sweat of our brows represented the wages of Adam's sin. This made excellent theological sense, but postlapsarian people still tried to make the best of things. Work could be a source of dignity (the job well done) and sociability (even in the worst professions, people gossiped, drank and forged relationships). This tension between revered ideas (many of them derived from the nostrums of Greek philosophy and the medieval worldview) and the workaday business of carving out a tolerable life resonates throughout Thomas's book.

Regardless of what mighty texts told them, early modern people sometimes forged new ways of conceiving wealth and honour, they occasionally ignored warnings about the perils of social mobility, and they even fashioned their own visions of heaven and hell. Thomas tells us about an 18th-century Dorset gamekeeper who had heard his fill of preachers' accounts of a "place called paradise". They talked of walled cities and lofty buildings; he had mapped out his own road towards eternal fulfilment and preferred to think of heaven in terms of "a good trout stream running down Chicken Grove Bottom". Let's hope he made it, and let's thank Keith Thomas for writing such a brave and sensitive book.