Modernity 1.0: Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life

We ask now, as Socrates taught his own and all subsequent times to ask, “How should we live? What matters? Which ends or goals are sufficiently worthwhile to make a life in pursuit of them a good life?” At the same time, moralists of almost all periods typically complain that their contemporaries have less exalted values than they should have, or than their ancestors did. The comparison — often, the contrast — between ethical aspiration and how people actually live is always fascinating, especially in retrospect. Exploring that comparison and contrast is one main duty of cultural history.

A special significance attaches to this exploration in the epoch that gave birth to our own times: the “early modern” period, meaning roughly the mid-16th to the end of the 18th centuries, embracing the Reformation and its antecedents, the tumultuous period of the scientific revolution — which coincided with the Thirty Years War and its Westphalian settlement, the English Civil War, and the colonization of North America — and finally the Enlightenment. The Western world was a very different place at the end of this period than at the beginning, and a survey of answers given to “How should we live?” during it is not merely a fascinating but an important one for our present self-understanding. This is what Keith Thomas offers in his minutely researched study The Ends of Life, by looking at what people in those transformative centuries thought about work, honor, wealth, friendship, fame, and fulfillment in general.

The opening flourish of the first sentence above assumes that Socrates’ question underlies all reflective endeavor to live well. But, obviously enough, history does not stand still, so the answers given might well differ; and between our own and Socrates’ days there lies the huge fact of Christianity, which although it came of necessity to borrow much from classical thought, made and still makes its own claim to define the good, with correlative ideas about how to achieve it.

Moreover, in the period of Christianity’s cultural dominance of Europe and later the New World, there is a second great watershed: the Reformation, with the new Protestant outlooks effecting further changes, and with the consequent liberalization of thought weakening the hold of belief over moral practice. The span of Thomas’s survey coincides with the rise of Protestantism and the increasing secularization that its rise unintentionally prompted. From this observation one can hypothesize the direction of change in many of the attitudes Thomas describes.

Thomas’s study concerns “early modern England,” and all three of these words merit comment. Clearly, one would expect numerous comparabilities between England, the Netherlands, and the Protestant German states in the same period, as well as deep contrasts between it and Catholic Europe, especially its southernmost quarters. Insulating England not only from the rest of Europe but from its own Celtic “fringe” sharpens the focus, though it makes one hungry to know in what ways it was culturally particular. Thirty years ago the Cambridge historian Peter Burke published his pioneering Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, and memories of that work impinge as one reads Thomas’s account of attitudes among the lower orders in 17th-century England, who — if memory of Burke serves aright — do not seem to have been very different from their Continental peers. The sharpest difference lies with the middle and upper orders of English society, a literate and vocally expressive lot who loom large in Thomas’s account, precisely because they left such an abundant record of themselves. So, too, did the minority of the lower orders who were zealots for their Christian causes, of course; but for that very reason they are less representative of their own kind.

The phrase “early modern” merits comment because as the identifier of an historical epoch it is of relatively late coinage — Thomas says it belongs just to the most recent half century of historical scholarship. When he used the phrase in a 1976 lecture at the British Academy, the chairman of the proceedings, Sir Isaiah Berlin, told Thomas that he had never heard it before. Historians now use it to designate the crucible of our own era — an era just ending in the face of exponentially rapid technological and biomedical advancement on the cusp, without doubt, of changing not just the world but humanity itself; so we do well to take note of how we got to the point we are just leaving, before it becomes to late to make any sense of it.

Thomas’s technique is to amass citations and to comment upon them. To show how copious his citations are, one need only mention that the notes to his book occupy over 100 pages, a quarter of the whole. He is an elegant writer, with a dry and understated way of expressing his always sharp insights, but these advantages are downplayed here, for this is a work chiefly of value to other scholars. One of these might go on to make a narrative portrayal of the period to serve more general readers, armed with Thomas’s achievement; this book is for the studious.

In it Thomas gives us a rich mixture of the expected and the unexpected. One learns that there were strong pressures toward conformism in all respects of behavior and dress early on, with heavy sanctions for those who made themselves “singular,” but with individualism increasing as the period evolved. The pressure to anonymous conformity was resisted, as one would guess, by those with a more robust sense of self; interesting evidence of the desire to escape its relentlessly coercive demands is given by the fact that young males between their mid-teens and mid-20s were the largest single group seeking new lives in the New World.

In the early part of the period, when medieval notions still lingered, the aristocracy was still the military class, though by the Civil War many of its members had long ceased to have the interest or capability. As a result that war saw the beginnings of a professional army; and it also saw the growth of hostility to war, which a new general feeling regarded as cruel and unlawful. In the 18th century, a return to martial sentiments occurred, partly because success on the battlefield was still a means of social mobility, and ideas of military glory revived — increasingly in service to empire building, as the 19th century showed.

Thomas’s account of attitudes about work in early modern England could in some respects apply to today. Some saw it as an evil; preachers reminded their congregations that it was ordained because of Adam’s sin and was itself a protection against further sin, since it limited opportunity for sexual and other misdemeanors. In any case work was a duty not just to God but to one’s fellows. Play was regarded as childish; meals should only take a few minutes, and no one should sleep too long. If there was no work available, said some preachers and gentlemen, the lower orders should be given things to do, such as “build a useless pyramid on Salisbury plain, or transport Stonehenge to London,” to keep them occupied — an early form, Thomas wryly remarks, of Keynesian theory.

The gentry, of course, disdained any kind of labor that produced a sweat, or indeed any kind of labor at all, on the grounds that it was a lowly thing. But as the period progressed, these attitudes changed. Taking pride in one’s work — recognizing it as rewarding in itself, affording delight, offering opportunities for sociability — was an increasingly prominent counterpoint. Today, Thomas points out, people in high-status occupations work long hours, an indirect marker of how the value of work to life has altered.

Attitudes to wealth followed the same trajectory as attitudes to individualism. Moralists criticized it as a barrier to heaven and castigated its expression in consumption of food and luxury goods, great houses, high living, and fine clothes. But as more people became richer and commodities, including luxury goods, became more available through increasing trade, so Puritan opposition to consumption was replaced by the idea that one’s possessions express one’s taste — and “taste” became such a possession itself that in the eighteenth century there arose a cadre of professionals to advise on furniture, hangings, art, and other appurtenances of the taste-driven life.

Thomas next considers the complex concept of honor in the period. We know from stories of dueling how much honor mattered to some, but the extent of vigorous and sometimes violent wrangling over who took precedence to whom in parish processions or at the dinner table, and the extent to which early modern England was a “shame” culture rather as China and even more so Japan are today, is genuinely surprising. “For most people,” writes Thomas, “the conformist desire to avoid shame was a stronger constraint than the egotistic urge to achieve honor.” In this remark several of the themes of the period are woven into one: for a conformist shame culture was yielding to an individualistic honor culture, as the latter attitudes — belonging to the upper classes — filtered increasingly into the lower classes as they grew richer and more educated, and therefore more aspirational. By the 18th century the shame culture had all but gone.

The sixth of Thomas’s themes is friendship and sociability, and here the eye-opener is the extent to which passionate but apparently nonsexual male friendships were a feature of the earlier period. Male friends slept in the same bed, wrote letters of almost erotic intensity to each other, embraced and kissed in public — yet were profoundly hostile to “sodomy” and pederasty. This theme illustrates something that is especially striking — and confessedly, to this reader, especially agreeable — namely the fact that classical ideas were so influential throughout the period, sometimes trumping and often modifying religious views on the matters Thomas studies. For the value placed on friendship was understood in terms drawn from Aristotle and Cicero, and the models of great friendship were mainly classical ones. Thus conceived, friendship was an adornment of this life, not the one to come.

One of the most interesting of the themes canvassed by Thomas is that of the afterlife and fame. His study shows that there was widespread skepticism about religious doctrines of an afterlife, to which the alternative was desire for posthumous fame as a result of achievement, and then in the 18th century by an increasing desire for fame in one’s own lifetime. These were, once again, classical notions opposed to the idea that there are just two kinds of invariable postmortem outcome for all lives, and only one way of achieving the better of them. But though many did not believe in heaven and hell, there was a widespread consensus among the clergy and upper orders that the lower orders ought to be kept as far as possible believing in both, as a means of policing their behavior: “Skepticism might have been more audibly expressed,” writes Thomas, “had it not been for the belief of the upper classes that it was politically essential to uphold the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments, as the only way of keeping the common people in good order and obedience.”

The lesson of Thomas’s dense study is that early modern England was a place of major evolution in attitudes, driven by economic, political, and educational changes — these seen somewhat at a distance in the background of his pages — that changed the outlooks of all levels of society dramatically. A reader of his book might say that he already knew this conclusion: however, after reading Thomas he will know it not in a broad-brush way but in the very texture and fiber of what those who lived in that period themselves had to say about it.