Finding the ‘I’ In Life
By Michael Dirda Thursday, July 23, 2009
THE ENDS OF LIFE
Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England
By Keith Thomas
Oxford. 393 pp. $34.95
When young, we are all aesthetes, eager to enjoy a wondrous world full of beauty, promise and reward. The experience of life itself seems enough to keep us busy and happy. So we fall in love and go to work and find success or not, and the decades roll by.
In later years, however, we become unwilling philosophers. A parent unexpectedly dies. The now-grown children go off on their own. Work suddenly loses its savor. Before long, we are taking long walks and wondering about the old perplexities: What makes for a meaningful life? How should we pass our too few days upon this Earth? What really matters?
Keith Thomas’s “The Ends of Life” examines the ways that people answered those questions from the early 16th century to the late 18th. To do so, this cultural historian — author of the classic “Religion and the Decline of Magic” (1971) — investigates six areas that have traditionally supplied aims for purpose-driven lives: Military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honor and reputation, friendship and sociability, and fame and the afterlife. In each case, he presents his evidence largely through quotations from contemporary letters, memoirs, court testimonies and other documents. As Thomas’s own connecting prose is graceful and sometimes crisply epigrammatic, “The Ends of Life” is a pleasure to read.
The book opens by exploring the very idea of personal fulfillment during a time when religion contended that it wasn’t so much life that mattered as afterlife. In general, all people were supposed to be satisfied with their lot and to work out their salvation within it, whether they were assigned by God to be peasants or aristocrats. “Those who failed to adhere to conventional expectations,” Thomas writes, “whether in their religion or their tastes or their personal behaviour, were accused of the great vice of ‘singularity,’ of following their ‘private fancy and vanity.’ ‘Desire not to be singular, nor to differ from others,’ warned a Jacobean cleric, ‘for it is a sign of a naughty spirit, which hath caused much evil in the world from the beginning.’ ”
Nonetheless, throughout the 17th century the notion of individuality and personal uniqueness grew ever more prevalent. Long ago, Aristotle asserted that every man should aim to realize his inner nature, but now the “great motor behind the sense of individual identity was the growth of a market economy, in which land, goods, and labour were freely bought and sold. New economic opportunities gave rise to personal competition and mobility. They widened the scope for personal choice in such matters as dress and domestic equipment; and they made acquisitive and ego-centred behaviour increasingly common.” People soon rose above their station: Isaac Newton’s father had been unable to sign his own name. By the 1630s, the physician-essayist Thomas Browne could write that “every man truly lives, so long as he acts his nature, or some way makes good the faculties of himself.”
Thomas’s second chapter opens with a ringing sentence that calls to mind Gibbon or Macaulay: “Since time immemorial, all societies which depend upon force for the acquisition and retention of their means of subsistence have regarded physical courage as the supreme proof of manhood.” For nobles, military valor provided the validation of their lives and status, and there was no more desirable death than a glorious one upon the field of battle. Yet even this heroic ideal was gradually ousted by a more civilian model of masculinity, “with the emphasis laid not on physical aggression, but on strength of character. Conquering one’s own passions was a greater achievement than conquering other men.”
In his third chapter, Thomas shows how work — originally performed because of economic necessity or physical constraint — came to be seen as potentially rewarding in itself. A person’s job might be drudgery, but it could now also be a career, a vocation. Leisure consequently became suspect. The idle, Thomas Jefferson maintained, “are the only wretched,” while Marx eventually promulgated the radical notion that labor could be the ultimate form of self-realization.
Today, Thomas concludes, “the highest prestige attaches not to leisure, as in the past, but to extreme busy-ness.” In discussing wealth and possessions, Thomas neatly defines a luxury as “an object of expenditure inappropriate to the purchaser’s social position,” considers the aristocrat’s need for monumental opulence as a sign of his importance, and then takes up the complicated notions of taste and fashion. He cites scholar William Leiss, who wryly notes that in modern times “individuality is attained by assembling a unique collection of commodities.” Kurt Vonnegut puts this even more brutally in “Slaughterhouse-Five”: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from the things she found in gift shops.”
The performance of heroic deeds, a career of rewarding work, the accumulation of riches and luxuries — each of these “roads to fulfillment” still has its adherents. So, too, does the notion of gaining honor, of having one’s superiority publicly recognized. In Chapter 5, Thomas examines the meanings clustering around the concepts of reputation, integrity and shame. Take sexual morality. Once upon a time, “chastity to women was what courage was to men, the primary constituent of their honour.” Yet this and other publicly bestowed virtues gradually diminished in importance when society began to recognize the individual’s right to privacy and a personal life. Similarly, friends and family were once pragmatically viewed as little more than mutual support systems or politically useful alliances. But by the 18th century the domestic sphere, the realm of intimacy, had emerged as the site of our most reliable satisfactions.
In his last chapter, “Fame and the Afterlife,” Thomas addresses the real heart of human restlessness — our fear of oblivion. As Walter Raleigh is supposed to have said, “We die like beasts, and when we are gone there is no more remembrance of us.” While some of us hope for a place in paradise, many others look to more earthly forms of immortality. In the words of that anatomist of melancholy Robert Burton: “Tombs and monuments . . . epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries . . . they will . . . omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory.” Certainly every artist dreams that his work will carry on his or her name forever. As Horace — accurately in his case — wrote at the end of his odes: “Non omnis moriar” (“I will not wholly die”).
But, of course, oblivion awaits nearly all of us. “The farce of dustiny,” James Joyce called it. Today, Thomas concludes, most people simply look for subjective if temporary happiness in some of the areas he has outlined, especially in “their work and possessions, the affection of their friends and families, and the respect of their peers.” In appreciating the modest satisfactions of daily existence, one discovers “the ends of life.”
A sensible, reasonable answer, worthy of Epicurus. Nonetheless, many people are still going to maintain, like the doggy heroine of Maurice Sendak’s “Higglety Pigglety Pop!,” that “there must be more to life.” And who can blame them for their endless dissatisfaction? Such is life.
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