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

Eamon Duffy writes:

Of the many things that constituted the good life for early modern people, Thomas discusses six: military prowess, work, wealth, reputation, personal relationships and the afterlife, broadly understood. Characteristically, the chapters begin by evoking the strangeness of early modern attitudes (that ‘exotic society’). People in our society, for example, think of unemployment as a curse, and derive much of their identity and satisfaction from work. But Thomas begins his chapter on work and vocation by exploring the conventional early modern view that work was at best a necessary evil. For classical Greece the best life was one of leisure, ‘not idleness, of course, but virtuous activity of mind and body, involving no manual labour and unconstrained by the need to earn a living’. For ancient Christianity, work was the ‘primal curse’, inflicted on humankind as a punishment for the Fall. Both classical and Christian orthodoxies informed early modern attitudes, so that the devoutly Protestant John Locke could assert on both counts that ‘labour for labour’s sake is against nature.’ There would be no work in heaven. But then in the second half of his chapter, on ‘the rewards of labour’, Thomas inverts this picture, tracing ‘the rudiments of an altogether more positive’ view of work, as something desirable and rewarding in and for itself, a means towards human happiness, dignity and self-fulfilment, shaping a world in which ‘the idle are the only wretched.’

(LRB 23 July 2009)

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