Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Britain is still an country for and says "Happy Birthday" to an old Oxford historian called Keith Thomas who asks : what are the ends of life ?

Sir Keith was born 6 years before the outbreak of the Second World War and  is 80 years old today.
I remember reading his most famous book, 'Religion and the Decline of Magic' in which he used his brilliant skills to reveal modes of thought and ways of life deeply strange to us and illustrated them with precise evidence, when I was a young man 40 years ago in the 1970's.

Born in the village of Wick, Glamorgan and educated at Barry County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford. he pursued his career at Oxford and became Professor of Modern History and President of Corpus Christi College in 1986.

Now that I am an old man it is time for me to read his 2009 book, 'The Ends of Life', his study of personal fulfilment between the 16th and 18th centuries.

It is underpinned with the idea that :

* when young, we are all aesthetes, eager to enjoy a wondrous world full of beauty, promise and reward and the experience of life itself seems enough to keep us busy and happy.

* we fall in love and go to work and find success or not and the decades roll by.

* we grow old and become unwilling philosophers : a parent unexpectedly dies ; the now-grown children go off on their own ; work suddenly loses its savour.

*  we take long walks and wonder 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 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
-  fame and the afterlife

In each case, Keith presents his evidence largely through quotations from contemporary letters, memoirs, court testimonies and other documents and prompts old men in Britain to stand back and ask themselves :
'What are the ends of my life ?'

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