We live in a society basted in self- regard, our moralists tell us; fat and dozy on the lion’s share of the world’s resources, polluting the seas and burning fossil fuels, we gaze in loving torpor at our own reflection, and the gnat-bite of recession barely disturbs our narcissistic trance. More than any generation before us, we command the resources for self-realization—“a life well lived,” as Keith Thomas puts it. But do we want to be artists, philosophers, pioneers of the natural sciences? No: we want to be celebrities. We dream of instant, global fame. We expect it to enrich us, gratify us, but are less concerned that it outlast us. Once, priorities were different. In 1606 in London, a gang of law students stormed a London brothel and broke its windows. They wanted, they said, “to do something that they may be spoken of when they were dead.”
They could hardly avoid immediate recognition as well. Neither could Michael Joseph, better known as Michael An Gof, the blacksmith who in 1497 led 15,000 Cornish tax rebels up the country toward London, hoping for “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal.” He would have been delighted to know that five hundred years after his death he would get a statue in his home village of St. Keverne, and become a hero to resurgent Cornish nationalists. The dead, as Keith Thomas shows us, are never quite as dead as we think; they are part of us, not just genetically but psychologically.
Idiosyncratic, mercurial, endlessly absorbing, his book on the “Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England” might almost be designed to provoke the historian of a theoretical bent, while pleasing the general reader. It draws its evidence from English society, roughly between 1530 and 1780: a huge stretch of time, with the Reformation at the beginning, civil war in the middle, and the American Revolution at the end. Its range of reference is vast, stretching back to the ancient world to explore classical notions of self and society, and forward to encompass Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Mao Zedong. Thomas must have longed to scoop in another decade or so and leap the Channel to report on the French Revolution. “Happiness,” Saint-Just claimed in 1794, “is a new idea in Europe.” But it wasn’t new; it was ancient and multiform, precious and various, and ideas about how we should seek it (on the earthly or eternal plane) are fundamental to concepts of self that, Thomas shows, have their roots in the classical world.
If you …