Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:
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.