This Renaissance masterpiece has a message for us all, says Charles Handy
If by any chance you’re travelling next spring or summer, I would urge you, if you go to Italy, to find your way eastwards across the mountains to a little town called Sansepolcro. [Note from ed: this is just a few miles from Villa Pia where Idler Retreats take place.] It’s just a nice ordinary Tuscan town, but go into the Museo Civico and you’ll find what Aldous Huxley called the greatest painting in the world. It’s painted on the wall so you can’t take it away, just sit and look at it. It’s called The Resurrection and was painted by Piero Della Francesca, one of the great Renaissance artists. It shows Jesus Christ rising out of a stone tomb up into Heaven. Around the tomb, sleeping, sit a lot of dozy Roman soldiers who were meant to be guarding the tomb and awaiting orders but have clearly fallen asleep.
Christ is not awaiting orders. As he rises, he is looking down at me sitting in the chair in front of him, with his bright blue eyes, a piercing gaze challenging me to do what he is doing. No, not go to Heaven, but to have a new life, only on Earth as it is in Heaven; to reinvent myself, to leave my old self behind and create a new life in the here and now.
My old life wasn’t very good, I’m ashamed of it. I was very selfish, I didn’t produce much. But then Christ was himself a failure; he asked God to forgive him as he hadn’t done anything he’d promised to do. His band of followers was so small they could all fit around one table for their last supper together. He was dying the death of a common thief, but he was able to reinvent himself in a new world, in a new life.
The challenge to me was: can I do that in a new life?
I feel very deeply that that is a challenge for all of us as we come out of this pandemic. The painting is an invitation to create a new version of ourselves, to do something different, to lose ourselves in a cause or a purpose that is bigger than ourselves.
Selfishness hasn’t worked very well and the pandemic has proved to us that we can’t be alone in the world, that we have to think of other people – for our own safety and for theirs.
We’re part of a bigger scene. Let us think bigger. Let us find a cause that we can devote ourselves to, or let us create one. “Be the new Charles Handy,” that risen Christ says to me, and let’s hope it’ll be a less selfish one. Because finding a way to help other people is actually deeply satisfying. In a way, you could say that doing so is in itself being selfish. But it’s “good” selfishness because it benefits others.
So yes, your business or your organisation could be that greater cause, it rather depends on who is leading it and how they define its purpose. I think businesses only survive if they have a purpose beyond their own survival. If the only thing they’re interested in is profitability, they’ll probably fail. The businesses that succeed are the ones that have something people can devote themselves to.
I wrote a book once called The Hungry Spirit in which I said that in Africa they say that people have two hungers. One is for the means of life: food and shelter, and even money. The other is for a purpose in life: why do you bother to stay alive? Capitalism satisfies the first hunger, but it doesn’t satisfy the second. The second requires leaders who give us a cause to which we devote ourselves. And that seems to be what’s lacking in society these days. It still is every person for him or herself.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that society only works when it works together. And that means it too must have a cause bigger than itself. Is it going to be climate change? I sincerely hope it will be. And once again we have to thank young women for leading us in that direction. It would be exciting if it worked.
This is the challenge for our national leaders – to get us to put aside our temporary discomforts in the cause of something bigger than ourselves. Something that will benefit our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I urge you to do what I have done on many occasions recently – to go out and plant a tree. Even if you know you might never sit under its shade, you’ll also know it will be there for your grandchildren or others to enjoy. It gives you a good feeling doing something that’s not for yourself to enjoy but for others. It will even to some extent help the climate to recover.
And please, go to Sansepolcro and sit in front of the greatest painting in the world.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.