God, Mammon and the guardian angels

Jack O'Sullivan trails a business guru back to his Irish vicarage roots
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The Independent Culture
The Hungry Spirit: beyond capitalism - a quest for purpose in the modern world by Charles Handy, Hutchinson, pounds 14.99

At the beginning of his new book, the hugely successful business guru Charles Handy describes how he rejected his father's values. The son of an unambitious Church of Ireland clergyman who had little interest in money, Handy resolved at 18 "never to be poor, never to go to church again, and never to be content with where I stood in life". He duly went off to make a fortune as an oil executive, economist and writer.

Yet The Hungry Spirit shows how much Handy has changed, revealing him as the Prodigal Son. He has, it seems, come full circle, preaching of a kinder capitalism, of more fundamental human needs than making money. It is a softening that attracts a considerable following among those grown tired of harsh laissez-faire economics.

Not that Handy has refound God or taken to the hair shirt. At 65, he still keeps Christianity at arm's length and revels in Mammon's material pleasures - the oft-mentioned homes in London, Norfolk and Tuscany. Nevertheless, the homespun philosophy here is unmistakeably, though probably unconsciously, an updated version of that learned at his father's knee - a Protestantism shorn of God.

Handy's father would have devoted his life to the individual's relationship with an external deity. The son is committed to a less remote dialogue with the deity of the Nineties; the inner self, the human spirit. And while Handy senior probably railed against the presumptious interventions of Rome's priests between man and maker, Junior, cradle Protestant that he is, joys in the falling away of the authorities that have stood between the individual and self-realisation - big government, the corporation, established religion.

We are, he declares, forced to be free. "More than ever before, we are on our own, left to forge our own destinies." For Handy, this is a source of excitement, rather than fear, for the man who coined the phrase "portfolio working" has found his metier as sage. The message is that success and happiness lie in both companies and individuals being true to themselves, identifying what they are about before they decide what they have to do.

In big corporations, Handy divines a hungry spirit to achieve elevated goals beyond mere profit. In pursuing these goals he sees their opportunity to gain long-term success, immortality indeed, beyond the survival of current employees, customers and shareholders. He describes a futuristic "Citizen Company", acting as responsible member of society and granting trusted employees privileges similar to citizenship.

For ordinary people, he frames the notion of "Proper Selfishness": a responsible individualism, attempting a marriage of capitalist striving with his childhood morality of self-denial. The echoes of his upbringing in Ireland in the Forties come through his idea that the basics in life should be subsidised, so we can each focus on higher goals than mere money- making. The concept sounds remarkably like the clerical stipend that his unworldly father once lived on - and that Junior so despised.

Handy is always a stimulating thinker who offers a warm sense of hope for the future in a world where change can seem threatening. He has the persuasiveness of the preacher and the literariness of the anecdotal Irish storyteller. Additionally, the knowledge of a long career in business, combined with the moral authority that commerce enjoys today, gives greater strength to much of what might sound like wishful thinking from, say, a religious leader. But Handy has his flaws. He is not a rigorous philosopher; for example, his distaste for determinism in favour of freewill ignores rather than tackles the doubts raised by thinkers such as David Hume. And autobiography never lies far below the surface of his grand ideas, giving a passion to their advocacy, but a weakness to his broader prescriptions. We can't all be Charles Handy.

Reading The Hungry Spirit will, however, be an uplifting experience for anyone seeking a philosophy in a world short of well-expressed humanist creeds. Handy has performed the brave and imaginative task of weaving his life's experience into the best he thinks worth saving from the past. His father would be proud of him.

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