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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the actuary at leisure

When Queen Victoria was on her deathbed, wondering which dignitaries she might soon encounter in heaven, a clergyman told her that she would shortly be meeting Abraham. ‘We will not meet Abraham’, she pronounced solemnly: the patriarch’s behaviour in sacrificing the virtue of his wife Sarai had, it would seem, placed him beyond the Victorian pale. One dreads to think what Queen Victoria would have thought of her inclusion in the International Accounting Standards Board’s (IASB) publications, in a curious reference to ‘a contractual requirement that will be triggered only if all the many living – and geographically well dispersed – descendants of Queen Victoria die in the same calendar month’ in a discussion of the definition of insurance contracts.This is not, however, the strangest part of the IASB’s output. The lead contender for IAS oddities is perhaps the mooted attribution of the term ‘fair value’ to a modified-release-of-margins-subject-to-deposit-floor approach. Some might prefer the playful idea, suggested at one IASB meeting, of a three-day ‘festival of accounting’ at which the board might be ‘re-exposed to insurance issues’. Is this idea of a festival an intentional eye-catcher, or does it simply mark the extent to which modern financial man is unable to celebrate anything other than accounting methods?Of course, such utterances are not the first in which we meet the proposed secularisation of festivals. In the early 19th century, Augustus Comte proposed a reformed calendar with festivals earmarked to ‘celebrate’ concepts such as Humanity, Paternity, and Domesticity. Indeed, one might argue that an accounting festival is, compared with Comte’s ideas, much closer to the Greek origin of festivals – according to Greek literature, all great festivals had their origins in celebratory funeral rites, and what could be more funereal than a discussion of insurance accounting?To discuss the distinction between work and festival is equivalent to discussing what we mean by ‘non-work’ in the first place, which brings us to the metaphysical nature of leisure. We might start such a discussion by noting that the Greek word for leisure, scol´h, is the origin of the Latin scola, the German Schule, the English school: why so? Perhaps we should consider what the Greeks thought about leisure and ‘leisurelessness’.Aristotle – that most sober and industrious of philosophers – wrote, ‘We work in order to be at leisure’. A more literal translation of his words would be, ‘We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure’ – the Greeks used a negative term corresponding to ‘not-at-leisure’ to describe work. Likewise in Latin, we find work as ‘neg-otium’, ‘not-leisure’, from which we derive words such as the English negotiate, and the Italian negozio (shop).From such origins, we find that attitudes had changed little by the Middle Ages. The German Thomist theologian Josef Pieper, in his definitive book Leisure: the basis of culture, relates how the code of life of that period associated lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, with idleness; the restlessness of the work-for-work’s-sake attitude arose from nothing other than idleness. What was meant by idleness, by acedia?Acedia, idleness, essentially meant to Scholastics such as St Thomas Aquinas that the human being had given up on his central metaphysical responsibility; that he does not agree with his own existence. Acedia was seen as a form of metaphysical despair: the despair of man who, behind all his energetic activity, is not at one with himself – Kierkegaard defined acedia as the ‘despairing refusal to be oneself’. But if acedia is ‘disagreement with oneself’, how should one seek agreement with oneself?One answer lies in the Scholastic philosophers’ distinction between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of analytic thought, of abstracting, refining, and concluding, while intellectus refers to the ability of ‘simply looking’, whereby the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye; in other words, what we might regard today as contemplation. (It is this contemplative aspect which explains the etymological connection between leisure and schooling.)When separated from contemplation, leisure becomes toilsome and work becomes inhuman. Such a separation lies behind modern ways of living, and our compulsion to be always frantically busy in the little non-working time we allow ourselves; such activity, whether frenetic fake leisure or blind workaholism, is synonymous with idleness – in the metaphysical sense of acedia. Those readers setting off on holiday may, if they like, take this as a philosophical justification to spend much of their time gazing fruitfully at the celestial expanses. ‘Perfect happiness is a contemplative activity’, said Aristotle: put away guidebooks, digital cameras, and Blackberries, and put on some contemplative habits.For those not so inclined, those who might perhaps enjoy insurance accounting festivals, we could return to the subject of festivals and, in accordance with Plato’s proposal that there be 365 festival days in every year, propose a celebratory day to mark the birth of the actuarial profession. This would naturally be an occasion for Plato’s recommended festive activities of ‘sacrificing, singing, and dancing’, in the (probably vain) hope that the Morris review will not shift the emphasis entirely towards the sacrificing part thereof – or lead ultimately to the need for professional funeral rites. Perhaps we shall end up with rather more time available for contemplation than even Aristotle would have wished for.