[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the historical actuary

LUST, AFTER, OTHER, WIFE, SWEAT, SIN, LIFE, DEATH, WONDER,WISDOM: few things are more enchanting to loversof the English language than to use those wordswhose meaning and spelling have remained constant,or almost constant, for more than a thousand years– indeed, since the first recorded traces of Old English.And the above words are still in frequent use; at least theyall were, until the word ‘wisdom’ disappeared from commonparlance between the beginning and the end of the20th century.Since the dawn of mankind, wisdom has been regardedas one of our most important goals. In the Old Testament,for example, we have the Wisdom of Solomon, and themuch older Book of Proverbs, dating from circa 600 BC:‘Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man thatgetteth understanding… she is more precious than rubies;and all the things thou canst desire are not to be comparedunto her.’However, the words ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’ have graduallydisappeared from our everyday vocabulary of approbation.That does not mean we should not aspire to wisdom;we should, we must – but every generation muststart afresh in its search. We have a demanding educationalsystem which seeks to instil sufficient knowledge,and to ensure sufficient intelligence, for practice of theactuarial trade; but how can we seek to inculcate wisdom,in a way faster than is afforded by the slow and stony roadof experience?Accelerating the acquisition of wisdom has generallyboiled down to the study of two subjects: history and philosophy(the word means ‘the love of wisdom’). We shallleave for a rainy day the actuarial benefits of philosophy –but what sorts of history might make us wiser actuaries? Ishould suggest two types of historical study: the study ofparticular events, and the study of great men and women.First, the study of particular events. Military academieshave long devoted much time to the study of famous battlesin an effort to improve the tactical and strategic sensibilitiesof young officers. But in our world? Oureducational system is characterised by great abstraction,and even in those later subjects where pure actuarialthought is sullied by UK regulations, potentially instructivehistorical incidents are neglected.This is a shame. One of the FSA’s most interesting publicationsis William McDonnell’s recent paper, ‘Managingrisk: practical lessons from recent “failures” of EU insurers’,a collection of case studies of European insurance disasters.In the interests of anonymity these go into littledetail, but they offer some fascinating reading, and allowus to be wise after the event – and perhaps reduce thechance that we might ever be guilty of ‘incompetence,straying outside [our” field of expertise or uncritically followingherd instinct’ (common reasons cited by the paperfor the disasters analysed). Let us hope that such studiesbecome more common, and more widely read; certainly,all actuaries should be familiar with the circumstances ofthe major insurance and pensions débâcles of the past 30or 40 years.And what about biographical history; of what benefitmight the study of great lives be to us? We might usefullyconsider one of the works generally regarded for much ofthe past thousand years as being the most ‘wisdomenhancing’:Plutarch’s Lives, a series of parallel essays onthe lives of great Romans and Greeks. Plutarch wrote theseas much for the sake of moral instruction as for historicalrecord; in his life of Pericles, we read:… it becomes a man’s duty to pursue and make after thebest and choicest of everything, that he may not onlyemploy his contemplation, but may also be improved byit.… Such objects we find in the acts of virtue, which alsoproduce in the minds of mere readers about them an emulationand eagerness that may lead them on to imitation.Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen,than it inspires an impulse to practice, and influences themind and character not by a mere imitation which we lookat, but by the statement of the fact creates a moral purposewhich we form. And so we have thought fit to spend ourtime and pains in writing of the lives of famous persons…Such was Plutarch’s attention to character that Shakespearerelied on him heavily for several of his plays, somelines being lifted almost verbatim; Boswell described himas the ‘Prince of ancient biographers’; but perhaps hisgreatest admirer was the French essayist Montaigne,whose adulatory comments include:The most appropriate historians for me are those who writemen’s lives, since they linger more over motives than events,over what comes from inside more than what happens outside.That is why, of historians of every kind, Plutarch is theman for me.Plutarch’s accounts of the great have influenced many,over hundreds of years. A fine and useful thing it wouldbe for us to know more about the fathers of our profession,that such knowledge might instil in our minds ‘anemulation and eagerness that may lead… to imitation’. Asa modest step in this direction, we present in this issue IckiIqbal’s version of the BBC’s ‘Greatest Britons’ competition.In a few months, participants willing, we should all knowa great deal more about some inspiring actuarial lives.