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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the incognito actuary

One of Plato’s most well-known ideas is his shadow allegory: that what we perceive of life is equivalent to the shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a flickering flame. Plato, if he were around today to comment on us, might regard the pages of The Actuary as the walls of a cave where we see flickering evidence of the profession’s life. We – or, at least, Plato – might argue that the publication of articles in The Actuary indicates the existence of such life, while the absence of such activity indicates a sad vacuum.That many of us wish to cave-dwell in unpublished obscurity should, although lamentable from the editor’s point of view, not be regarded as unreasonable – but there are cases where it should be regarded as unusual. One such case is where a fellow considers himself or herself worthy of standing for election to represent members of the profession on Council. Of, for instance, the 12 who stood for Institute Council this summer, we find that almost none of them have ever published anything in The Actuary, in all of its glorious 13 years of life. Can this really be so? There must be good and honourable reasons for such vows of silence; let us consider what these reasons might be.One reason might be the lack of anything original or interesting to say about matters of interest to the profession. This is not the slur it might at first seem: it is possible to make a positive case for the absence of ideas. TS Eliot once praised Henry James with the sincere comment, ‘James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’; while Nabokov bequeaths us the comment ‘mediocrity thrives on “ideas”’.Eliot would no doubt have argued the case for competent unoriginality: an effective Council can hardly be built from 30 idealists, effervescing with new ideas in continuation. On the other hand, a good Council can hardly be built on an absence of ideation, and we do not come across nominees boasting of a Jamesian absence of ideas. No: the possibility that our nominees have nothing original to say is not tenable.Let us consider another possible reason. Perhaps this: that the persons in question, although brimming with interesting actuarial thoughts, have never felt any professional duty to contribute to the profession’s main forum for communication, and have found the idea of writing the odd article unbearably onerous.This too cannot be the case: those standing for election to Council evidently feel a sense of duty and service towards the profession, and are prepared to work far harder for the good of the profession than most of us. So what other reasons might there be? Perhaps, though blessed with interesting things to say, and a dutiful desire to voice these thoughts, they lack the confidence to do so. Emerson, in his book English Traits, remarked:They require you to dare to be of your own opinion, and they hate the practical cowards who cannot in affairs answer directly yes or no… the one thing the English value is pluck.No, surely we still stand comparison with our forefathers of Emerson’s time: there can be no lack of pluck, let alone confidence, in us actuaries.If these be not the reasons, then what? Only one reason can remain. It is, of course, the reason underlying the curious behaviour of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the Book of the Thousand and One Nights: curious in so far as his frequent desire for anonymity is concerned. For instance, in the tale ‘The History of Al-Bundukani’, Shahrazad relates (from Captain Richard Burton’s inimitable translation):The Caliph (by whom I mean Harun al-Rashid) was sitting on the throne of his kingdom one chance day of the days which happened to be the fête of ’Arafát. And as he chanced to glance at Ja’afar the Barmaki, he said to him, “O Wazir, I desire to disguise myself and go down from my palace into the streets and wander about the highways of Baghdad that I may give alms to the mesquin and miserable and solace myself with a sight of the folk: so do thou hie with me nor let any know of our faring forth”. “With love and good will”, quoth Ja’afar. So his lord arose and passed from the audience-room into the inner palace where the two donned disguise and made small their sleeves and breasts and issued forth to circle about the thorough-fares of Baghdad and her market-streets… This, then, must be the reason. Would-be members of Council, anxious to rule as wisely as possible, have presumably decided to shroud themselves in anonymity in order to reconnoitre better their future kingdom, and solace themselves with a sight of the actuarial folk. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a clear idea of what our future Caliphs stood for, how they think, and why? My jinni and I look forward to a flood of articles from next year’s Council nominees (preferably without strange Arabic noms de plume). Perhaps we might one day see a turnout for voting of more than 30%.