Sunday, February 23, 2014


I just finished reading the “Lottery in Babylon,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.  Actually, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I have read the story, and I can see myself reading it again.  Why am I talking about this fictional tale in a blog concerning skepticism and religious belief?  I believe that Borges asks interesting metaphysical questions about the nature of our existence, and this story in particular addresses what factors affect our actions and our fate.  Moreover, if nothing else, I am hoping to inspire anyone who reads this essay to explore Borges, not just this particular story but his writings generally.

Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aries, Argentina, and died in 1986.  Although he is considered one of the most influential writers in the Western tradition, he is not that well known, at least in the U.S.  That’s in part due to the fact that he never wrote a full-length nonfiction work or novel.  He wrote only short stories, essays, and poetry.  And, admittedly, his writing is not easy reading.  “The Lottery in Babylon” is perhaps typical in that it is short in length but dense in structure.  It is only six pages long in the edition of Borges’s stories that I have.  However, every sentence is packed with meanings--and ambiguities--that sometimes require multiple readings.  If you are looking for a fun read, this is not your guy.  But if you are looking for someone who will force you to question your world view, I can’t think of a better choice.  Just be prepared to slow down and reread.

I want to comment briefly on the content of the story, so one suggestion would be that you give the story a read at this point.  You can find the complete text of the story here. Remember, it is only a few pages long.  However, the story is anything but plot-driven, so if you want to read the remainder of my remarks before you read the story itself, I don’t really think there is much danger of spoiling it for you.  Whatever you do at this point, I would strongly recommend that you obtain a copy of one of Borges’s short story collections such as Labyrinths, which happens to include “The Lottery in Babylon.”  There are several other stories in that collection, including the “Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths,” that have meant a great deal to me. 

“Babylon” concerns a fictional lottery in a fictional Babylon that begins like any other lottery, awarding prizes to a randomly selected few of the participants who had paid the modest entry fee.  But over time the lottery evolves into a much more pervasive system run by an ultra-secret “Company” that metes out not just rewards but punishments, both trivial and extreme, to all of the inhabitants of the city.  In a superficial sense this is a full summary of the tale, but of course it has much broader and deeper meanings than that.

Here is what I think.  Borges is posing fundamental questions about the nature of reality.  He is asking whether our fate is the result of an agency outside of our control and perhaps outside of our knowledge.  In the story the agency is represented by the secret “Company,” but that may be his indirect way of referring to God.  Alternatively, he is asking if our fate is governed entirely by chance events.  In the story he presents differing opinions about how the lottery works.  Some inhabitants, he writes, believe that the Company controls everything, others that the Company can only control trivial things.  Still others argue that the Company never did and never will exist.  This goes beyond the question of the existence of God to the even more fundamental one of the existence of cause and effect, asking whether when one event follows another, it happens because one event causes the other or because each event is the result of random action and their sequence is accidental.  

It is not obvious what side Borges takes in these discussions about the existence of God or of the reality of cause and effect, leaving it to the reader to decide which version fits best with his or her world view.  But what one does comes away with, at least in my reading, is that Borges is arguing that our lives are not a matter of personal choice.  We can call it God or the laws of nature if we like, or we can call it chance.  But however we refer to our circumstances, to the events of our lives, they occur to us; ultimately we are not in control.  

© 2014 John M. Phillips

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