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In the first section of his short story "The Lottery in Babylon", Borges writes:

I have known that thing the Greeks knew not -- uncertainty.

As far as I know, there was nothing specific that Babylonians knew about randomness, chance, or probability of which ancient Greeks were not aware. This got me wondering if this statement refers to any specific fact from Greek/Babylonian history, philosophy, or something else - or if it was just thrown in as a stylistic element such as when the narrator says that they don't have much time as their ship is set to sail out soon later in the story.

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  • Given ancient Greece's philosophical tradition, which includes Xenophanes who was one of the earliest philosophers to express uncertainty regarding the nature of the Gods, I'm inclined to believe this is a stylistic choice. But to what end I am unsure of.
    – osterzone
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 21:18

1 Answer 1

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Looking through various annotated versions of Borges' work I have not encountered any discussion of this remark.

I believe, however, that it refers to the Greek style of doing mathematics. The ancient Greeks arguably were the first to develop the concept of mathematical proof, and developed a form of mathematics in which axioms are laid down, and then a chain of deductions are made, one following logically from the preceding one. Probably the most famous example of this is Euclid's Elements. This contrasts with the society of La lotería en Babilonia, which is not guided by logical, rational precepts, but is governed instead by random chance.

Borges made a similar remark in his Prologue to An Explanation of the Book of Job, namely "We hope to find rationality, but rationality, characteristic of the Greeks, is foreign to the Semitic soul". It seems that Borges viewed the Greek/Euclidian mentality as being the epitome of rational, predictable behavior.

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