In the American mythology of success, labor is the only path to prosperity. The affluent can cleanse their cash by claiming they worked hard for it; mastering fate and controlling outcomes bestow moral legitimacy on their earnings. Many moralists throughout American history have affirmed that merit matches reward and that people get what they deserve, in this world and the next.
But a heresy against this faith in hard work has stubbornly survived nearly two centuries’ preaching of the virtues of America’s civil religion. Its wayward adherents rarely ascend to pulpits or podiums. Instead, they are more likely to be found on subway platforms or in convenience stores standing in line to buy lottery tickets. While they may be hard workers, they know that labor alone is insufficient for success, that sometimes you have to catch a break. As Louis Hartz observed in his study The Liberal Tradition in America, a belief in “the breaks” has long been a safety valve to relieve the economic frustrations generated by a closed system of unevenly distributed merits and rewards. The lottery ticket, humble as it is, serves as a passport to a more fluid moral economy, where fate can be cruel or kind but is always arbitrary—where luck, as even Horatio Alger realized, matters more than pluck. And this culture of chance more closely resembles the world in which most people live than the one prescribed by the dominant mythology of success, which can aptly be called a culture of control.
The heresy owes its origins to the pagan goddess Fortuna, a deity who appears in the pantheons of many ancient societies. To imagine the contemporary lottery player paying homage to the goddess is not to dignify the prospect of poor people blowing grocery money on impossibly long odds, or to imply that government-sponsored gambling is an appropriate way to raise public revenues. But it does suggest that gambling is about more than mere money. Modern games of chance reenact ancient rituals of divination—casting lots, throwing pebbles, bones, shells, or dice—designed to provide glimpses of the sacred and to conjure luck or its spiritual equivalent, grace. Rather than the static and timeless cosmic order of orthodox monotheism, the sense of the sacred sought by diviners was a pluralist plentitude, symbolized in Western tradition by inconstant Fortuna and by similar figures in American Indian and African traditions.
These cross-cultural ingredients combined to create the syncretist stew that became the American culture of chance—a culture at ease with uncertainty, doubtful that diligence offers the only path to success, and suspicious of the idea that money means moral worth. For the bettors and believers who embrace this perspective, chance represents a portal of possibility, not a heresy to be demonized or a statistical probability to be managed. They are Fortuna’s children, and a glance at her career in the Old and New Worlds provides a perspective that is missing from most accounts of our history.
In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”
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