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canticle leibowitzA century ago, the Great War tore European civilization apart. The self-confidence and self-regard with which European nations had conquered and colonized great swaths of the globe in the Modern Age collapsed amidst death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Darker and more virulent incarnations of arrogance and ambition would rise from the ashes of the Great War to replace the blithe assuredness of Belle Époque statesmen. It took another half century and a second, even deadlier catastrophe to destroy the vast European empires and conclusively shatter European self-confidence.

The United States partook of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century imperial scramble and participated—albeit tardily—in both of the past century’s world wars. Inconceivably large numbers of Americans died in each conflict—over one-hundred thousand in the First and over four-hundred thousand in the Second World War. Still, the transformative impact of the wars on the fabric of American society pales in comparison with the change wrought on the European countries. Those states primarily involved in the two wars—England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (including the nations into which it was divided after the Great War)—suffered far greater casualties proportionate to their populations. Europe’s economic devastation, too, drastically outpaced America’s.

It remains a difficult task to measure the economic impact of the two world wars on all parties involved, including the United States. The difficulties related to the United States, however, are of a different nature than those of the European participants. In Europe, the problem is trying to comprehend and evaluate destruction on such an enormous scale. In America, by contrast, historians and economists continue to squabble about whether the wars constituted a negative or positive impact in the first place, because American industry profited as a resource for the combatant nations in the years preceding direct entry into both wars. In addition to fewer relative casualties and an ambiguous economic impact, there is also the simple condition that, apart from an isolated—though deadly—attack on the most geographically far-flung state in the Union, the wars never came to American soil. American cities were never fire-bombed, American fields and hills were never reshaped by millions of artillery shells. No death squads roamed our countryside, and although we sent citizens of Japanese origin and descent to concentration camps, we never transformed those camps into extermination centers. We were never invaded, nor was invasion ever even a credible threat.

Consequently, the United States suffered no comparative crisis of confidence in the aftermath of the wars. America may have temporarily rejected Wilsonian liberalism after the First World War, but the brand of optimism promoted by the Republican Party in the 1920s was nevertheless distinctly progressive and undeniably self-assured. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made sure that the Great Depression of the 1930s did no permanent damage to American self-assurance. The ultimately superficial turn inward of the interwar period did not, in the end, keep us out of the Second World War, and when that war ended, the United States stepped into a position of global power that no European nation—with the partial exception of Russia—was willing and able to maintain. In the seven decades since that war, the United States has yet to step back from that position. Nor, despite the longstanding tradition of essays and “thinkpieces” declaring the end of American dominance, has America lost any of its assuredness or swagger.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s science-fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz serves as a furious castigation of American self-confidence—and indeed of the self-confidence of the entire Modern West. First published in 1960, the novel incarnates the most pessimistic Cold-War-era fears of nuclear apocalypse. The question for Mr. Miller was not so much if but rather when the great powers would destroy the world. By nature of the genre, science fiction novels are perhaps more susceptible to the passage of time than most works of fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz suffered especially in this respect when the Cold War ended not with a nuclear bang but with whimpers of glasnost and perestroika. No doubt this anticlimactic ending surprised Mr. Miller. His meandering and often bizarre scribbles in the post-apocalyptic short-story collection he co-edited in 1985, Beyond Armageddon, show that, if anything, Mr. Miller’s certainty of a coming nuclear apocalypse only grew greater as the Cold War progressed. But if in many of its details A Canticle for Leibowitz feels dated, its overriding rejection of all forms of hubris and pride remains as relevant, resounding, and powerful as ever. Nuclear war functions in the novel as a means to explore the relationship between knowledge and power, and the way that the ancient sin of pride corrupts both. The prideful ambition that ejected mankind from the Garden of Eden besets us still—we are fools if we think that pride’s destructive power passed away with the Soviet Union.

A Canticle for Leibowitz traces the plight of a small monastery in the formerly American West after a worldwide nuclear apocalypse. The novel comprises three parts, each originally composed as a distinct novella focused on a specific era. “Fiat Homo” visits the monastery about six centuries after the civilization-ending nuclear war, followed by “Fiat Lux” six centuries later. The novel concludes with “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” which takes place about eighteen centuries after the apocalypse. These three ages closely correspond with classic history-book pictures of the Dark Ages, the early Renaissance, and the Modern Age. Throughout the entire book, characters look back on the era preceding the nuclear apocalypse in a way evocative of modern conceptions of the ancient world. On its surface, then, A Canticle for Leibowitz embraces an Enlightenment narrative of man’s great progress in Antiquity halted by a dark interregnum, then later renewed by an enlightened generation.

Beneath this superficial portrait, however, lurks an overwhelming skepticism about man’s potential for progress and perfection. Twin influences pervade the text: the 1950s Cold War culture out of which it sprang and the author’s Roman Catholicism. Ultimately, the latter matters more than the former, which is why the power of the novel persists even a quarter-century after the Cold War’s end. Mr. Miller’s work is a rousing defense of the doctrine of Original Sin, as well as that of the Imago Dei. He portrays man as a creature limited by sinfulness yet worthy of love due to his inherent dignity. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, man’s sin springs not from simple depravity, but from a toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance. Mr. Miller plays with the limits of man’s knowledge, revealing the places where human understanding flails against incomprehensibility.

“Fiat Homo” introduces the reader to a monastery founded to save human knowledge after civilization’s demise. Amidst a dark age six centuries removed from the collapse, the monastery continues to preserve Memorabilia—scraps and remnants of a long-dead culture. The Memorabilia vary infinitely, including shopping lists as well as great works of literature. The monks preserve all the pre-apocalyptic material they can, regardless of form or content, largely because they lack the cultural context necessary to distinguish between the epochal and the ephemeral. Despite perfectly capable minds, faculties, and philosophy, the monks’ ignorance of the greater systems of meaning into which their fragments fit limits their ability to interpret and understand even the most basic material from pre-apocalyptic civilization.

A conversation between two monks about the meaning and purpose of a blueprint reflects impeccable logic applied to inscrutable information. Brother Francis venerates this blueprint—a schematic for “Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B”—as a precious relic because it came from the Blessed Leibowitz, who was an electrician before he was a monk. Naturally, an electrician’s blueprint is utterly indecipherable to Francis—as it would be to anyone without training in electronics—but Francis venerates it just the same. His more skeptical antagonist, Brother Jeris, mocks Francis’ ignorant piety, pressing him to explain the meaning of the relic. After Jeris exposes a bit of circular reasoning on Francis’ part (“Quite clear! Eloquent! If the creature is the name, then the name is the creature.”), Francis offers his limited ideas about what the blueprint might signify. He supposes that it must:

“…represent an abstract concept, rather than a concrete thing…a systematic method for depicting a pure thought. It’s clearly not a recognizable picture of an object.”

“Yes, yes, it’s clearly unrecognizable!” Brother Jeris agreed with a chuckle.

“On the other hand, perhaps it does depict an object, but only in a very formal stylistic way—so that one would need special training or—”

“Special eyesight?”

“In my opinion, it’s a high abstraction of perhaps transcendental value expressing a thought of the Beatus Leibowitz.”

Francis briefly stumbles upon an approximation of the truth—blueprints depict objects in a formal way requiring special training to decipher—but has no means to evaluate his theory. Without knowing what blueprints are, Francis cannot know if what he’s looking at is mundane or metaphysical, functional or philosophical—or farcical, for that matter. The conversation then descends into a discourse on circuit design, electronics, and nuclear physics, climaxing as these two Dark Age monks attempt to unravel a description of an electron as a “Negative Twist of Nothingness.”

This is only one of a number of instances where various characters arrive at highly erroneous conclusions by applying solid reasoning to incomprehensible information. Mr. Miller carefully constructs such scenes to provide humor, yet without condescension. He has no scorn for his characters’ ignorance, since their insufficiencies often rest not in logic or intelligence but in the amount of information available to them. Jeris’ mocking skepticism exposes Francis’ flight of fancy in wishing for transcendental truth in a blueprint, but it also dismisses Francis’ brief, hesitant proposal of the correct nature of a blueprint. His scorn has the appearance of wisdom, insulating him as it does from naive credulity—but it also prevents him from perceiving or even seeking out the truth.

These and other instances throughout “Fiat Homo” seem to imply that the accumulation of more information would provide the key to overcoming human frailty. Taken as a whole, though, A Canticle for Leibowitz resists such an interpretation. While Mr. Miller shows how human knowledge can benefit humanity, he also suggests that human weakness resides deeper than ignorance.

Early in the story, a simple priest bemoans the tendency to conjecture not “on the basis of what might be true,” but rather “on the basis of what might be sensational if it just happened to be true.” The priest offers this complaint just before he exposes his own weakness in that regard, implying that this inclination to warp truth in the pursuit of sensationalism wells up from a common human nature. Later in the novel, a great scholar ventures a controversial, not to mention heretical, theory about human origins. In response the monastery’s abbot firmly chastises him—not because such speculation offends him but because the scholar speculates irresponsibly:

Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?

The scholar’s great knowledge and intelligence do not free him from human weakness, and the abbot accuses him of abusing “the intellect for reasons of pride.”

Mr. Miller mostly writes from within the limited perspectives of his characters; thus no authoritative explanation is given for the nuclear war’s causes. According to the various accounts available to the characters—all apparently written well after the event itself—the sin of pride brought about the world’s near-total destruction. The apocalypse occurred when mankind “had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah.” Indeed, the phrase ultimately used to describe the use of a nuclear weapon—“Lucifer is fallen”—poignantly links their sin to that which caused Satan’s fall and the subsequent fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden.

The premise of the book—reaffirmed by its conclusion—supposes that a civilization knowledgeable enough to create nuclear weapons lacks the restraint not to use them. Man ultimately runs up against limitations not of data but of character. Leibowitz, “who, in his youth like the holy Augustine, had loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God,” has an awakening when he sees “that great knowledge, while good, had not saved the world.” One might wonder, perhaps, how Leibowitz goes from this revelation to founding an order dedicated to the preservation of human knowledge, if indeed it is not information but prudence—and humility—that the human race lacks.

So on the one hand Mr. Miller shows humans with faultless reasoning made faulty only by lack of knowledge, and on the other he presents humans with great knowledge undone by moral failings. This apparent paradox—is man good but ignorant or knowledgeable yet wicked?—can only be understood by recognizing the story’s deeply Catholic conception of human beings as flawed by sin yet bearing God’s image. The difficulties of this paradox are evident in the Church’s attempts throughout the novel to maintain a charitable and humane picture of the human person despite the harsh and deformed world wrought by the apocalypse. Thus the Church, though it has “never despaired nor ceased to pray” for heathen hordes, nevertheless blesses soldiers to war against them. While some within the Church dared to suggest that deformed and mutated creatures “truly had been deprived of the Dei imago from conception” and could thus be killed like animals, the magisterium instead thundered that any creature, “if born of a woman, be called an immortal soul… and thundered it again and again.”

In a world beset by ignorance, brutality, and monstrosity, God Himself takes on paradoxical qualities. The cruelty of life—the recognition, perhaps, that the world is not as it should be—spurs and even requires belief in a softer afterlife governed by an “infinitely compassionate” God. But then the harshness of everyday life also makes God impossibly remote. Brother Francis speaks of “that other Immensurable Loneliness which was God,” an odd and deeply unsettling title for the Creator who is our Father. This tension between the love of God and the misery of the world comes to the fore in the novel’s brutal conclusion. Here we meet Abbot Zerchi, a man of great faith and little taste for equivocation, who faces confounding questions about the place of God amidst terrible suffering. Zerchi finds himself in the impossible position of arguing that God’s deep love for human life demands that the terminally ill suffer horribly rather than end their own lives through state-sanctioned euthanasia. Through him we come to understand the limits of human knowledge apply to theology too.

In earlier scenes like Brother Francis’ interpretation of the blueprint, the reader, secure in his superior knowledge, smiles at the characters’ ignorance from afar. Yet here, at the end of Mr. Miller’s powerful novel, we find ourselves trapped within the same constraints imposed on the characters. We find that their ignorance is our ignorance. As Abbot Zerchi fights against state-sponsored suicide, we too face the incomprehensible. How can a loving God allow such horrible suffering? How can it be that God’s love for the human person somehow necessitates the perpetuation of suffering rather than a “merciful” suicide? Zerchi offers the classic answers of moral theology, but we will discover, with him, that those answers are incomplete, even if they are not wrong. Like the characters in the novel, we lack the context—which is to say, the omniscience—to make sense of the suffering of this wicked world.

A Canticle for Leibowitz suggests that the amount which man does not know is infinite, and that his efforts to increase his knowledge merely reveal the extent of his ignorance. Perverted by pride, knowledge puffs up, and the learned become ignorant of their own ignorance. Greater information, greater technology, greater comfort, greater luxury, even greater civilization—these transform the conditions of human lives, but leave the human condition unchanged. Rather than perfecting man, such relative improvements tempt humans to suppose in their pride that they have cast aside the limitations of ignorance. Those who believe in progress and human perfectibility strive ever on to increase man’s knowledge—and his power—in order to make the world better. Mr. Miller, however, clearly stands with one of his abbots, who asserts that the world “never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.”

In Mr. Miller’s world, as in ours, humanity has a prodigious talent for ignoring or forgetting this lesson. A century ago, Europe learned that all her fine civilization never quite eliminated the potential for barbarism in the human soul. She soon forgot—then soon relearned—this harsh truth. A half-century after the novel’s publication and a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American self-confidence—whether manifested in the nationalist zeal of the Right or the unexamined scientism of the Left—remains as unchecked as ever. We must pray, then, that our world does not too closely mirror the fallen world of A Canticle for Leibowitz—the one in which man’s superior knowledge paves the way not for his final perfection, but for his final great wickedness.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Sadly our superior knowledge seems to be located in the labyrinths of science, hardly a guide for a more judicious and humane society, one that furthermore would take history and tradition to heart. Absent therefore, one that is alienated from it’s past and open to the harmful or destructive currents that militate against civility and learning, patience and tolerance, stability and restraint, knowing it’s place in time.
    It has been about fifty years since I read “Canticle”.

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