A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

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Themes and Meanings

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There can be little doubt as to the central theme of A Canticle for Leibowitz. The novel is an inquiry into the value of secular knowledge as opposed to spiritual knowledge, and, on the face of it, secular knowledge, or science, is given a very low rating. It leads with seeming inevitability to war, nuclear weapons, and racial suicide. While human beings seem to have an innate propensity toward collecting knowledge of this kind, as dramatized by Thon Taddeo and his eventual collaborator Brother Kornhoer, this seems only a proof of their fallen nature. Even the smallest dabbling with science carries ominous overtones, as in the scene in which the Leibowitzian monks are preparing to use their newly invented generator to light an arc lamp—for which they have, significantly, moved a Crucifix. As Brother Kornhoer touches the contacts, a spark snaps, and he lets out the mild monastic oath of “Lucifer!” Lucifer, however, means “light-bearer” (which is what Kornhoer himself is); it is furthermore a name for the devil and, in section 3, is strongly linked with new nuclear explosions. Kornhoer, then, kind and honest man that he is, is on the road from Satan to nuclear destruction; not even electric lights, seemingly, are sinless.

This apparent blanket condemnation of science and secularity is tempered, however, by a surprising feature of this novel—namely, its unwaveringly comic tone. The comedy is often, indeed usually, wry. Poor Brother Francis devotes his life to gilding and decorating a copy of a blueprint of which he knows nothing; all of his attitudes to the past are furthermore ludicrously false, as all readers immediately recognize. He thinks, for example, having little knowledge of archaic English, that a “fallout shelter” is a shelter for fallouts, a thought which frightens him almost to death, since he further thinks that a fallout is a demoniac mix of incubus and salamander. He knows very little, what he knows is mostly wrong, and no reader can avoid regarding him with a mixture of condescension, amusement—and pity, for Francis is good-hearted and is killed in the end entirely blamelessly trying to stick to the letter of a totally unjust bargain. The reader’s attitude toward him, however, is only a strengthened form of the attitude which one is encouraged to take toward most of the novel’s characters. They are seen as ignorant or deluded, rather than actively wicked; the sin in which all humanity appears involved cannot accordingly be taken entirely seriously. Finally, the book is, in the end, technically and in the old sense a “comedy,” even a “divine comedy.” It has a happy ending of sorts, through Rachel and through the escape of a human nucleus to the stars. One is asked to believe, with Benjamin, that grace and salvation are more important than any petty turmoil, however violent, on Earth.

One further theme of importance in the novel is that of change and stability. The long perspective of the novel’s three parts throws up all kinds of change in language: English evolves into separate dialects, the monastery of Saint Leibowitz becomes the city of Sanly Bowitts, the venerable monk Boedullus, who discovers an “intercontinental launching pad,” turns into Bo’dollos, the giant catfish who broods in the waters of the deep crater he created. Against this, though, the Latin liturgy of Catholicism remains unaltered. Similarly, the morals of the Church remain unmoved by circumstance. There is a strong irony in the care with which successive abbots stick to seemingly trivial rules. Behind this, though, is the thought that such rules are binding on eternity, and so are not lightly...

(This entire section contains 629 words.)

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to be changed. English, politics, and progress, one might say, are set against the less attractive but stronger powers of Latin, religion, and faith.

Christian Themes

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Science and Christianity are not inherently adversarial, according to Walter M. Miller, Jr., but science for the sake of science leads to pain, suffering, death, materialism, and bondage to technology. The book implies that Leibowitz was guilty of this sin, but that he repented after seeing the consequences. Dom Paulo is a spokesperson for this position, and his secular opponent is Thon Taddeo, who argues that there is no role for religion in science or any part of society.

Miller believes that humans have freedom of choice and are ultimately responsible for their actions. This includes scientists and engineers who assist their governments in making war, such as Leibowitz. Thon Taddeo’s work is supported by a prince who has no interest in science beyond its ability to increase his power. Taddeo tries to wash his hands of his employer’s sins just as Pontius Pilate tried to wash his hands. The novel takes the position that Taddeo is just as guilty as any other follower and possibly more so, because he is intelligent enough to know better.

Doctor Cors regards pain as the ultimate evil and advocates euthanasia, but Dom Jethrah and Miller strongly disagree and believe that God does not send people more pain than they can bear. Cors is both eloquent and compassionate. Because radiation poisoning is a very painful way to die, Miller does not give Jethrah an easy position from which to argue. Miller also indirectly engages in a dialogue with Nevil Shute, whose classic 1957 novel On the Beach also deals with the consequences of nuclear warfare. Shute’s main characters commit suicide when they feel the first symptoms of radiation poisoning, whereas a true Christian, according to Miller, would not.

Social Concerns / Themes

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A Canticle for Leibowitz is very much a novel of the Cold War—not because it engages in the partisan polemics of the time, but because it transcends those causes to address a higher issue, the precarious survival of human life in the Nuclear Age. The novel assumes a devastating nuclear war that has nearly destroyed civilization and goes on to explore humanity's attempt to rebuild the world. As society progresses from a Dark Age to a second Renaissance and finally to a new age of nuclear confrontation, the same flaws that nearly destroyed humanity before emerge once again and culminate in a second, even more destructive conflagration. The great question posed by Miller in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the question that continues to haunt the contemporary world: for all man's knowledge, for all his power, for all his scientific and technological sophistication, has he the wisdom to avoid disaster?

While progress in the novel seems only, ironically, to initiate a destructive downwards cycle, Miller never condemns science or technology, for he recognizes that human knowledge and human tools are in themselves morally neutral. Indeed the order of monks that the novel traces through nearly two thousand years of history is founded in response to the Great Simplification, a postwar attempt to stamp out the possibility of war by killing the scientists and enforcing ignorance. While the monks have their foibles and superstitions, and while their preservation of knowledge will in fact contribute to a second war, their basic insight is clearly that of the author: it is only what people do with the power given them by science and technology that can be judged as good or evil.

Critics often note that A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the few science fiction novels to incorporate an existing formal religion into its imaginary world (as opposed to creating one of its own). But while Catholicism plays a key role in the novel, it is important to recognize that the novel is not Roman Catholic in any narrow or dogmatic way. One might suggest that Miller is more interested in the ethical tradition embodied in Catholicism and in its abundance of images which celebrate human acceptance of responsibility than he is in its supernatural doctrines. For it is in the abdication of responsibility for one's own actions that Miller locates a major cause of the human failures that pervade the novel and provoke its final tragedy. Miller does not oppose Church to State, or Faith to Reason; he opposes a tradition of conscience, of human accountability, to a kind of moral anarchy—the attitude that “although I build the bomb, I am not responsible for its use or that if my enemies do such and such, it is they, not I, who are responsible for my retaliation.” As long as everyone blames someone else, Miller suggests, there can be no resolution of the dilemmas that confront humanity. This insight is perhaps best expressed by a dying monk who recognizes that before anyone can hope to improve the world, he must first accept that “The trouble with the world is me,” rather than seeking to evade: all responsibility.


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