Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)