21 January 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz

I don’t remember where I first heard about A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s one of those books that had been bouncing around on my radar for years, but I had never taken the time to read it. My interest was piqued again last year when Professor Eric Rabkin highly recommended it in a lecture series on imaginative literature that I listened to. My sister also told me that I needed to read it, and then just bought me a copy for Christmas, assuming, I suppose, that I would never get to it on my own.

First of all, let me say that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great post-apocalyptic novel. It avoids many of the easy clichés inherent in post-apocalyptic fiction, and it presents a story that doesn’t simply offer escapism but truly comments on the human condition and offers good food for thought. Some consider A Canticle for Leibowitz to be among the classics of 20th century literature, and having now read it myself I tend to agree.

On a slightly off topic note, I was thrilled to find that this book is the source of a spurious C.S. Lewis quotation that is ubiquitous on the internet. The quote, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body,” circulates on the internet with Lewis’s name attached, and I’ve known for years that it is a misattribution. I suppose at some point I had also read that the quote really came from Walter Miller, but I didn’t know it was from this book. It was an exciting nerd moment for me.


Anyway, the book opens on an acolyte named Francis who is fulfilling a Lenten fast in the desert in order to hopefully find his vocation and be confirmed as a full-fledged monk in the Order of Saint Leibowitz. It doesn’t take long for us to piece together that the story is taking place in the far future and that the world as we know it has been destroyed by a global nuclear war. The Church has survived however, and is the only force in a barbaric world attempting to preserve and further the learning from the previous fallen civilization. In other words, what we have is a parallel to the position of the Church in the early Middle Ages. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. The story of Francis and what happens to him makes up the first third of the book. The story then shifts hundreds of years farther into the future where we see that civilization has progressed to a time of a new Renaissance and the knowledge the Church has preserved for years is now desired by a first generation of new scientists. The final third of the book takes place in a civilization that is just ahead of us today. Many things seem familiar, but interstellar travel has also become a reality. Once again, nuclear weapons are a reality and we see the same monastery dealing with very modern political problems.


There are a few major themes that run through the book and tie all three stories together. Most of the themes are introduced in a basic form in the first part and culminate in the third part.

The first major theme is the idea that Christianity is the conscience of the world. The scientists in the book run toward new inventions and ideas, discovering many wonderful and amazing things. However, the scientists find themselves the political pawns of those in power who would use the new knowledge for destruction. And the scientists tend to make moral decisions in a utilitarian way. In this way, the book shows an interesting take on the old science vs. religion trope. The monks are not opposed to scientific knowledge and participate in scientific discovery themselves. This is, incidentally an accurate picture of the role of the Church in scientific discovery through the Middle Ages; the idea that the Church held back science is one of those popular modern myths with little grounding in reality. The main difference presented with the interest of the monks in scientific knowledge and the interest of the scientists in scientific knowledge is that the monks’ interest in science is never absolute; they always consider that there is a higher Law they must obey. Science is always considered a means rather than an end by the monks. The scientists see science as the main end of life, and the only true evil is physical pain. One of the abbots expresses it this way, “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

This leads to another major theme that runs through the book: that of the relationship between faith and suffering. The image of Job is invoked at various points in the book to discuss the perseverance of faith in the fact of suffering in a world that seems to offer only absurdity. At one point, the story inverts the Job narrative, showing how, for many people, suffering and fear lead only to the loss of faith.

A third theme is that of man’s fallenness. It was the fallenness of man that led to the first Flame Deluge (the nuclear war that wiped out civilization). The main goal of the monks in the story for the centuries afterward is to preserve knowledge, but to get it right this time. This time around a return to civilization and knowledge will not involve a drifting away from faith and a progressive secularism. And of course, it won’t involve nations threatening one another with nuclear annihilation again. But alas, man is not only fallen, but is also falling at all times. Man is ever reaching out for the forbidden fruit, and the best efforts of men still fall far short of perfection.


I realize that the way I’ve described this book may make it sound like a heavy-handed religious allegory. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What I’m presenting is largely my perspective on the themes of the book. However, the questions raised in the book, questions about suffering, euthanasia, progress, politics, and the like, are never treated as simple questions with pat answers. There are no outright heroes or villains in the book, and as a reader you’re going to have to experience the story for yourself to see if you come to the same conclusions that I did when reading it. As for me, this is the sort of book that I think will warrant a re-read in the future to see how it strikes me again in a few years.

A Canticle for Leibowitz certainly deserves its reputation as a classic of 20th century fiction. This is no fluffy, pop sci-fi. This is a deeply resonant, well-written story with richly- crafted, realistic characters that should be read and appreciated by all lovers of great literature.

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