Comparing the United States to the Roman Empire seems to be a fashionable thing to do lately. And the argument is certainly not without merit. As the only superpower left its natural to make judgments based on the worlds great empires and to ask if we are making the same mistakes that caused their downfalls. The real question, of course, is whether we can learn from history in order to avoid those same mistakes.
Which is just another way to say that I recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. Published in 1960, the book may be best described as a work of “Catholic science fiction.” It follows the travails of a monastery in a post-apocalyptic world where, following a massive nuclear war, humanity turns against intellectuals and learning in a great “Simplification.” Books are burned, universities torn down and the general populace intentionally becomes illiterate in the hopes that another “Flame Deluge” may be averted. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (ironically, and unintentionally, abbreviated to AOL) have been charged with protecting what writings they are able to smuggle into their great collection (the “Memorabilia”) in the hope that humanity might one day be ready to accept them again.
The book is divided into three sections, each separated by 600 years. The first deals with a young postulant’s discovery of relics of Blessed Leibowitz, whose cause for canonization has been opened. The second chronicles the arrival at the monastery of Thon Taddeo, the age’s greatest secular thinker, and the world’s re-discovery of the treasures hidden there. In the last part humanity is once again threatened by the re-development of nuclear weapons and the Church must decide how best to preserve the world’s knowledge and ensure the survival of future generations.
One of Miller’s main themes is the cyclical nature of history: in forgetting its own past, the world inadvertently makes its second annihilation possible. Miller makes a fairly explicit comparison between ignorance and violence on the one hand and knowledge and peace on the other. The tribal factions of the outside world are constantly at odds, fighting over territory, food and other resources. They are unable to work together and, as a result, can build nothing of lasting value.
Yet there is still hope in the form of community. By maintaining their connection to the past — by remembering who they are and passing on that knowledge to future generations — the monks are able to keep their charge for over 1200 years while, all around them, empires rise, reign and fall. It is the thankless dedication of generations of monks that allows humanity to pull itself from a second Dark Age.
The book also highlights the perennial struggle between science’s pursuit of fact, the state’s pursuit of power and faith’s search for truth. This is especially evident in the second part, during which Thon Thaddeo is at odds with the Order over access to the Memorabilia (he wants to relocate the archive to make them more readily accessible to other scientists) and in the third part in which the state sanctions euthanasia camps for radiation victims. How the monks deal with these threats to their mission says a great deal about how and why the Church pursues knowledge (as opposed to science and the state).
Although it met with mixed reaction upon its release, A Canticle for Leibowitz went on to win a Hugo Award and is now considered a modern classic in science fiction. I highly recommend it to any fan of the genre or anyone interested in the mission of the Church, even in the most trying of times.