Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Simplification

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.


The Simplification almost sounds pleasant, in an infomercial kind of way: "Life too complicated? Feel like your day-to-day is as tangled as the wires behind your TV? Then grab some Simplification juice, now in grape flavor."

But this might be the most horrifying of all the symbols in A Canticle. It wraps up all of humanity's primitive traits into a single futuristic era of terrifying glory. We never witness the Simplification in the novel itself but its vast, horrible consequences are felt throughout the story.

Here's the rundown.

Simplifying the Simplification

The rulers of the 20th century (called "the princes" in the future) sought the power to defend themselves from their enemies. Their scientists (magi) provided the princes with nuclear weapons but warned them to only use the weapons to discourage the other princes from using such weapons themselves.

This precarious situation worked about as well as you'd expect, and pretty soon the Earth was an enflamed mass of nuclear nastiness. Then came the Simplification. The unwashed, and now rather charred, masses of the world cried out in their hate:

Let us make a holocaust of those who wrought this crime, together with their hirelings and their wise men; burning, let them perish, and all their works, their names, and even their memories. Let us destroy them all, and teach our children that the world is new, that they may know nothing of the deeds that went before. Let us make a great simplification, and then the world shall begin again. (6.12)

While everyone could use a fresh start every now and then, the follows of the Simplification took things a wee bit too far. They burned books and destroyed cities.

The "remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death" (6.13).

All in all, it was not a pleasant time. To say the least.

Ignorance is Totally Not Bliss

The Simplification is all about the dangers of our ignorance. Ignorance of morality, ignorance of scientific knowledge, ignorance of others' wants and needs, all of these fuel the Simplification.
Ignorance leads the simpletons to take up the more animalistic side of humanity, complete with murder, tribalism, and even cannibalism.

Now, A Canticle also questions the value and dangers of scientific knowledge and technology. But the consensus seems to be: scientific knowledge might lead humanity to danger, but ignorance certainly will.

Ignorance = never good. Not once, not ever.