Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Quotes

  • Power

    Chapter 1

    That which is born alive was, by the law of the Church and the law of Nature, suffered to live, and helped to maturity if possible, by those who had begotten it. (1.3)

    The Church commands its version of morality be observed in the case of mutant births. This is a small point early in the novel, but it grows to become a source of much contention between Church, state, and individual later on. Keep it in mind, Shmoopers.

    Chapter 3

    There was nothing to do but obey the command to return. (3.72)

    Francis's will has been completely consumed by the Church and its commands. To question his superiors is to question the Church—something he cannot do.

    Chapter 4

    Father Cheroki, who came of baronial stock from Denver, tended to react formally to men's official capacities, tended to speak courteously to the badge of office while not allowing himself to see the man who wore it, in this respect following the Court customs of many ages. (4.2)

    The Church claims the moral high ground of God. And whether or not it owns that moral high ground, it's still an organization made up of mortal men on Earth. Father Cheroki's inability to see this fact grants the reader the ability to do just that. That's dramatic irony for you, and it's awesome.

    Chapter 16

    But I, too, am a member of a oneness, thought Dom Paulo, a part of a congregation and a continuity. Mine, too, have been despised by the world. Yet for me the distinction between self and nation is clear. (16.92)

    Like Francis before him, Dom Paulo has become part of a whole. He lets that "oneness" have power over him. But unlike Francis, Dom Paulo understands how institutions can take over your own interests, and willfully chooses the Church over the government.

    Chapter 21

    "To serve God first, or to serve Hannegan first—that's your choice." "I have little choice, then," answered the thon. "Would you have me work for the Church?" The scorn in his voice was unmistakable. (21.73-74)

    Taddeo is Dom Paulo's foil for many reasons. This is one. Like Dom Paulo, Taddeo made a choice to let an organization have power over him, and he made that choice willfully. He simply chose differently than Dom Paulo; he chose the state.

    "Let's be frank with each other, Father. I can't fight the prince who makes my work possible—no matter what I think of his policies or his politics. I appear to support him, superficially, or at least to overlook him—for the sake of the collegium." (21.59)

    The state is gaining power, and that puts it in direct competition with the Church. It's like one is Batman, the other is the Joker, and we're all stuck in the middle.

    Chapter 25

    "They can know it by the children they beget and send to asylums for the deformed. They know it, and they've kept the peace. Not Christ's peace, certainly, but peace, until lately—with only two warlike incidents in as many centuries. Now they have the bitter certainty. My sons, they cannot do it again. Only a race of madmen could do it again—" (25.154)

    Note the passage of "not Christ's peace." It's a small hint of how far Church and state have separated since the beginning of the novel. Now, they can't even agree on how to go about being peaceful.

    Chapter 27

    "'The provisions of Public Law 10-WR-3E in no way empower[s] private citizens to administer euthanasia to victims of radiation poisoning. Victims who have been exposed, or who think they have been exposed, to radiation far in excess of the critical dosage must report to the nearest Green Star Relief Station.'" (27.5)

    The state gets in on the church's game. Just like in our first quote—the one we told you to keep in mind—the state begins administrating rules for who should be allowed to die, how they should be allowed to do it, and even where they can do it.

    Chapter 28

    But one of the officers snapped out into the slow lane just ahead of them and pointed his traffic baton at the vehicle's obstruction detection; the autopilot reached automatically and brought the car to a stop. (28.128)

    In Francis's day, the Church had all the power; they had the Memorabilia and a vice grip on education. Now, the tables have turned. Thanks to technology, the state can quite literally control the destiny of others.

    "Get back in the car," Dom Zerchi told her.
    "You cut that tone of voice, mister!" the officer barked. "Lady, what about the kid?"
    "We're both getting out here," she said. (28.147-149)

    The Church, state, and individual are all represented in this final fight to determine the fate of a mother and her child. Although the state wins this round, the novel doesn't seem to suggest either Church or state was right. It leaves that question open for you to ponder. Yay, pondering.

  • Religion

    Chapter 1

    The universe contracted; at its exact geometric center floated that sandy tidbit of dark bread and pale cheese. A demon commanded the muscles of his left leg to move his left foot half a yard forward. (1.28)

    Our first example of religion comes in the form of Brother Francis, and he demonstrates how the novel won't make this theme easy on us. On the one hand, Francis's beliefs have made him a wonderfully honest, innocent guy. On the other hand, the whole idea of a demon seizing control of Francis for a snack is meant to show religion's more ridiculous side.

    Chapter 6

    The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years, for they, though born in that darkest of ages, were still the very bookleggers and memorizers of the Beatus Leibowitz. (6.21)

    The church protects the knowledge of the Memorabilia even though it doesn't know what to do with it or what it does. In a way, the church has faith in the Memorabilia, even though its origins are earthly, not heavenly.

    Chapter 10

    Even the idiot which seems less gifted than a dog, or a pig, or a goat, shall, if born of woman, be called an immortal soul, thundered the magisterium, and thundered it again and again. After several such pronouncements, aimed at curbing infanticide, had issued from New Rome, the luckless misborn had come to be called the "Pope's nephews," or the "Pope's children," by some. (10.3)

    Here we see the first major instance in the book of the Church not changing its beliefs to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. In this case, things don't end very well for Francis. As the novel continues, these instances extend beyond lone street travelers to affect the whole world.

    Chapter 11

    For the first time, [Francis] noticed a moth-hole in the Pope's cassock. The cassock itself was almost threadbare. The carpet in the audience room was worn through in spots. Plaster had fallen from the ceiling in several places. But dignity had overshadowed poverty. Only for a moment after the wink did Brother Francis notice hints of poverty at all. The distraction was transient. (11.46)

    Francis notices the dual nature of the Church. It's stuck on earth like the rest of us, and subject to the laws of wear and tear. But for Francis, it manages to extend itself beyond those earthy binds, achieving an almost supernatural status.

    Chapter 12

    [Thon Taddeo] huffed impatiently. "The incongruity. Men as you can observe them through any window, and men as historians would have us believe men once were. I can't accept it. How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?" 

    "Perhaps," said Apollo, "by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else." (12.78-79)

    As we enter the next generation, society tries to obtain its long-lost glory. But the Church—represented here by Marcus Apollo—sees itself as the barrier between the future and those long-lost catastrophes. Apollo's warnings are directed toward the society Thon Taddeo represents, not just Taddeo himself.

    Chapter 14

    There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God's and not Man's, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they become valid in a human sense within the culture. (14.2)

    Dom Paulo believes that the knowledge of science is a "dark reflection" of God's design. Paulo's idea is very similar to Plato's "Theory of Forms," and is Paulo's attempt to marry religion and science.

    Chapter 21

    "But you promise to begin restoring Man's control over Nature. But who will govern the use of the power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check? Such decisions can still be made. But if you and your group don't make them now, others will soon make them for you. Mankind will profit, you say. By whose sufferance? (21.64)

    Dom Paulo questions who will control scientific knowledge if it's returned to the world. The key question in this quote seems to be, "How will you hold him in check?" Could Dom Paulo be suggesting that religion is that how?

    Chapter 25

    The Order conformed to the times, to an age of uranium and steel and flaring rocketry, amid the growl of heavy industry and the high thin whine of star drive converters. The Order conformed—at least in superficial ways. (25.139)

    The technology might change, the building might finally be up to code, but this is the same old abbey as we saw in Francis's day. Zerchi seems to find comfort in the everlasting nature of the abbey, but should the reader also find comfort in it?

    Chapter 26

    "We shouted it loudly enough—God's to be obeyed by nations as by men. Caesar's to be God's policeman, not His plenipotentiary successor, nor His heir. (26.13)

    The problems Dom Paulo saw for his religion have come to pass. The Church is no longer able to keep either scientific or political forces in check. It has lost the power to alter the course of humanity. Luckily for Dom Paulo, the abbey is Zerchi's problem now.

    Chapter 29

    Listen, my dear Cors, why don't you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn't allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things. Besides, you'd be out of a job, Cors. (29.35)

    This is Zerchi's personal attempt to bridge the gap between his and Dr. Cors's worldviews. It's his attempt at theodicy, or an answer to the problem of evil in the world. And it's a little late, given that the world is ending and whatnot.

  • Primitivity

    Chapter 1

    Encounters between strangers in the desert, while rare, were occasions of mutual suspicions, and marked by initial preparations on both sides for an incident that might prove either cordial or warlike. (1.4)

    Francis cannot tell upon seeing the stranger whether or not their encounter will prove "cordial or warlike." It's like he's trying to determine if he'll meet a fellow human being or a beast in human's skin. Been there, buddy.

    Chapter 6

    So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, […]. (6.13)

    Violence leads to vengeance, and one primitive act leads to another. And on and on.

    Chapter 10

    The robber tossed the papers on the ground. "I'll wrestle you for them," he offered sportingly. "Those against my blade." (10.54)

    Francis attempts to reason with the robber, but the robber does not have the same values as Francis. He only understands the base laws of nature, and that means the stronger character gets what the stronger character wants. And it's just best not to be weak.

    Chapter 11

    They advanced to within ten yards of Francis before a pebble rattled. The monk was murmuring the third Ave of the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary when he happened to look around.
    The arrow hit him squarely between the eyes.
    "Eat! Eat! Eat!" the Pope's child cried. (11.81-83)

    This scene reads like a grotesque re-imagining of some NatGeo special on predators and prey. Only the lions are mutants, and the gazelle is Brother Francis.

    Chapter 17

    Dom Paulo felt the blackness beginning to gather. After twelve centuries, a little hope had come into the world—and then came an illiterate prince to ride roughshod over it with a barbarian horde and… (17.22)

    In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that "government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism" have resulted in a sharp decrease in violence in the modern world (source). A Canticle for Leibowitz basically argues the opposite.

    Chapter 20

    "And how will this come to pass?" [Thon Taddeo] paused and lowered his voice. "In the same way all change comes to pass, I fear. And I am sorry it is so. It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world." (20.127)

    What do you think: is Thon Taddeo's belief realistic or pessimistic? Can we learn to change without violence and upheaval, or will our primitive sides always prevail?

    Chapter 23

    The impulse had sent [the Poet] leaping from the embankment to tackle the cavalry officer in the saddle and stab the fellow three times with his own belt-knife before the two of them toppled to the ground. (23.4)

    Didn't think the Poet had it in him, did you? And let's not forget that Zerchi will give Dr. Cors a wicked haymaker later. Seems no one in this novel can escape their primitive impulses.

    Chapter 26

    When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they— (26.59)

    You'd think that as we improve our lives, our primitive natures would lessen. Maybe even disappear. But the book wonders if the opposite isn't true.

    "What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil." (26.9)

    Here, we return to the idea of violence leading to more violence. This time, it comes packaged with the notion of justice, but Father Zerchi questions the validity of responding to one primitive act with another. Do two wrongs ever make a right? (Probably not, unless you're in the business of making axes.)

    Chapter 28

    "Two cities have died, but it is to be remembered that neither side answered with a saturation attack. The Asian rulers contend that an eye was taken for an eye. Our government insists that the explosion in Itu Wan was taken for an eye." (28.39)

    As Jesus said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:38-39). Or as Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind" (source). You can pick either Jesus or Gandhi, but we bet this wisdom is the closest A Canticle gets to countering humanity's more primitive tendencies.

  • Memory and the Past

    Chapter 1

    Brother Francis visualized a Fallout as half-salamander, because, according to tradition, the thing was born in the Flame Deluge, and as half-incubus who despoiled virgins in their sleep, for, were not the monsters of the world still called "children of the Fallout"? That the demon was capable of inflicting all the woes which descended upon Job was recorded fact, if not an article of creed. (1.81)

    Myths superimpose themselves onto history in Francis's worldview, and they blend together to become a singular whole. The myths superimposed here are those of the incubus, and the notion that salamanders are impervious to or born within fire. Salamanders, by the way, are totally not invulnerable to fire —that's what we call a misconception, folks.

    Chapter 4

    "Ho, yes! Brother Francis didn't think of it. Somebody else thought of it. Brother Francis didn't think of the burlap hood and the hangman's rope; one of his chums did. So what happens? By tonight, the whole novitiate is buzzing with the sweet little story that Francis met the Beatus himself out there, and the Beatus escorted our boy over to where that stuff was and told him he'd find his vocation." (4.22)

    Past events don't have to be ancient history to be distorted by myth and stories. Francis's account of meeting the wanderer gets all sorts of wonky just a couple of days after the event. It's basically like an old-fashioned game of telephone up in here.

    Chapter 6

    There were great deserts where once life was, and in those places of the Earth where men still lived, all were sickened by the poisoned air, so that, while some escaped death, none was left untouched; and many died even in those lands where the weapons had not struck, because of the poisoned air. (6.10)

    Again, we see the idea of a worldview being superimposed onto history. In this case, the Church's understanding of the Flame Deluge and the Simplification is told in a language very similar to a passage from the Bible.

    Chapter 11

    "We know, too, of your labors at the abbey. For the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, we have always felt a most fervent affection. Without your work, the world's amnesia might well be total. As the Church, Mysticum Christi Corpus, is a Body, so has your Order served as an organ of memory in that Body." (11.33)

    Where the mind goes the body must follow, right? But if the mind can't remember where it's supposed to be going, then…?

    Chapter 12

    "There! You have it. And during the time of the anti-popes, how many schismatic Orders were fabricating their own versions of things, and passing off their versions as the work of earlier men? You can't know, you can't really know." (12.84)

    Thon Taddeo tugs at the root of this theme's problem right here. He knows the Church's view of history is a faulty one. He's actually got his head screwed on straight about the past. Boy, are we glad to have him around.

    Chapter 13

    Perhaps he thinks of our cloister as a place of durance vile, thought the abbot. There would be bitter memories, half-memories, and maybe a few imagined memories. (13.20)

    Or is he? Dom Paulo suggests Taddeo's view of the Church might be based less on his beliefs about truth and reality, and more on the horrible (and imagined?) happenings of his childhood. Like our relationship statuses, it's complicated. Really.

    Chapter 22

    "But what—?"
    "A fragment of a play, or a dialogue, it seems. I've seen it before. It's something about some people creating some artificial people as slaves. And the slaves revolt against their makers. If Thon Taddeo had read the Venerable Boedullus' De Inanibus, he would have found that one classified as 'probable or allegory.'" (22.82-83)

    What goes around comes around, eh, Taddeo? Though a fan of objective thinking, Taddeo is as susceptible to reconstructing his memory of the past to suit his present worldview as the Church he scorned earlier. Bam.

    Chapter 26

    "We only know what that thing says, and that thing is a captive. The Asian radio has to say what will least displease its government; ours has to say what will least displease our fine patriotic opinionated rabble, which is what, coincidentally, the government wants it to say anyhow, so where's the difference?" (26.9)

    In the world of tomorrow, that thing (read: the not-so-futuristic radio) presents information at the speed of sound. But faster information doesn't mean better information. And history and personal memory still get fused together. Just wait until these characters get a hold of the internet.

    That's where all of us are standing now, [Zerchi] thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam's, Herod's, Judas', Hannegan's, mine. Everybody's. (26.13)

    We've talked a lot about memory distorting the past, but let's remember that the past really does influence the present. In this case, it's imagined as the pyre upon which the world will be burned, making distortion a dangerous proposition.

    Chapter 27

    Afterwards, geneticists had wryly demonstrated that—since each racial group was too small that unless their descendants intermarried, each would undergo deteriorative genetic drift due to inbreeding on the colony planet—the racists had made cross-breeding necessary to survival. (27.76)

    As we've cracked open the human genome, most of what we'd consider "pure races" (emphasis on the scare quotes) are really just the result of millions of years of our ancestors moving about and breeding in not-so-pure ways. Our fragmented memory of the past is what constructs race more than anything. Here's hoping those space colonists don't forget that.

  • Time

    Chapter 2

    While a little wary yet of lurking Fallouts, Francis had sufficiently recovered from his initial fright to realize that the shelter, notably the desk and the lockers, might well be teeming with rich relics of an age which the world had, for the most part, deliberately chosen to forget. (2.13)

    As early as Chapter Two, we can see the novel is taking the long view when it comes to time. Francis views something as simple as a desk and a locker the same we might a clay pot from an Egyptian tomb.

    Chapter 6

    To escape the fury of the simpleton packs, such learned people as still survived fled to any sanctuary that offered itself. When Holy Church received them, she vested them in monks' robes and tried to hide them in such monasteries and convents as had survived and could be reoccupied, for the religious were less despised by the mob except when they openly defied it and accepted martyrdom. (6.15)

    This passage links Francis's era (the 26th century) with Europe's Early Middle Ages, a.k.a. the Dark Ages. America and Britain replace the fallen Roman Empire, the Simpleton movement stands in for the Goths, and the Catholic Church represents, well, the Catholic Church. Sure, there are significant differences, but the idea of history repeated is present all the same.

    Chapter 11

    "Those years were spent to preserve this original. Never think of them as wasted. Offer them to God. Someday the meaning of the original may be discovered, and may prove important." The old man blinked—or was it a wink? Francis was almost convinced that the Pope had winked at him. "We'll have you to thank for that." (11.45)

    Ah, foreshadowing. The Pope's comments are on the mark, but if time is cyclic in nature, will Francis want to be thanked for preserving such knowledge in the world? Read on, intrepid reader, read on.

    The buzzards laid their eggs in season and lovingly fed their young. Earth had nourished them bountifully for centuries. She would nourish them for centuries more…. (11.94)

    And don't think this'll be the last time you see these winged garbage disposals either. The buzzards are a super important symbol in A Canticle (visit our "Symbols, Imagery and Allegory" section, and you'll see). They help connect the theme of time with the theme of mortality, as they appear repeatedly at sites of death.

    Chapter 14

    It had happened once before, so the Venerable Boedullus had asserted in his De Vestigiis Antecessarum Civitatum. (14.3)

    This book's title—Google translated it as "In the Footsteps of the Ancestor Civilization"— rings true with one of the most famous verses from Ecclesiastes: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" (1:9). Miller's thematic inspiration is Biblical, yo.

    Chapter 16

    "Tell me, what do you think of him?"
    "I haven't seen him. But I suppose he will be a pain. A birth-pain, perhaps, but a pain."
    "Birth-pain? You really believe we're going to have a new Renaissance, as some say?"
    "Hmmm-hnn." (16.74-77)

    Even the characters in the story seem to realize that time is cyclic. It makes us wonder why they are so surprised when time goes all Of Mice and Men on them. Also note the connection to change and pain. That is, even a blessed change, like childbirth, comes with its share of pain.

    Chapter 20

    But surely [Thon Taddeo] must know that never during his lifetime can he be more than a recoverer of lost works; however brilliant, he can only do what others before him had done. And so it would be, inevitably, until the world became as highly developed as it had been before the Flame Deluge. (20.88)

    Poor Thon Taddeo. But if you think about it, how much of our education is really about discovering "what others before [you] had done"? Is knowledge partially responsible for the cyclic nature of time?

    Chapter 25

    Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. (25.27)

    The image of the Phoenix is an ironic one. Generally, the idea of rebirth seems to be everyone's favorite part of the Phoenix myth. But with Zerchi standing at the edge of the fiery-death part, the idea loses a bit of the romance. (And, as A Canticle has shown us, the Phoenix's rebirth isn't exactly candy and sunshine either.)

    Chapter 26

    Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. (26.88)

    And the circle is complete. Zerchi's speech to the priestly astronauts has undertones of Leibowitz's struggles during the Flame Deluge.

    Chapter 30

    The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season. (30.8)

    The shark seems like a new player in the theme of time. After all, it's been buzzards up until this point. Has the cycle finally been broken? Swing on over to our "What's Up with the Ending?" section for more on this fishy business.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Chapter 2

    Brother Francis found himself slightly confused by the Warning, but he intended to heed it by not touching the door at all. The miraculous contraptions of the ancients were not to be carelessly tampered with, as many a dead excavator-of-the-past had testified with his dying gasp. (2.8)

    It's Francis's job to preserve science and knowledge in the Memorabilia, but he and the other bookleggers are clearly out of their depth. They preserve, but their lack of understanding sometimes proves deadly. And other times it simply proves hilarious. You take the good with the bad.

    Chapter 6

    And that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: "Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m'Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought." (6.7)

    This passage may be written like it's trying to get added to the King James Bible, but it details the very modern nuclear deterrence theory. There are ten perceived flaws in the theory, which are detailed at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. A wicked combination of flaws two, three, four, and five seem responsible for the undoing of Leibowitz's world.

    Chapter 7
    Brother Francis Gerard

    "All right," Francis sighed, "I don't know. But I have a certain faith that the 'electron' existed at one time, although I don't know how it was constructed or what it might have been used for." (7.83)

    The key word we picked out in this passage is faith. Francis puts his faith in science and technology the same way he'd put his faith in God because, at this point in history, neither can be proven. But once science enters the world as a physical thing—by way of technology—will it still be worthy of Francis's faith?

    Chapter 13

    "Kornhoer moves something to make room for a piece of equipment. Armbruster yells Perdition! Brother Kornhoer yells Progress! and they have at each other again. (13.57)

    Kornhoer and Armbruster's argument over an arc light is silly. But it is also important to our tech savvy world. Perdition is basically a fancy word for hell, and progress always carries with it a feeling of ascension—of being lifted out of one's current lowly state. So which is it: is our technology lifting us up, or letting us down?

    Chapter 18

    The sixth monk climbed the shelf-ladder and took his seat on the top rung, his head bumping the top of the archway. He pulled a mask of smoke-blackened oily parchment over his face to protect his eyes, then felt for the lamp fixture and its thumbscrew, while Brother Kornhoer watched him nervously from below. (18.30)

    Notice how the monk has to go all Manfred Mann for the light to work. This is the first subtle hint of technology injuring someone for the sake of progress. Oh, and let's not forget those poor monks running on the treadmills. We think that's very dehumanizing, in a Brave New World kind of way.

    The abbot, who had neither witnessed the testing of the device nor credited extravagant claims, blanched and stopped speech in mid-sentence. The clerk froze momentarily in panic and suddenly fled, screaming "Fire!" (18.39)

    Lots of foreshadowing packed into this one little light bulb. The clerk's confusion links the arc lamp to the technology of the future (like the nuclear bomb). The light unknowingly becomes the evolutionary first step to mass destruction. Eep.

    Chapter 22

    Brother Kornhoer hesitated. "My vocation is to Religion," he said at last, "that is—to a life of prayer. We think of our work as a kind of prayer too. But that—" he gestured toward his dynamo "—for me seems more like play." (22.20)

    On the one hand, Kornhoer's vocation prevents his technology from reaching the wider world and helping more people. On the other hand, it also prevents his technology from reaching the wider world and hurting more people. Is this one of those catch-22 thingies?

    Chapter 24

    They contemplated the squiggles, quiggles, quids, thingumbobs, and doohickii in mystified silence. (24.89)

    Father Zerchi's struggle with the Autoscribe is described using almost the exact same wording as Brother Francis's struggles to understand the blueprint. 1,200 years later, technology still confounds man's ability to understand it.

    Chapter 25

    Economic corpuscles in an artery of Man, the behemoths charged heedlessly past the two monks who dodged them from lane to lane. To be felled by one of them was to be run over by truck after truck until a safety cruiser found the flattened imprint of a man on the pavement and stopped to clean it up. The autopilots' sensing mechanisms were better at detecting masses of metal than masses of flesh and bone. (25.75)

    Remember the monk who risked blindness for technology? Now that technology has grown and spread throughout the world, the dangers posed by technology have also grown exponentially. In this case, it's literally running people over in the streets, Frogger style.

    Chapter 26

    The starship is an act of hope. Hope for Man elsewhere, peace somewhere, if not here and now, then someplace: Alpha Centauri's planet maybe. (26.56)

    Technology destroys humanity's home planet, and much of humanity with it. Yet it is only through technology that we can find the hope to counter the doom brought on by technology. There's some serious irony brewing here, friends.

  • Mortality

    Chapter 2

    [Francis] gave the desk a final kick and turned to glare impatiently at the skull: Why don't you grin at something else for a change? (2.16)

    Skulls always serve to remind us of death, and two of them bookend this novel. We see the first one here. Ironically enough, Francis's skull will make its cameo at the novel's conclusion.

    Chapter 6

    And the hate said: Let us stone and disembowel and burn the ones who did this thing. 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. (6.11)

    Two ideas for the price of one quote? Nice. First idea: notice how it's the "hate" saying these things, not the simpletons? This tiny detail points to a mass mental state controlling this era of death and violence. Second: people die, but they generally hope their works—artistic and scientific—will grant them a sort of life after death. A sort of immortality. Here, that idea gets the same "dust in the wind" treatment as everything else. Nothing lasts.

    Chapter 8

    Brother Sarl finished the fifth page of his mathematical restoration, collapsed over his desk, and died a few hours later. Never mind. His notes were intact. Someone, after a century or two, would come along and find them interesting, would perhaps complete his work. Meanwhile, prayers ascended for the soul of Sarl. (8.4)

    Depressing and morbidly funny, Sarl's death is probably the happiest in A Canticle. There's hope someone will come along and complete his work, but if nothing else, he at least has people praying for his soul. No one receives better in the whole novel.

    Chapter 11

    After a while he entered the forested area. The buzzards were busy at the remains of a man. The wandered chased the birds away with his cudgel and inspected the human remnants. Significant portions were missing. (11.87)

    Our first protagonist's death is discovered by the wanderer, concluding part one with a reminder of mortality. This isn't Pirates of the Caribbean, folks. Even the main characters die. So we guess it might be A Game of Thrones.

    Chapter 13

    There were signs of progress in the world, and the village of Sanly Bowitts had achieved the fantastic literacy rate of eight per cent—for which the villagers might, but did not, thank the monks of the Leibowitzian Order.
    And yet [Dom Paulo] felt forebodings. Some nameless threat lurked just around the corner of the world for the sun to rise again. (13.29-30)

    We're willing to bet death is the "nameless threat" in this quote. It can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times, but death isn't one for vacations. Well, maybe working vacations.

    Chapter 23

    The buzzards strutted, preened, and quarreled over dinner; it was not yet properly cured. They waited a few days for the wolves. There was plenty for all. Finally they ate the Poet. (23.21)

    Again, we've got the death of a character ending a section. Miller's novel is like some kind of macabre carnival of death clowns; nobody gets out alive.

    Chapter 24

    Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens—and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn't the same. (24.24)

    The themes of "Mortality" and "Time" share the stage in this singsong marching tune. No matter how many generations come, go, struggle, or die, the ideal of a perfect society, an Eden, is never reached.

    Chapter 25

    It was a troubled night, a night that belonged to Lucifer. It was the night of the Atlantic assault against the Asian space installations.
    In swift retaliation, an ancient city died. (25.172-173)

    As we discuss in our "Symbol, Imagery, Allegory" section, the novel's use of "Lucifer" connects the ideas of evil, knowledge, and technology in A Canticle. Here, Lucifer links these notions to death, by way of nuclear weaponry. Of course, if anything deserves all of those negative associations, all at the same time, it would probably be nuclear weapons. They're nasty buggers.

    Chapter 28

    She still said nothing. He blessed them and left as quickly as possible. The woman had handled the beads with fingers that knew them; there was nothing he could say to her that she didn't already know. (28.37)

    This powerful scene shows a woman struggling with her child's mortality in the face of society's laws, God's laws, and her own fears and desires. Perhaps this is a scene better felt than analyzed. Boom.

    Chapter 29

    That inky Dark—gulf between aham and Asti—blackest Styx, abyss between Lord and Man. Listen, Jeth, you really believe there's Something on the other side of it, don't you? Then why are you shaking so? (29.56)

    Aham is Sanskrit for "I", and asti translates to "am" or "existence." So that gulf making Zerchi shiver is what separates himself from his true existence. Hamlet's undiscovered country exists in a similar dark gulf, and impending death gives both characters a really excellent view of it.

  • Science

    Chapter 5

    So was Francis called by his own nature hungrily to devour such knowledge as could be taught in those days, and, because there were no schools but the monastic schools, he had donned the habit first of a postulant, later of a novice. (5.6)

    As in Francis's time, the Catholic Church was the main source of education, philosophy, and scientific knowledge during the Early Middle Ages. If you focus on Western history, that is. Muslim civilizations were enjoying a golden age, and were a tad busy developing algebra, learning how the planets rotate, and resurrecting their own forms of Plato and Aristotle's philosophy (source).

    The principal industries of the continent, excepting a few seacoast regions, were hunting, farming, fighting, and witchcraft—the last being the most promising "industry" for any youth with a choice of careers and having in mind as primary ends, maximum wealth and prestige. (5.8)

    Here, we see how the other side lives. Lacking in science and industry, the world has regressed to hunter-gather-warrior communities—much like the Goths and other Germanic tribes of the Early Middle Ages.

    Chapter 9

    A General Council of the Church for the purpose of making a careful restatement of doctrine concerning the limitation of the magisterium to matters of faith and morals; it was a question which had been settled many times in history, but it seemed to rearise in new forms in every century, especially in those dark periods when man's "knowledge" of wind, stars, and rain was really only brief. (9.38)

    Religious beliefs rush in to fill the void left by scientific knowledge. In this interesting scene, the Church works to limit its own power on such ideas to "matters of faith and morals," not science. It's especially interesting if you come from a country where science and religion aren't exactly seeing eye-to-eye.

    Chapter 14

    For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were their mines ready to be kindled. (14.2)

    Scientific knowledge is likened to a small flame, instantly connecting it to the myth of Prometheus. But isn't it God who provided the knowledge in the first place (if you're into that kind of thing)?

    Chapter 16

    Benjamin shrugged again. "Very well. Forget that I asked it. But let's hope this thon will be on our side, and not with the others this time."

    "Others, Benjamin?"

    "Manasses, Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Pharaoh, Caesar, Hannegan the Second—need I go on?" (16.150-152)

    The theme of "Power" in A Canticle is about the tug-of-war between Church and State. Thon Taddeo's search for scientific truth is poised as the rope that these two institutions pull between them.

    Chapter 19

    A time was agreed upon, and Dom Paulo felt relief. The esoteric gulf between Christian monk and secular investigator of Nature would surely be narrowed by a free exchange of ides, he felt. (19.65)

    Dom Paulo's hope for the future is the combined ideals of Church and science. The free exchange of ideas seems a great idea, but Dom Paulo didn't consider that you need buyers as well as sellers.

    Chapter 20

    "Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind his throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth. His empire shall encompass the Earth. And the mastery of Man over the Earth shall be renewed." (20.126)

    Taddeo's got hopes for the future, and that future seems pretty peachy. But will it come to pass? Will the rulers of the world be philosopher kings for science?

    Chapter 24

    FIRST REPORTER: What is Your Lordship's comment on Sir Rische Thon Berker's statement that the radiation count on the Northwest Coast is ten times the normal level?
    DEFENSE MINISTER: I have not read the statement. (24.26-27)

    We guess Taddeo's hope doesn't amount to much. The rulers of the world are not men of science or even those who will listen to men of science. They're once again simply those who have power and the desire to keep it.

    Chapter 25

    The genetic festering is still with us from the last time Man tried to eradicate himself. Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz's time, maybe they didn't know what would happen. Or perhaps they did know, but could not quite believe it until they tried it—like a child who knows what a loaded pistol is supposed to do, but who never pulled a trigger before. They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason. Then they did it, and then they saw it. (25.153)

    The hope of science is that the more we learn empirically—that is, through experience and evidence—the better the world will be. But A Canticle questions this notion. The world has already seen evidence of the atrocities of nuclear war, but seems none the wiser for that experience. Shucks.

    Chapter 26

    And yet the Memorabilia was to go with the ship! Was it a curse?... Discede, Seductor informis! It was no curse, this knowledge, unless perverted by Man, as fire had been, this night… (26.60)

    Although never realized, there's a hope in this passage that a balance can be struck between religion and scientific knowledge. Like fire, the knowledge of the Memorabilia is a tool: one that can either burn or enlighten.