Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Science

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.


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.

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