Study Guide

Parable of the Sower Philosophical Viewpoints

By Octavia E. Butler

Philosophical Viewpoints

Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all. (2024.Verse)

This passage from Lauren's verses opens Parable of the Sower—a placement that automatically shows us the high importance these words have for the novel. The book is fundamentally about Lauren and her religion/philosophy, and Lauren is, as Bankole later points out (21.35), a very unusual young woman. That is, she's a prodigy: an incredibly talented young person. This passage offers a definition of, or a perspective on, prodigy, as a way for us to understand Lauren and, by extension, the philosophical viewpoint of Earthseed.

Basically, this passage says prodigy consists of three elements: 1) persistence, 2) adaptability, and 3) positive obsession. To be a successful prodigy, a person needs to have some sort of obsession that's a positive, healthy thing, and the individual needs to stick with it—to be persistent at it—and adapt. The person needs to work with change. If the person doesn't adapt or doesn't recognize the importance of change, then he or she risks getting stuck in destructive fanaticism: devotion to old ideas that aren't suitable any longer, and that may be destructive if imposed. Lauren and Earthseed are going to be about persistent, adaptable, positive obsession as a way to solve problems.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change. (1.Verse.1-8)

Often, philosophies and religions get boiled down to a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. If that had to be done for Earthseed, the message that would survive would be God Is Change. This three-word phrase is the take-away many readers remember about the novel years later. We're introduced to it with this passage right at the start of the very first chapter, so it's clearly pretty important. It's a big flashing light saying, hey, readers, think about how change (growing, replacing, altering)—and also the refusal to change (stubbornness, denial)—affect both Lauren and you.

People in Lauren's Robledo community, for example, such as Joanne in Chapter 5, tend to think that their security situation won't change dramatically, and even if it were to, that they would have no power to affect the outcome. With this Earthseed verse, Lauren is insisting that, in contrast, people are empowered to change things, and they themselves will be altered by making changes. In fact, according to Lauren, this creativity based in change can be thought of as a controlling principle or God.

Incidentally, someone else who talked about the importance of change was the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus more than 2500 years ago. See any parallels?

God is Power—
Infinite,
Irresistible,
Inexorable,
Indifferent.
And yet, God is Pliable—
Trickster,
Teacher,
Chaos,
Clay.
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change. (3.Verse2.1-12)

According to Earthseed, we can change things and solve problems—but it turns out this isn't so easy. God is Power, Lauren writes. She says God's infinite, irresistible, inexorable, indifferent: a bunch of scary-sounding words that mean God is tough stuff. For example, Lauren talks about a hurricane that just wipes a bunch of people out (2.45) and says that this particular natural force might be an example of God. In that case, maybe someone had a bunch of change planned to solve problems, but a fluke hurricane simply canceled the program by killing the planner.

On the other hand, as Lauren points out, God is Pliable. Reality consists of stuff we can work with, even hurricanes (by using science to observe weather phenomena and make predictions, for example). God may be Trickster and Chaos—a challenging force to work with—but God is still Teacher and Clay. So, despite all the difficulties, God exists to be shaped.

Yeah, for some people, that might be a heretical thing to say: rather than God being above people in a hierarchy (see 2.43 and 18.50), God is something that people have some degree of power over and can alter or shape.

We are all Godseed, but no more or less
so than any other aspect of the universe,
Godseed is all there is—all that
Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads
Earthlife to new earths. The universe is
Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the
Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among
the stars. (7.Verse1.Line1-8)

This passage describe what might be considered Earthseed's ontology, a fancy word for that part of philosophy/religion that discusses what all exists, what it means to exist, and other fairly complicated-sounding things. Basically, Lauren's saying everything is Godseed, and a subset of Godseed is Earthseed: that which spreads Earthlife. Her conception isn't one found in Abrahamic religions (at least as far as those are popularly viewed today); for her, God isn't an authority figure in a hierarchy (see 2.43 and 18.50). Rather, everything that exists is Godseed, or God-stuff, and we can shape or alter it in pursuit of what she calls the Destiny: to spread Earthlife into outer space.

Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces. (2026.Verse)

Sort of like Plato drawing a comparison between an individual human soul and the ideal city in The Republic, here Lauren draws a comparison between civilization and a single person's intelligence. She sees both as methods or tools for problem solving and adapting to change. It's just that intelligence is the instrument for a particular individual, while civilization is the analogous instrument for groups of people.

Also, the last sentence of the verse is particularly important. The passage introduces the year 2026, when Lauren's Robledo community pretty much goes down the drain and becomes totally unprepared for the attack that will hit it in 2027 (14.1). This passage says that such disintegration or failure can be stopped by unifying forces. Lauren herself becomes the principal unifying force of the Earthseed community later in the novel.

We are Earthseed. We are flesh—self aware, questing, problem-solving flesh. We are that aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing. Earthlife preparing to fall away from the parent world. We are Earthlife preparing to take root in new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose, its promise, its Destiny. (2027.Verse)

This passage introduces the year 2027, when Lauren's Robledo community finally burns down, and when Lauren finds she must leave and establish a new community. What is it that enables her to achieve this remarkable feat? What is it that enables anyone to mature and fall away from their parent worlds? The verse emphasizes that Lauren—and all of us, as Earthseed—are fundamentally empowered problem solvers, people who can shape God (or reality, the world). Many do not view themselves as especially empowered or capable of altering their lives or societies, but over and over, Parable of the Sower shows that we have to view ourselves this way to even get very far off the ground.

It also seems to help Lauren that she has a vision of a particular Destiny lodged firmly in her mind, something that comes from her encounter with the story of the astronaut Alicia Catalina Godinez Leal (3.20). Lauren wants humanity/Earthlife to settle new homes in outer space. While stuff like building spaceships and obtaining rocket fuel is completely absent from Lauren's daily life, the imagery nevertheless is so powerfully motivating for her that she makes it a fundamental part of her Earthseed religion, even though it doesn't have that same sort of motive power for some of her followers.

"Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it's only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind." (18.50)

Lauren says this to Travis while discussing Earthseed with him. She's drawing a very sharp distinction between her religion and the belief systems of many others. As she also discusses at 2.43, lots of people are interested in worshiping a supernatural authority figure, a deity that exists in a hierarchy above human beings. But she says Earthseed is a way of addressing ongoing reality and daily life. From this point of view, worship is useless unless it's tied to action for problem solving. She suggests that worship might indeed have a particular use that ties it to action: it can be a helpful way of controlling your mind and focusing your efforts.

[Travis] had asked and asked me what the point of Earthseed is. Why personify change by calling it God? Since change is just an idea, why not call it that? Just say change is important.

"Because after a while, it won't be important!" I told him. "People forget ideas. They're more likely to remember God—especially when they're scared or desperate." (18.60-61)

Why not just say change is an important idea, something we should keep in mind? Why make this into a religion? Lauren's response is that people forget ideas. It seems she's arguing that ideas are just a bunch of words that go out the window once real trouble hits, when you become scared and desperate. Once that happens, then you look for God. Lauren thinks that when we get into that condition, we should remember that God is Change, something to be shaped.

"But tell me, what do people have to do to be good members of an Earthseed Community?"

[...] "The essentials," I answered, "are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny."

"And why should people bother about the Destiny, far-fetched as it is? What's in it for them?"

"A unifying, purposeful life here on Earth, and the hope of heaven for themselves and their children. A real heaven, not mythology or philosophy. A heaven that will be theirs to shape." (21.21-24)

This passage lays out two main ideas of Earthseed: 1) to belong to Lauren's ideal community, you basically need to help out with everyone's lives; and 2) the long-range goal or Destiny is to settle on other worlds in outer space. As for #2, the part of a religion that deals with the fate of humanity is called its eschatology. Lauren seems to think that she needs to have a destiny in mind if she wants to get people to even start go about doing #1. Is that true? Some characters disagree with her (e.g., 18.83). If everything changes, won't the Destiny change too?

God is Change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end. (24.2)

In this passage, Lauren is emphasizing that yep, God/change does win out in the end. That's what prevails. In other words, not even a prodigy such as Lauren can control everything. But, she argues, we're definitely empowered to at least significantly influence what happens: we have something to say about the whens and the whys.

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