On "A Canticle for Leibowitz"
July 28, 2022
Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a 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.
— Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
This quote from “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. stood out to me as a distillation of one of the main themes from the book; that destruction is as natural to humans as creation. The plot of this novel makes it seem that an advanced human culture will destroy itself with nuclear bombs as surely as it will become advanced enough to develop them. Humanity is trapped in an eternal cycle of blasting itself back to the stone age, then slowly crawling back towards enlightenment, again and again forever.
Another related philosophical musing expressed in this novel is that it is easier for humans to exist in a state of desperation; groping for survival and living in ignorance, wishing for a better future; that once we attain comfort and knowledge we are discontent with the present and are not sure why, so our only outlet is to lash out with destructive impulse. This novel was first published in 1959, when complete nuclear destruction was a very real and tangible danger. We have now survived long enough under “mutually assured destruction” that most of us don’t worry too much about this metaphorical Sword of Damocles above our head, though the possibility of nuclear apocalypse will never go away.
In some ways I think that new hazards have crept in to act as the fruit that entices us to destroy Eden. “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama, published in 1992, is mostly remembered these days as a distillation of the attitude that existed in the 1990s and 2000s that we had reached some end state of society; our Eden, or as close as we could expect to ever get to it. Capitalism and liberal democracy had won, and nothing would ever really challenge this staus quo again. That thesis has now unraveled so obviously that nobody claims we are at the “end of history” anymore, and this book is remarkable only for the hubris it embodied. Brexit, Trump, and the social and economic decline, perceived or real, that led to them are the most obvious events that signaled our latest attempts to kick apart Eden. Growing discontentment with capitalism and liberal democracy on both the left and right signal that even if things are pretty good overall compared to most of human history, we aren’t content. Take the rise of “doomers”, young people who feel a sense of overwhelming doom about the future, or MAGA types who lick their lips at the prospect of some kind of civil war, or people of all political stripes who seem to think that revolution (violent, bloody) is the only way to “fix” what we currently have. Maybe this wouldn’t be as totally destructive as a nuclear war, but I can’t imagine revolution as anything but a regression — the “kicking apart” stage of the civilizational lifecycle.
Maybe being happy with the current state of things is just hard. Maybe actually maintaining a good, stable society is hard too; harder than expecting what worked yesterday to work for us now. I don’t want to minimize or ignore that there are very real problems with the current state of things, and trying to improve them is a good idea, but current political appetites feel decidedly destructive. It’s hard for me to believe that we are still committed wholeheartedly to building upon what we have.
But we didn’t blow ourselves back to the stone age in the 50s and 60s. This fate turned out to be not quite as inevitable as “A Canticle” would seem to suggest. Similarly, I believe we are not doomed to reverse our progress through these other forms of destruction. We decide whether to live in our imperfect Eden or to kick it apart. We could work to address our very real problems: racism and other barriers to social harmony, increasing economic inequality, the very real decline in accessibility of some things once taken for granted as middle class inheritance such as home ownership, and our growing and varied environmental crises. We could agree that these problems exist and work together to fix them, but to do so we need to believe that decline is not inevitable, that the fate of Rome does not have to be our own, and that the future can be better than today. If the failure by “A Canticle for Leibowitz” to predict the nuclear holocaust tells us anything, it’s that this is indeed possible.