A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller

Mary Doria Russell wrote in the introduction,

“I am sufficiently fed up with my species to share Walter Miller’s resigned amusement at this bleeding world, which would surely convince sentient vultures that God created it for them.”

The priest kept wondering how it was possible for such a youth (not particularly intelligent insofar as he could determine) to manage to find occasions or near-occasions of sin while completely isolated on barren desert, far from any distraction or apparent source of temptation. There should be very little trouble a boy could get into out here, armed as he was with only a rosary, a flint, a penknife, and a prayerbook.

IT WAS said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, 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.”

But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; earth shall be mine.

Historians list nothing but trivia.

When you tire of living, change itself seems evil, does it not? For then any change at all disturbs the deathlike peace of the life-weary.

“Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man. His dynasty is age-old. His right to rule is now considered legitimate. Past sages have affirmed it. They did not unseat him.

“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. A century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works.”

“And how will this come to pass?” He 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.”

Men must fumble awhile with error to separate it from truth, I think – as long as they don’t seize the error hungrily because it has a pleasanter taste.

They belonged to a race quite capable of admiring its own image in a mirror, and equally capable of cutting its own throat before the altar of some tribal god, such as the deity of Daily Shaving. It was a species which often considered itself to be, basically, a race of divinely inspired toolmakers; …

In was inevitable, it was manifest destiny, they felt (and not for the first time) that such a race go forth to conquer stars. To conquer them several times, if need be, and certainly to make speeches about the conquest. But too, it was inevitable that the race succumb again to the old maladies on new worlds,

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. 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.

Speak up destiny, speak up! Destiny always seems decades away, but suddenly it’s not decades away; it’s right now. But maybe destiny is always right now, right here, right this very instant, maybe.

From a distance, one’s adversaries seemed fiends, but with closer view, one saw the sincerity and it was as great as one’s own.

The trouble with being a priest was that you eventually had to take the advice you gave to others. Nature imposes nothing that Nature hasn’t prepared you to bear.

Ashamed of his fright, he tried to pray, but the prayers seemed somehow unprayerful—like apologies, but not petitions—as if the last prayer had already been said, the last canticle already been sung. The fear persisted. Why? He tried to reason with it. You’ve seen people die, Jeth. Seen many people die. It looks easy. They taper off, and then there’s a little spasm, and it’s over. 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?


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