"What if Mankind is not redeemable?
What if the individual person can find some redemption within their faith, but Man as a whole is a doomed and irretrievable, that there is something in our nature that will not let us survive? A troubling question, one of the many raised by Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz [Lippincott, 1959]. On its face, the story is a retelling of the Preservation of Knowledge In the Dark Ages tale, of a monastery in a New Dark Ages after the Bomb has destroyed civilization, but it is also a hard look at our first question. Miller's story is a hymn to the dogged, stubborn will of the human species and its accumulated knowledge to survive, even when our own self destructiveness leads us back to the Abyss.
The story unfolds in a monastery somewhere in what was once the American Southwest. Of particular interest to the monks is their own beloved St. Liebowitz, a paragon of past glory known by a grocery list found in the Ruins. A monk doing his time fasting in the desert stumbles upon a ruined bomb shelter, the very place where Liebowitz spent his last hours, uncovering a hoard of twentieth century relics and documents. The rest of the narrative follows these relics as they are studied by the monks and ultimately by outside scientists intent on rebuilding civilization. The circle comes fully around, and Mankind prepares yet another volley of destruction which will finally erase its presence on the planet. The monks, bound and determined to save Man's knowledge for the good of God's creation, head off to the stars to search for another Sanctuary, and a worthy recipient.
This is a very grim story, a depressingly pessimistic look at the warring creature that we are. But then there are the monks of St. Liebowitz, quietly fulfilling their vision of God's plan by doing what they can to keep the flickering light of Civilization burning, despite the evil that Man does and a world hellbent on destroying itself. They have a broad vision of the Kingdom of God that extends far beyond the boundaries of this planet. Miller is saying that, yes, man is a self destructive creature who may indeed be the agent of his own destruction, but the monks of St. Liebowitz are also part of this species. Miller has presented a dichotomy of secular, self destructive man and the visionary faith of the monks which mirrors the dichotomy of mind and soul. And, in this, Miller's vision of humankind has a small optimism, that the same species that would create a mass of people that seem incapable of a peaceful life has also created the vision of the monks, who are the aspect of Man that struggles to survive and wants to build a lasting and peaceful society."