A couple of months ago I resolved to re-read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s science-fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. Faster than I usually follow up on nice ideas, I’ve done it.

Although Canticle is considered sci-fi (it won a Hugo Award in 1961), it’s equally a work of Roman Catholic theology — so steeped in the old liturgy that I had to keep my internet browser tabbed to Google Translate’s Latin-to-English function. The novel’s setting is a remote abbey in America’s southwest after a nuclear holocaust. The story, told in three parts, is about the abbey’s role in humankind’s recovery over the ensuing centuries.

You can still enjoy Canticle if you skim past the theology, but you’d miss the book’s point. Within his sweeping and often lyrical narrative, Miller returns repeatedly to the premise of original sin: that the pursuit of knowledge leads to calamity. Miller is not so naive as to think that if we renounce knowledge everything will be fine. Rather, free will consists of choosing between two bad alternatives: remain ignorant in bewildered suffering, or gain the knowledge to reduce suffering at the cost of self-destruction.

It’s an impossible dilemma, and consciously or not, the monks dedicating their lives to the Albertian Order of Leibowitz solve it as imperfectly as the rest of us. They live humbly and eschew the larger world, yet the purpose of their order is to preserve the scientific knowledge that started humankind on the path to nuclear disaster. It’s this frank acceptance of life’s contradictions, compromises, and futility that transmutes Miller’s science fiction into art.

Or does it? As Picasso said, art is “a lie that makes us realize truth.” Does Miller’s novel resound with truth?

The abbey of Monte Cassino, atop an imposing hill some 80 miles from Rome, was built in 529. During World War II, German artillery units dug into the hill and rained shells on Allied infantrymen struggling to advance north. Believing incorrectly that the Germans were firing from the abbey itself, on February 15, 1944 the United States Air Force sent bombers to drop tons of explosives on the ancient monastery, nearly obliterating it.

Monte Cassino after the bombing,

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was a tail gunner in one of the planes dropping bombs on Monte Cassino. Witnessing the destruction of the abbey haunted him for years and catalyzed the writing of his novel; humankind’s proclivity to labor for centuries building noble, even sacrosanct structures (both physical and metaphysical) only to destroy them in a flash was all too real for him.

But Montecassino (as it’s spelled today) has been rebuilt. And the Cold War, Canticle’s obvious context, ended with a whimper, not a thermonuclear bang. So was Miller wrong? Does Canticle for Leibowitz posit a false choice between the poisons of ignorance and knowledge?

I’d like to think so, even if that means Canticle isn’t art. To me the Garden of Eden story is just that — a story. I also like to think there are paths between ignorance and knowledge where we reduce suffering while successfully managing the harmful applications of our learning.

But what can I point to as proof that humankind has learned the lessons of Monte Cassino and the Cold War and overcome its self-destructive nature? Our response to COVID-19? Our response to climate change? There’s a reason Canticle for Leibowitz spans 1800 years: the arc of history is long, and it bends toward chaos and catastrophe. We build then destroy, build then destroy. So far we haven’t extinguished ourselves. But we need to get the cycle wrong just once for Miller to be right. Ergo, verum dicit.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.