The novel A Canticle for Leibowitz begins in the deserts of the American Southwest, some centuries after nuclear war devastates the earth. There, generations of Catholic monks copy and preserve the fragments of texts from earlier civilization that they themselves don’t comprehend.
Canticle may have been science fiction but it was inspired by a mix of history and the author’s experience. Walter Miller, Jr., took part in the American bombing of Monte Cassino Abbey, the birthplace of European monasticism fifteen centuries ago. After the war, Miller studied Latin and medieval history, and converted to Catholicism, though none of it was sufficient to save him from despair at the end of his life. It may be that he was haunted, like his fictitious Isaac Leibowitz, by his role in the destruction of civilization—in Miller’s case, a symbol of civilization, the abbey of Monte Cassino, the heart of medieval Christianity, which was destroyed in the most violent and consequential modern war.
In the years after the “Deluge Flame,” as the monks termed the nuclear war, the people blamed the scientists and learned men. The learned had, in turn, disparagingly called the mobs “bloodthirsty simpletons.” The mobs embraced the label. “Much wrath was kindled against the princes and the servants of the princes and against the magi who had devised the weapons.… [F]rom fear, the hate was born. And the hate said: Let us stone and disembowel and burn the ones who did this thing.”
The men of learning then took refuge in the monasteries and convents that remained in the Church, including the monastery of the former scientist Isaac Leibowitz, who had lived for several years with the Cistercians before forming his own order. He too was captured by the mob of simpletons, strangled, and burned alive. After the purge of the learned, the work of the monks continued through six centuries, while outside the world lay in darkness, “wherein ‘simpleton’ meant the same thing as ‘citizen’ meant the same thing as ‘slave.’” The cycle of progress and self-destruction recurs over centuries throughout the novel.
A sense of determinism looms over Canticle, as though material knowledge in the hands of humans will inevitably be wielded by those in power against all rivals for that power, despite the disastrous consequences for mankind. Perhaps, as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Man’s urge to master nature results in his dominance over others.
Of course, those in power cannot admit that humans have little mastery over nature; the mobs would become frightened and dangerous. So the mobs must be restrained, if necessary by deceit. Thus the noble lie follows a fatuous sense of noblesse oblige. In truth, of course, there is no nobility in it; elites defend their own interests. The harm from the pandemic and the government’s response to it is incalculable. Hundreds of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down, chronic loneliness and depression and adiposity rampant; spikes in child, spousal, and substance abuse; millions of once self-reliant citizens now dependent on the state. The lasting harm appears to have been dealt to civil society, especially religious institutions. The Christian faith that distinguished itself from cowering paganism during the plagues of antiquity shuttered its doors last year, a non-essential institution by all but its own admission; meanwhile, the sacrificial blood continued to flow at the altars of essential temples like Planned Parenthood. It may not be the post-apocalyptic savagery of Canticle, but it is unpleasant enough. At the center of this catastrophe was the ever self-possessed, putative man of science, Anthony Fauci.
One needn’t get too close to those in power to grasp how illusory power really is. A friend noted last year that he’s come to pity virtually everyone he sees on television. Who is more pitiable than Anthony Fauci of recent days? He was a paragon of self-mastery, the indispensable virtue in an age when one must be an actor to be an effective bureaucrat, and a bureaucrat to be a scientist—“the princes and the servants of the princes and…the magi.” Last year, one saw signs that read, “In Fauci we trust.” Now, amid heightened scrutiny, Fauci rebukes those who question him with the pronouncement that he is science incarnate: “Attacks against me are attacks against science.” Et Scientia caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. In the end, Fauci has no mastery over science nor public policy nor even himself. The only real power was exercised over his fellow citizens, which arose from their fear and was maintained through lies and half-truths he termed science.
Fauci’s fellow elites don’t need him anymore. Trump is gone, and trillions of dollars have been printed for Wall Street, the blob, and corporations, especially those whose interests are interwoven with the state, whose own power is substantially expanded. In the wealthiest—and whitest—Washington, D.C. suburbs, yard signs still remain to signal to any angry mob that might return. Fauci is expendable. A ruling class that knows how to benefit from every crisis is confident it can withstand whatever deluge may come.
It is of course likely that the ruling class will not only survive but continue to profit from every crisis that arises. But the unknown variable is how the children of the COVID generation respond. Children have a natural antipathy for lies. Today’s children have been frightened and deceived—by elites like Fauci, by their teachers, even by their parents. Elites will have to go to significant lengths to prevent today’s children from eventually learning that it wasn’t the science that dictated that they remain home and avoid friends and wear masks but mere fallible humans, perhaps with another agenda; that many rich and powerful elites benefitted from the pandemic shutdowns and the bailouts.
Many are likely to sooner or later rebel against the teachers who taught them that a person is good or evil on the basis of epidermal pigment or genitalia. They may also rebel against the parents who were either gullible or obsequious, for children often come to hate those who cannot protect them, much as they come to hate those who spoil them. It is they who may become the wrathful simpleton-citizens of Miller’s imagination, who will one day cry, “Let us stone and disembowel and burn the ones who did this thing.”
If that day ever comes, it’s unlikely the angry mob will find Anthony Fauci doing penance in a desert monastery.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow with the Philos Project. He previously served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.
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