As an avid reader, one of my goals of late has been to brush up on some of the more classic sci-fi texts (The Foundation Trilogy, Ringworld, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? etc.). When I recently found a cheap copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz (hereafter ACFL), written by Walter Miller, at my local bookshop, I remember having heard of it, I snatched it up and took it right home. I just finished it last night and felt that it mandated some reflections on here. The book covers a lot of theological and philosophical themes, particularly the nature of Man and what is known as Eternal Recurrence.
To give a brief synopsis, ACFL covers three periods of time following the destruction of the majority of mankind in a nuclear war, referred to in the text as "The Flame Deluge." The story tells the reader, in parable form, about a group of wise men that developed destructive weapons and gave them to the Princes of Men though not with the intent to use. The idea was that the threat of such destruction would deter its occurrence much like the invention of the Doomsday Device in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove". The Princes do not heed the counsel of the Wise Men and attack one another with these weapons leading to the aforementioned Flame Deluge.
After "The Flame Deluge" where millions lost their lives, including many of the Princes, there followed a period called "The Simplification" wherein the general population declared that, because it was the Wise Men that gave the Princes the weapons in the first place, they and their teachings were to be destroyed leading to the lynching of many scientists and scholars and the burning of their writings. One such scientist, the titular Leibowitz, dedicated his life following "The Flame Deluge" to rescuing these works from the mobs and preserving them by burying them in the desert surrounding Utah and what I think is New Mexico (the book never specifies). He becomes a priest to continue his work and hide his true identity but is discovered, lynched and burned alive. The Order he founded before his death lives on carrying his namesake, his practice of preserving knowledge and whatever original works could be found. It is roughly twelve centuries following these events where the book begins, following the Order and its response to the world around it, as civilization goes through the same patterns and mistakes that led to its birth.
I'll be honest: this is a very depressing book. It never ends well for any of the characters (this is even pre-GoT) and it presents a very bleak outlook for the future of humankind. My beat-up copy even hails it as "prophetic," a foreboding adjective to use (though, fortunately, not all prophecies come to fruition... I pray). For Miller, we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over by the empowering tyrants, the toppling of tyrants leading to ages of enlightenment, ages of enlightenment leading to advances in science which inevitably leads to blowing ourselves up to smithereens. It's a rather grim picture of humanity, one that we find the echoes of throughout the years of philosophy, most strongly in reading Friedrich Nietzsche's (take a drink) concept of the Eternal Recurrence.
Though the idea of cyclical time is nothing new, consider Pythagoras, the Mayans, the Scandinavians (depicted in the Ourboros pictured above) and other civilizations' proposals of such a view, Nietzsche, in his classic method, discusses the concept in a rather proto-existentialist manner looking at the idea in the thought experiment in The Gay Science:
"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' "
The thought of not only the event of a nuclear war (swinging back to ACFL) not only occurring and wiping out humanity, but recurring due to the nature of man and the cycle of civilization, is enough to send me into a depressed catatonic state. The mass extinction of humanity at its own hands is an event standing ever so close to us; we literally have the ability to wipe ourselves clean off this planet. Nietzsche's statement (and his elaboration thereof in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra) pointing out that this could happen again and again doesn't bode well for my emotional state. It's as if any hope of humanity's improvement or progression is dashed with such an idea, as it certainly is within ACFL. We watch the events following man's downfall, his rise from the ashes, and ages of enlightenment, a testament to the great abilities of our species, as well as the rise of tyrants, war, and destruction, testaments to our very idiocy. It's not as though these moments in time are mulligans where we get a chance to do things differently; no, we are effectively going to keep fucking up and cleaning up the mess and fucking up over and over again.
What of the individual who encounters Nietzsche's (drink) demon who has this revelatory inquisition? She or he is but a grain of sand on the long beach that is time, barely a blip on the radar. What ability do they have to change the direction of this eternal recurrence, to perhaps convince humanity to divert its ways and stay the course? This is what Zarathustra was in Nietzsche's writings: an isolated madman (come too early?) to enlighten the people to the occurrences of events they almost certainly will repeat in future generations. Indeed, what do WE do if this is true? Nietzsche offers us but two choices: to gnash our teeth and bemoan our fate (in the worst of times), or to embrace this revelatory demon as a god and the revelation divine (in the best of times).
Nietzsche did offer a way to accept our fate in The Gay Science:
"My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it."
Fate is not a cruel mistress; really, it's no mistress at all. It is indifferent to us. As Death states in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (a quote we belabored in episode 4) we get what everyone else gets: a lifetime. All we can do is accept that, and love it. Yes, we will repeat it. Yes, we will fuck everything up, but... we will also right it. The life we get, either as individuals or a species, is just that: a life. It will be what we make of it.
Though never proven scientifically, (Nietzsche rebuffs simplification of the matter in Thus Spake Zarathustra but maintained the idea for its implications) it does carry great psychological and philosophical weight, and to look at history we do see humanity repeating itself. Empires rise and fall. Nations rise against nations and obliterate one another as they try to assert dominance. Even in the 21st century we witness the rise of tyrants in recent elections as we have in previous ones. To see humanity's long string of repeated blunders is to carry the greatest burden, but Carl Jung offers a possibility for relief by pointing out that though we are finite beings participating in infinite time life comes with the opportunity to change course, to learn from our mistakes and to push forward with that wisdom. Nietzsche is even cited as saying, "in an infinite period of time, every possible combination would at some time be attained."
I don't know that we've demonstrated that ability, though; civilization, even in its 10,000 year stretch, still remains young. Long-dismissed practices such as slavery still reemerge in new forms, such as the War on Drugs or the sweatshops of Asia. The ruling class might be toppled but the lower classes that achieved its demise merely take their place. The trouble is that, in our youth, we haven't made such a devastating mistake yet. ACFL only prophesies what could happen, and we stand in the age of Princes and Wise Men, standing on the shoulders of giants next to our fellow man with a loaded gun with the safety off, but our fingers are not on the trigger yet. What turn will the Ourboros take next? Will we continue to improve as a species, will we wipe ourselves out and start the process all over again or will we simply be the next species, on the long list of species, made extinct by homo sapiens?
Our demon does not offer us an answer. We can only continue ahead.