I was watching a documentary on Carthage the other night. Do you know about Carthage? It was the Mediterranean empire that existed just before Rome came into power. It was the home of Hannibal. It was where he launched his attack on Italy in an attempt to debilitate Rome.
Most people, though, with the exception of having heard about a few items in a history book, do not know much about Carthage. Most people know about Hannibal, but few probably know that he came from what is modern day Tunis. Few people know what happened to Carthage, fewer know that it was razed by the Roman navy. Little remains of the once great capital city. Like Troy before it, Carthage was merely a glimmer in the memory of history. The Romans, not ones to let a dead empire stay dead, made stories of how the Carthaginians burned their children in sacrifice. The Romans attempted — and for thousands of years succeeded at — blemishing the name of Carthage. Rome made the world remember Carthage not as the great and prosperous empire they were, but instead as a savage and brutal people.
This, we know, is not the case. We know now that the stories told by Rome were rumors meant to discredit their enemy. We know now that the Carthaginians were prosperous, intelligent, and powerful.
However, because of how totally the Romans destroyed and absorbed Carthage, we did not know these things until archaeologists started to reconstruct their empire. The example of Carthage reminds me of many other examples throughout history. The library of Alexandria, Troy, nearly the whole of Amazonian and American Indian cultures. All of these are examples of the loss of not only life but culture as well.
We live in a time now where it is almost unthinkable that anything would disappear. We have books, magazines, DVDs, thumb drives, the internet! How could we ever lose anything in today’s day and age at the scale of the Library of Alexandria?
But think back 50 years. Think back to book burnings by the Nazis. Think to this day and age, where entire countries block out pieces of information. Today marks the anniversary of Tiananmen Square — but you would not find a mention of it anywhere in China (and, now, you probably won’t be able to find this blog post in China, as well). Think of Islamic radicals who burn and destroy works that aren’t inline with what they believe to be within their very limited views of Islamic law. Think of groups of worried parents that ban books from school libraries, or radical Christians burn copies of books that they do not agree with.
There are those of us who believe that the idea of destroying works, of obliterating cultures, is all a part of the past. That in today’s world we would not allow any information to disappear. That what we have today will last forever.
However, what we have today is just as fleeting as what the Carthaginians had, just as fleeting as the cultures that the Amazonians and American Indians had, just as fleeting as the Library at Alexandria. Yes, it would be much more difficult to destroy. It would take much longer, but there is the possibility that it can all fade away into the annals of time.
So why create, why take anything in? Why make anything, if you risk it being destroyed by time. Why take in the works of your time, if they will only matter to you and your immediate surroundings?
Because that is what is important. We read and write and view, in order to escape from the here and now, or in order to understand it better. We do not do so thinking that our works will last into future generations. We do not read a book thinking that our offspring generations down the road will understand it as we do. We do not write a book or make a movie thinking of what people a thousand, or even a hundred, years from now will think of it.
Reading, listening, viewing, writing, painting, creation in general — these are all selfish acts. I don’t think the people of Carthage, before their empire was destroyed and assimilated by the Romans, created and took in culture in hopes that it would last through the generations. I think that they took it in for their own immediate enjoyment.
Those of us in the future may want the works of Carthage, the Library of Alexandria, the writings of Troy, all to still exist. But, in truth, do we care if what we make today exists for those who live a thousand years in the future?
I’m not sure that we do.
But we should. We should care that what we do today lives on into the future. We need to strive for future civilizations to know who we were. We need to work to not be forgotten like Carthage, or the library, or the American Indians. We must work in order to be remembered. Even the bad, the discrimination, the book burning, needs to be remembered. We need to pass on our successes and our failings.
Just think of where we could be today if we had all of the accumulated knowledge of ages before us. Think of where we could be if we did not vindictively destroy, or if we did not selfishly learn and create for only the here and now.
If we start to care more about making sure to pass on our culture, instead of just working in order to enjoy it ourselves, think of what we could pass on. And how much it could aid the future.