“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)
For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”
Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …
Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.
One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men