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What is an Ivory Tower?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2016
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An ivory tower is used to represent a person aloof, or disengaged from the struggle and strife of the world. It is often applied to intellectuals and college professors, or simply to the extremely naïve, in a negative sense. The basic concept is that a person can theorize about the world all he or she wishes from the protective walls of a college, but that to live in it, without the benefit of an ivory tower, gives one a more realistic sense of how philosophy or art applies.

The term is first used in the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon. Solomon praised the neck of his beloved by comparing it to “a tower of ivory,” in 7:4. Homer uses a similar term in his Odyssey, discussing the fatuous nature of those who come from an ivory gate. Ivory may suggest one who is naïve, to Homer. On the other hand Solomon’s usage connects to purity and beauty.

In the 19th century, French poet, Charles-Augustin Saint Beuve, used the expression to criticize and compare Alfred de Vigny to Victor Hugo. Saint Beuve felt de Vigny had a certain naivety and removal from the world that Hugo fortunately was without. Hugo waded in the muck of it, while de Vigny “retired before noon” in his tour d’ivoire.

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It's clear that ivory is strong, rare, and pure. Although now, ivory often holds the connotation of elephant poaching, this would not have been a great concern to Saint Beuve. Ivory was associated with value, and not with the illegal ivory trade. The purity of ivory, and thus the ivory tower also expresses a certain youth or virginal quality, and again the term naivety. One who hides in an ivory tower is clearly one who lacks experience.

In present usage, an ivory tower represents a state of removal from the world. The person in the ivory tower fails to be touched by the realities of life and thus has a skewed or innocent perspective. Pronouncements from an ivory tower have little merit because they are not realistic.

One looks, for example, at the many celebrities who seem to effortlessly keep looking young and thin. If they question why it is not simple for others to remain thin or beautiful, the average person, who does not have access to things like trained dietitians, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons, often takes this with great annoyance. Attitude toward personal appearance from the celebrity is from an ivory tower of wealth and privilege restricted to the few.

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