life in an ivory tower

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an ivory tower as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”; the Merriam-Webster as “a secluded place that affords the means of treating practical issues with an impractical often escapist attitude.” These definitions also describe the apex of a Maslow hierarchy of needs. If the occupants of an ivory tower lacked for water, food, clothing or shelter, they would not be separated from practicalities. They must be secure from attack, have enough money and access to doctors. They have at least each other’s companionship and might expect mutual esteem. Others less fortunate might disparage them, but their envy is mixed with grudging admiration.

Humanity throngs the various levels of the Maslow hierarchy. Most of us have no choice but to deal with the facts and practicalities of the real world. But that ‘real world’ is predominantly the ‘human world’: our ways, our rules, our systems dominate people’s lives. Apart from a tsunami or an earthquake, Nature no longer holds sway over us: we are elevated above other animals into a privileged seclusion and separation from the Natural world.

It seems then that we all live in an ivory tower: our human world is an ivory tower in which some are separated from need, but all are separated from Nature; it is not Nature but we who determine who lives and dies, and how we live and how we die.

Unlike the Maslow hierarchy, our ivory tower has a basement, and it is packed with wretches who lack even the basics of life. In the floor above are the poor, prey to violence and disease. Above them are those who enjoy healthcare and safety, but who suffer from the loneliness, the strains and dislocation of modern life. Within view of the apex are those who would appear to have everything, but feel they are neither seen nor admired enough. Those in the bright and airy apex lack for nothing. Through luck and perhaps hard work, because of talent and good guidance, supported by the labour of the people below, they can seek to become the best they can be: to create and think, to gaze out from the tower—deep into the heavens or under the sea; into the mysteries of material reality or pure mathematics; into the past, and even into the future.

But ivory is ripped from elephants, walruses and narwhales. Look closer at our tower. Beneath its gleaming surface are dead forests and ash, the remains of extinguished species, metals gouged from land wounds that weep poison, living soil turning to dust in the sun—all saturated with thick black oil and choked with plastic. We take more of everything to build the tower higher, whatever the cost. While some of us plan to reach heaven, others struggle, dog-eat-dog, to climb up towards the promise of the apex that glares from their screens. Up there, the fortunate indulge their appetites, lost in dreams of greatness and power, blinded by utopian visions; and most who peer down see an Earth as flat and remote as if viewed from an aeroplane window.

While we obsess over the strife and chaos in the tower, its foundations fail. What if our tower falls? Too many of us have now climbed so high that, even if we descend, we no longer have the skill and resilience to survive on the lower floors. Besides, the ravaged world outside cannot support our multitude.

We have but one resource that has any chance to save us: the people in the apex. For good or ill, what we call civilization—our technology, our art, our science, our philosophies—originates* there. We have despoiled the Earth to raise millions into privilege that not even kings dreamed of. An ocean of educated minds with access to godlike freedoms and powers and knowledge. If only we could put aside our vanity and petty rivalries and together save what we can while we still can.

Years ago friends christened my apartment in Edinburgh the Ivory Tower. Rather than fight this, I embraced it, and still use the domain ivorytower.co.uk.

*see exchange below with Angeline



10 thoughts on “life in an ivory tower

  1. I read Ivory tower as something different due to a recent experience. Three years ago I met somebody who lived in what his close friends called his ‘ivory tower’. I became friends with this person and circumstances drew us ever close together over the period of a year, to the point where because we lived a matter of yards away I offered to be a emergency key holder. I was keen to do this on the basis that his health wasn’t always great both physically and mentally and I was concerned as there seemed to be nobody else in his life who would/could be there in quite the same way I could in an emergency. He obviously didn’t want to do this. The ivory tower by the way is a tatty one bed room flat up four flights of narrow stairs in a Victorian house, nothing worth stealing unless you know anything about vinyl collections and rented not owned.He works as a not well paid bank clerk and though very intelligent not especially well educated in the arts and humanities.At the end of the year we’d fallen in love, or to put it more precisely found the courage, him before more me found the courage to declare it. Not easy as I am a man living with HIV, 21 years his senior living in a long dead emotionally but legal civil partnership. He a man in his mid thirties never in a relationship that went beyond months, the last two a twenty two year old boy and a woman. So I’m finally given a set of keys to the ivory tower, a place I said I wouldn’t actually couldn’t for health reasons live with him in. So he had to climb down. I at first did not understand fully or appreciated how hard this must have been for him. I gave him a much better place to live on paper with my divorce settlement and financial prowess that he did not have. We are now husband’s, an unlikely couple but people, strangers come up to us to talk about how we are obviously meant’ to be. Fairy tale ending, and I use to be jealous that he still missed his ivory tower, what more could he want? That was until I fully understood his mental health, the flat was his safe place, it had a view of the sea he loves, watch for wild life etc Truth is Aspergers but never correctly diagnosed.On pure instinct, sense of survival he created an ivory tower to live in. Not a social/economic thing,just one persons reality. A reality that is experienced all over the world regardless of economic or intellectual status. Hope Ricardo this contributes something.

    1. that is a beautiful and moving story, thank you for sharing it. It seems to me that our ivory towers are the same, for my understanding is that we are all imprisoned in it.

      what you describe parallels a fairytale, where a person is imprisoned in a tower—Rapunzel say—to protect them from the world. In such stories the prisoner is often freed by a lover 🙂

  2. This is a very useful image for considering our relationship to each other and to the rest of the natural world, though I’m not so sure that every step of it holds.

    For one thing, the suggestion that we decide how we live and die, rather than nature, could only have been written by a healthy person: the most fundamental fact about us is that we all live in mortal bodies and all are at the mercy of those bodies to varying degrees, no matter our wealth. And for the people at the bottom of the tower, that’s the only mercy there is, because the very construction of the tower prevents their accessing the healthcare that those of us at the pinnacle enjoy. (And even at the pinnacle, it’s possible to be in hell.)

    What this innate human vulnerability SHOULD do is make our society more concerned with embodiment and the fact we share it with each other and with other creatures; what it does in practice is to make our suffering the subject of a financial tug of war which reinforces the tower further. The things that we have made, whether physical structures or systems, are self-reinforcing in harmful as well as beneficial ways.

    I think the key point you make is that the people higher up in the tower are /supported by the labour of the people below/, and that’s part of the reason I would actually argue that the people at the apex are not the source of our civilisation: I think it’s the other way round; it is something that has been built (and continues to be reinforced) from the ground up.

    But don’t mistake the fact that I challenge you on these points for broader disagreement: I think the perspective you offer here is extremely useful…

    1. I don’t feel that we disagree when it comes to mortality. Though illness and disability is clearly in the body, and that body is natural and part of Nature, it is—as you say—the availability or not of healthcare that determines outcomes. So people survive with conditions that, had they been in Nature unmediated by the human world, they would have died. On the other hand, many of the illnesses and conditions that we suffer from are direct consequences of living in the human world. Thus my comment “it is not Nature but we who determine who lives and dies, and how we live and how we die.”

      And you’re right to call me out on the issue of just how the apex ‘originates civilization’. First of all can I point out that I didn’t say the ‘people in the apex’ but that ‘civilization originates in the apex’. Civilization originates in the apex and outside it—throughout humanity. But it seems to me that it is the existence of the apex that is the cause. Before we had ivory towers there was no civilization per se—that is (by definition) something that comes about with cities. The apex originates civilization by providing a cause, a market for it. The individual civilized element may be architecture, art, law etc, it is the apex and the people in it who cause these things to come into being, but the people who invent, create or make these things could be from any part of the tower. Pharaoh may order a pyramid, but the architect who designs it could be of common stock and so also the craftsmen who shape the blocks—and certainly the people who drag the blocks are unlikely to be of the elite. All contribute, but there would be no pyramid without Pharaoh.

      1. That all makes a lot of sense. If only I had something equally sensible to reply to it (alas, brainfog), but yes, I think the pyramid is a good illustration…

  3. I absolutely agree that we need to save what we can while we still can. So glad to hear I’m not alone with that feeling. You’re right that Ivory is not or no longer an image that conjures peaceful heights of beauty but is much more associated in my mind with brutality. I never looked at the expression critically before.
    On another point I’m not sure I completely buy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I don’t think its true we only start to care about live after safety etc, I think there are at least examples that could count against that.

    1. I see the Maslow hierarchy merely as a formalisation of what seems to me a basic truth of the human condition: that if you lack some basic need, that need tends to become a fixation. In the case of something like pain — I recall when I last dislocated my shoulder and my humerus poked up in front of my shoulder — that we revert to a much more ‘animal’ mental state and, certainly, it is hard at a time like that to consider philosophical conjectures.

      1. Oh absolutely. Pain can really throw you back into your body as can hunger etc. I was mainly thinking about research I read about life expectation in deprived areas where people in the exact samen physical situation had much better outcomes because one neighbourhood had much more social cohesion than the other one, which seems to suggest that the needs might be paralel rather than stacked. But I agree that constant worry about money or fear can wear a person down to where other things don’t matter.

        1. I am not myself entirely convinced by the stacking in the Maslow hierarchy. It may make sense as a ‘statistical’ representation: that, on average, more people have access to food than to personal safety; that if you don’t have food, you are unlikely to be safe—if only because everyone around you will do anything to get some food.

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