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Right in the Middle: Two Concepts of Centrality

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

I shall argue for a distinction made between two concepts of centrality. Both are rather metaphorical but whereas the first is best captured by a concrete symbol, the heart, the second is more abstract and geometrical, to be captured as the “line between.”

I further try to show how they may be interpreted as representations of two strands in the political or, more generally, in the collective thinking of the Western tradition. By referring to collective thinking, I wish to broaden the usually highly abstract perspective of academic political philosophy. For such thinking is scarcely done in scientific terms and concepts but more often in metaphors, images, symbols. Thomas Hobbes was very much aware that the concept of the sovereign needs a powerful image to understand, and he instructed Abraham Bosse how to design it. The resulting title page of the book, with Leviathan, the mortal god, is perhaps a better argument than half a dozen pages from the same book. In times of prevalent illiteracy, images, pictures, statues, coats of arms, costumes, and dynamic images like processions and marches have been an even more important source of inspiration and explanation in collective thinking.

When it comes to understanding the mental representation of space, we are somewhere between direct, self-evident analogies and abstract symbols. On the map, the forest is green, the sea is blue, but cities are represented by little circles and names. Country boundaries belong to this type, but our direct imagination forces us to see more than abstract lines and even more than symbols. We try to make sense of what emerges from the map, a literal picture, such as the Old Lady of England, the Italian Boot, the Spanish Flag, the Russian Bear, or the Balkans as the Soft Underbelly of Europe. The map begins to live.

The concept of centrality is a peculiar one. It is also highly abstract, yet it is also very direct. When we look at things, images, pictures, we always concentrate on the center, the middle of the thing, convicted that its essence is to be found exactly there. It may be a consequence of our anatomy, but it has its own consequences, namely, to be interested in what there is front of us. And what there is there, is condensed in its center. The essence is also the heart of the matter.

The thinking and style of politics that is concerned with the center as the essence of something has obviously Roman roots. Cicero describes Rome as something unique, one and unrepeatable. This is a city that gradually loses its territorial boundaries, ceases to be a city state, and becomes an empire with the city as its essence, its heart. By growing, it fulfills its mission, which is nothing else but to make the Earth its body. The center is the essence, but since it is essence, it must be present in every part of the empire. And if it is good for mankind to live in an empire, it must be both perfect and natural. In the age of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, the lines of the empire were finalized. On land and on sea, the empire had by that time an approximately equal distance to both west and east, and to both north and south. The world is inside and the Pantheon, the symbol of heaven, with a perfectly designed dome that is but the upper half of a perfect sphere, re-erected. All the gods live in Rome, the caput mundi, over which the Capitolium presides, the seat of the final authority over the world. The idea that perfection and fullness is best expressed architecturally by domes has continued to be cherished by Greek Christianity, with the fine dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as its paradigm example.

Besides spheres and domes, the idea of being round, rotundus, conveys the same sense of spatial perfection. In French, arrondir, and in German, abrunden, are verbs that refer to making a territory round, whole, potentially self-sustaining. The Garden of Eden is the lost center of the Earth as we read in the Genesis: “out of the ground the Lord God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden.” This is the garden that has occupied the imagination of Jews, Christians and Moslims alike for centuries. Thus, besides the Roman tradition there is another ancient tradition of the world having a holy center. Making our own small worlds round which presupposes finding a center is always an attempt to find peace and tranquillity, wholeness and oneness. My own Hungarian tradition has ever been extremely strong on this count, to the point of some silliness expressed in the proverb “Extra Hungariam non est vita, si est vita, non est ita”—that is, “Outside Hungary there is no life, and if there is, it is not it”—not the real one. Silly as it sounds, the point in it is that this country has been somehow perfectly designed by nature, with the semi-circle of the Carpathian Mountains representing the natural boundaries of the old Hungarian Kingdom.

Let me dwell a bit more on the idea of authority, which, I contend, is also strongly tied to the center as essence. An authority is something that does not need to justify itself. Its very existence is its justification. “I am who am”—as we read in the Bible, possibly the most forceful assertion of authority one can think of. Similarly, Rome does not need a justification. You can raise many arguments for Rome’s being the most competent ruler of the world, but arguments can always be defeated by better arguments that might favor another ruler. In fact, arguments just provoke other candidates. But Rome invented the idea of authority, which is both peaceful and imperial, that is, eternal and all-inclusive. Hence, in the final instance, the world can be ruled only in the name of Rome. This is why every empire tried to rule in the name of Rome. Only the Roman Empire makes sense. And we have had the Second Rome in Constantinople and the Third Rome, in Moscow; the Pantheon and the Arch of Triumph in Paris; the Welthaupstadt Germania, to replace the old Berlin with Roman architecture; the plan of Washington by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, which follows the design of Rome; or the lesser known symbolism of Romania as the heir of the Roman Empire (with hundreds of replica of the Lupa Capitolina in many provincial towns).

Empires have heart-like centers. Hence, their death is also highly symbolical. Hearts must be pierced. By a quick and lethal stab the whole empire expires. The first bombs were dropped on Berlin as early as August 25, 1940, obviously less with purpose of causing damage to and wounding the Third Reich than of letting it taste the flavor of death. This was also an important reason behind the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo, and it has been undeniably at work behind many terrorist attacks, including the one against New York, with that incredible and cruel moment of the planes jabbing right in the middle of the heart. Such kind of death is an expression of a wish, of an idea that is a clear reflection of the concept of the center as essence and the only effective argument against an authority: do not be!

Hobbes’s Leviathan is often said to be such an authority, although it is justified by one of the most original argumentations ever outlined in political philosophy. But the identity of the Leviathan is astonishingly hollow. There is no such thing as the center or essence of the Commonwealth. Although Hobbes talks about collective personality, and the title page depicts a king, the Leviathan has no any natural attributes of personhood. It is not recognizable as country on the map, since it has no boundaries, no location in time and space. There is only one attribute it shares with human beings, and this is, pace Hobbes, the will.

The will cannot be linked to any natural feature of the person. We have thoughts, emotions, desires, intentions, but there is no need to add another capacity to make these qualities work. But even those who assert its existence cannot say anything more about it but that the will is our faculty to decide, to choose, to say yes or no. The will is “the” either/or. Thus, if the will is the center of our personality, it cannot be illustrated by the image of a heart. It is, rather, a line.

We have arrived at the second concept of centrality, which is best represented by a dividing line. Whereas the concept of the center as essence or heart is closely related to the idea of authority, the concept of the center as a dividing line is related to the idea of power. For will and power are intimately related. Long discussions in political theory have been devoted to the problem of how to make sense methodologically of the distinction between having and exercising power. I cannot go into details and merely assert that power must be exercised, sooner or later, otherwise its possession may become a mere illusion. This would be, however, contrary to its essence. This is why willing is intrinsically action-oriented. Only the will can launch actions, and power is manifested in actions. And it is mainly by acting that the will can assure itself that it exists. I act, therefore I will—I will, therefore I act.

But acting is causing change, making a difference to the world. Power relations are, thus, constantly shifting. While Rome has ever remained Rome, the unique and unrepeatable authority that could only be usurped or inherited, as we have seen in the idea of a Second and Third Rome, the seat of power is never determined. The history of the emerging nation states of Europe illustrates this very well. And by the 17th century, the idea of power balance had taken firm roots in European political thinking. The image of balance is basically the expression of the center as a dividing line. Though the center as such is empty, as a line it is effective and sometimes remarkably durable. Upholding a balance between opposing, if not antagonistic, forces, requires much effort, action, and a keen sense of power, of interests, of points of view, of dimensions, of various concerns.

Such a balance-thinking recurs in the political doctrine of checks and balances, often embodied in architectural designs. The way the Capitol and the White House are related on L’Enfant’s plan is but a repetition of how the Roman Capitolium was related to the Saepta Iulia where the people cast their votes. The seat of authority is counterbalanced by the seat of power. Thus, in the end, we get the surprising result that Rome, the only empire, the unique center of the political world, rests on a division, on a line that is empty. There is, it seems now, no such thing as Rome. Only Senatus Populusque Romanus exists. Or—exist.

I do not think that either conclusion—namely, that Rome is one and that Rome is two—is entirely right. Most probably, neither can stand without the other. On the one hand, the concept of the center as essence or heart, if taken too seriously, leads us to a futile pursuit of the real core. But the space in the very heart of the thing is reduced to a spaceless point. That is, to naught. On the other hand, a line in itself is also nothing. It must divide but also connect entities having a center, and to make them a persistent and successful new entity. Mere power balances are insufficient. A new heart is needed. Divisions cannot be healed simply by will, for the will is always dividing. Without a will, the heart is empty. Without a heart, the will is nothing.

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