On Arguing: What Can We Learn from the Great Debate?

When books begin to have a relevance beyond the initial context of their publication, that is when they become classics. With the coarsening of political discourse in recent years, my mind goes back to when I read Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate. Levin’s book is centred on Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, two of the eighteenth century’s most influential intellectuals and political actors. While they both took a similar stance on the American Revolution, their views diverged on the French Revolution. Paine viewed the storming of the Bastille with hope, and Burke with fear. Levin carefully and skilfully identifies the differences in elements of their philosophies, juxtaposing their views. Levin argues convincingly these differing philosophies became the foundation for the left/right divide we see in modern politics to this day. As Levin shows, both men held coherent and internally consistent views of the world. Paine believed that society could be rebuilt based on man’s nature; Burke that societies must evolve and build on what was left by their forebears. Paine sought to recover natural liberties; Burke wanted to defend the natural order. Paine urged others to exercise their right to choose how they lived their lives; Burke exhorted others to fulfil their obligations towards society. Paine implored his fellows to use their reason to guide their actions; Burke warned of deluding oneself into a false sense of enlightenment. Paine believed that no one was bound to their past; Burke that people must respect the experience of their ancestors. Paine ultimately believed in revolution, and Burke in gradual reform.

The debate between the two was fierce. Burke expressed fear that, should the Revolution find its way across the Channel, the revolutionaries would “exhume his body from its resting place to make an example of their staunch opponent”. Paine feared a similar fate. Both men debated openly through the medium of print, and produced substantial written works. The time taken to write, rewrite, and publish meant that both were able to develop their ideas to a quality that exceeded that at their immediate conception. Unlike today, where it is far too easy to Tweet or comment at the behest of one’s emotions, the avenue of publication forced both to think seriously about their arguments. The result is Burke’s masterful Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s controversial and undoubtedly influential Rights of Man. Both were harshly criticised for their views, Burke by his former allies, and Paine by the British government (Paine fled Britain following the enactment of a proclamation against seditious writing). The legacy of both men lives on, not just in the left/right divide, but in the philosophies that underpin Western political parties. As Levin reminds us, today “we hear echoes of a deeper debate that we easily mistake for remnants of an argument between capitalism and socialism, or for faint precursors of a long-predicted ultimate clash between religious traditionalism and secular cosmopolitanism”. These debates go far deeper, so Levin argues, to the foundations laid by Burke and Paine.

How can we navigate the world left for us by these “ideological titans”? An answer may lie in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. This book provides an effective roadmap towards clear thinking, meaningful debate, and a way out of the deep division that those of us living in western democracies have found ourselves in. Sinnott-Armstrong shows us the logical foundations of good argument. He gives us pitfalls to avoid: don’t characterise your opponent as crazy or deluded, and don’t reduce yourself to name-calling. Be aware of your psychological blind spots (as Sinnott-Armstrong demonstrates, we all have them). Consider the meaning of your words, and evaluate your own arguments as you would others. At its heart, Think Again is a call to civility. It deals with its subject matter with clarity, not just teaching the reader how to construct an argument, but instilling in them the values that make arguing effective. It demonstrates the importance of deep questioning and developing understanding.

What can we learn from the Great Debate and from ‘thinking again’? One important lesson is to take the time to nuance your arguments, flesh out your philosophies, and build your foundations. Find out who you are and where you stand (and why) before your commit yourself to persuading others to join you. Perhaps we can learn also to step back from the fervour and emotion that defines moments of change. Indeed, here lies the fundamental lesson: treat your opponent with respect. Ponder if it really makes sense to think of them as your ‘opponent’. Remember that you are trying to persuade them, not ‘destroy’ them. Know that your opponent is capable and intelligent enough to be persuaded. Be sympathetic to their position; don’t attribute anything to malice that might otherwise be attributed to misunderstanding. Importantly, come into the discussion with an open mind: allow yourself to be persuaded. A debate is an opportunity to learn as much as it is an opportunity to educate. Both the flaws and strengths of Burke and Paine’s ‘Great Debate’ has shown us that. Like all good books, the work of Levin and Sinnott-Armstrong can provide us with a means of navigating our way through whatever Great Debates the future may have in store.

Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York: Basic Books, 2014), pp. 304.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (UK: Pelican Books, 2018), pp. 304.


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