The one-time Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart captured intellectual hearts and minds with his reasoned brand of centrist politics. So with the country reeling from Conservative MPs’ decision to oust their leader and begin the hunt for a new prime minister, what better time for the former international development secretary to launch a Radio 4 series on the history of argument?
Argument is, Stewart says, what makes us human. It is the foundation of democracies (“parliament” means “talking shop”), the cornerstone of our legal system, the way we pursue knowledge and understand one another. But, he warns, argument can also be dangerous, sowing division and obscuring rather than revealing truth. The future of democracy “may depend on rediscovering how to argue well”.
If you’re unsure what that means, Stewart has an excellent line-up of guests to explain – a classicist, a philosopher, a barrister – and two school debating champions from Liverpool. They discuss Cicero and Aristotle (Stewart helpfully outlines rhetorical techniques such as anadiplosis, anaphora and ascending tricolon), interspersed with clips from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” speech and even the American rapper Tupac. It’s all very eclectic, and highly entertaining.
But there’s a serious point to all this. A good argument is not just about persuading the other person, but about openness to being persuaded yourself. It requires empathy, respect and trust. Without those fundamentals, rhetorical flourishes distract rather than enlighten. Fine words “have to be combined with wisdom and a concern for morality”.
That might sound idealistic in an era of online echo chambers, and Stewart can at times seem like a figure from a past age, when debate was more civil and politics less contentious. But maybe there is a way to channel our inner Cicero and make argument great again. We’ll have to wait until the final episode to find out how.
The Long History of Argument
BBC Radio 4, Tuesdays from 19 July, 9am
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant