Here are five interesting and/or influential debates throughout history- with a bias towards the twentieth century (due to availability of information).
1. Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley
Both of these men were iconoclasts. Gore Vidal was easily one of the greatest essayists of all time. He was a public intellectual renowned for his wit, novels, satires, and commentary.
William F. Buckley is the "Godfather" of the modern American conservative movement, and was emblematic of conservative intellectual thought in the 20th century.
The two were tapped by ABC for 10 televised debates during the Republican and Democratic National conventions of 1968.
With the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago, now dubbed a "police riot", things got heated.
In this infamous clip, Vidal refers to Buckley as a "crypto-nazi", and Buckley has a colorful response for him.
2. The Catiline Orations
The Catiline Orations are notable because they are one of the best surviving records of the Roman Republic. They consist of four arguments Cicero made before the Roman Senate, accusing fellow Senator Lucius Sergius Catiline of plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Catiline had been putting together plans along the lines of "armed uprisings in Italy and arson in Rome".
After the plot was exposed, the alleged conspirators were brought to the Senate to have their punishment discussed. Ironically, it was Julius Caesar who spoke against their execution. While accepting their guilt, he argued against executing the men without a trial. At this stage in his career, Julius Caesar apparently thought highly of the traditions of the Republic. To the future Emperor's dismay, the accused were executed.
Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault were the world's leading intellectuals when they were invited to appear on Dutch T.V. in 1971. The purpose was to discuss human nature, and whether it is separate from our own experiences.
The Amazon editorial for the book containing a transcript of the event describes it as "one of the most original, provocative, and spontaneous exchanges to have occurred between contemporary philosophers, and above all serves as a concise introduction to their basic theories."
Amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of the Cold War, in 1958, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. agreed on opening national exhibitions to showcase the culture of the other side.
Before the Moscow exhibition was officially opened, future U.S. president Richard Nixon served as the host for Soviet premiere Nikita Krushchev's visit.
Krushchev voiced his disdain for the American technology on display. After trading barbs, the two had a short argument over the merits of both Capitalism and Communism. The discussion took place in the kitchen of a model home that was part of the Moscow exhibit. Reporters caught all of it, and the next day it was covered extensively in American newspapers.
William F. Buckley could probably appear on this list a couple more times. He is the most influential conservative intellectual of the 20th century. But, in Cambridge, England, in 1965, he met James Baldwin.
James Baldwin was an African American poet and social activist. Buckley showed tenacity, but his one liners have been widely considered to have taken second place to Baldwin. The question put fourth for the debate was "has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?"