Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace January 13, 2009

On the eve of my brief return to England I took a break to watch Amazing Grace, a historical drama based on the life of William Wilberforce, a young British politician as he fought to end England’s slave trade.

It was a great movie. Great for its portrayal of the zest and zeal of a young politician plagued with a conscience that overruled any question of political posturing. Driving himself to sickness, infamy, and away from those all too willing to compromise, Wilberforce struggled forth.

It is refreshing to see a movie of a do-gooder finding success against great odds. It is a lesson to us all of the potential alive in our lives, to go beyond just being, just getting by, just having fun, to a life filled with service and meaning.

It is also worth noting, in passing, as I near a talk on Buddhist and Kantian Ethics that both Kant and the Buddha might have disapproved of Wilberforce, each in his own way. Kant, from his home in Konigsburg, Prussia, was woefully ignorant of the nature of both Africans and Native Americans, thinking them, quite incorrectly, as being simply inferior and incapable of the rationality which would afford them moral worth. Here a graduate student paper explores his statements and their implications. Similar cases have been brought against Kant for his views of women.

The work of philosophers today, however, is often to “separate the wheat from the chaff” of their predicessors, recognizing and condemning Kant’s racism and sexism while finding the many valuable parts of his philosophy. Contemporary philosophers have found a great deal of value in his philosophy, working continuously to adapt it to contemporary understandings of the world. Two such philosophers are Allen W. Wood and Christine Korsgaard. You will find several papers on the websites of each worth reading, including discussions that extend Kant’s philosophy of moral worth into the animal realm.

The Buddha’s objection might come by way of urging William, at his time of conversion, to actively pursue a life of quietude and meditation much like his own. Instead Wilberforce was advised to follow his political path by his priest, John Newton (author of the song, “Amazing Grace“), here played by Albert Finney.
Of course the Buddha did consult kings and others, and many became lay followers, simply taking the lessons of the Buddha back into their lives. So perhaps our John Newton and the Buddha were more alike than I first suspected. Here is a story of one such king, Pasenadi. The ending gave me chills a bit as it relates so closely to the unhealthy strategies of some contemporary world leaders.

Alright – off to sleep, then travels and England. More from there soon. Happy and safe travels to you all, be they great or brief.

* image source.

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