Anton Wilhelm Amo was an African born in Axim (in today’s Ghana). He was raised in the household of the dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel and studied and taught philosophy at German universities, where he became embroiled in bitter philosophical debates that reached well beyond the ivory tower. Authorities and critics eventually made his position so uncomfortable that he returned to Axim around 1747. During his time in Germany, his African heritage seems to have remained important to him, and it certainly was a factor in the opportunities and limits that shaped his career.
The passage here, a dedication for Amo’s dissertation “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind,” illustrates how his African heritage was deployed to praise him. University leaders write the philosopher Amo into a tradition of African intellectual genius that continued to enrich Europe into their present day.
To the benevolent reader, the Rector and the Council of the University of Wittenberg extend a cordial welcome
In the past, the veneration given to Africa was enormous, whether for its natural genius, its appreciation for learning, or its religious organization. This continent nurtured the growth of a number of men of great value, whose genius and assiduousness have made an inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs and, much more, to the knowledge of divine things. From memory, no one has ever been judged better informed in matters of daily life, nor more a man of refined manners, than Terence of Carthage. Plato himself was reborn in the Socratic interventions of Apuleius of Madaurus. His discourses were so well received in centuries past that learned men were divided into two camps: that of Apuleius contended with that of Cicero for the first prize in eloquence. And in the development of Christian doctrine, how many were its promoters who came from Africa! Only to speak of the greatest of them, let us cite Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Optatus, Augustine, whose disputed with candor across the full range of the knowledge they had acquired. Monuments, facts, martyrs, councils, all proclaim the fidelity and constancy with which these African doctors labored for the preservation of the integrity of what is sacred. In fact, to suppose that the African church only ever made concessions is to do it an injustice. Even with the Arab invasion of Africa, which brought about great changes, many things did not disappear with the domination of these invaders: all of the radiance of African technical and literary genius was not at all extinguished. In fact, letters were admired among these peoples, where the liberal sciences were cultivated; as the Moors coming from Africa crossed through Spain, they brought knowledge of the ancient thinkers, while also bringing much assistance to the development of letters, which were coming out of the darkness little by little.
African learning thus had, in the most ancient times, something to be well received. This is no less true for us, to whom it is reported that that part of the earth has at its disposition other things richer still than the wealth of books and the applications of the technical arts, as is attested by the example given by the Master in philosophy and in the liberal arts, the very brilliant Anton Wilhelm AMO, an African from Guinea. He first saw the light of day in the most distant region of West Africa, and came to Europe as a small boy. He was introduced to sacred things at Halae Juliae. The most serene princes, dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, August Wilhelm and Ludwig Rudolph, deployed their goodness so that he should not suffer, in his education, from the absence of a father’s assistance. After having demonstrated his genius, he was brought to Halle in Saxony: there he was initiated into diverse sciences, after which he came to us. As he showed an equal spirit [in philosophy], he rallied the entire department in his favor, and all of his masters unanimously accorded to him the degree of Doctor in Philosophy.
These encomia took on greater weight still, from the praises he received thanks to his genius, to his rank, and to his admirable sense of honor; to his industry, to the knowledge he demonstrated on the occasion of public or private performances. In conducting himself thus, he brought upon himself the affection of the best men, and of the most learned, surpassing others of his generation by a head. Strengthened by the fascination that he inspired in them, he was at home in explaining philosophy to a number of them, commenting on the positions of the ancients as well as of the moderns, always choosing the clearest explanation and giving the reasons for this choice swiftly and with precision. In so doing, he clearly demonstrated his ability to understand and to teach, indicating by this that he had everything needed to obtain, soon, a post in a university, and also that this would be in line with his natural penchant. It being understood that he has not disappointed us, this is why we cannot refrain from according to him the public judgment that he is right to hope for our appreciation. We place much hope in him, and we are convinced that he is worthy of the Prince whom he piously venerates, and whom he praises in all of his statements. We pray to God to pemit him to benefit for a long time from such happiness as this, and for him to achieve his goals for the glory of the very good and mighty PRINCE LUDWIG RUDOLPH.
We pray to God for the propserity of the whole House of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, so reputed in all of Germany in view of its great merits.
Written publicly and marked with the seal of the University, this 24th of May, 1733
Johannes Gottfried Kraus, current Rector of the University
The President solemnly salutes the brilliant author of this thesis
We publicly declare that Africa, and Guinea, one of its countries, so far from us, are your homeland. In view of its reserves of gold, this Guinea was previously called Côte d’Or by the Europeans, and was justly celebrated like a mother who bears natural goods and treasures in her womb, as also, still more, men of very great genius and of very great inventiveness. You count among these latter, very noble and very renowned Sir, with your badge of talent, of which fecundity and merit, as well as vigor and elegance, stand out among your intellectual attainments. All this led to your promotion in our university, with the unanimous applause of men of quality. No less, this thesis is today proof of all this. Because you have elegantly and knowledgeably composed it, I return it to you in its entirety and without any modifications, so tha your genius will radiate from it with that much more force. To conclude, I congratulate you with all my heart for this measure of the excellence of your erudition, but know that my esteem is still more affectionate than the words with which I express it. Permit me to sollicit, humbly and with all of my devotion, the grace of God and of the very great and very good prince, LUDWIG RUDOLPH, for whose salvation I shall never tire of calling upon Divine Majesty.
Composed at Wittenberg in Saxony, April, the year of our Lord 1734.
Source: Antoine Guillaume Amo, De Humanae mentis apatheia; Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi, ed. and tr. Simon Mougnol (Paris: Harmattan, 2010).
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Justin E. H. Smith and The Amo Project for making this available.