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Although many groups have referred to themselves as “the Illuminati,” or “enlightened ones,” the term most commonly refers to the Order of Illuminists, an organization founded by Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830), a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, and four of his friends on May 1, 1776. The Order’s stated mission was “to encourage a humane and sociable outlook; to inhibit all vicious impulses; to support Virtue, wherever she is threatened or oppressed by Vice, to further the advance of deserving persons and to spread useful knowledge among the broad mass of people who were at present deprived of all education” (Johnson 1983, p. 45). While these aims appear moderate, they were in fact a proposal for sweeping social change. The Illuminati and their goals so threatened Bavaria’s political and religious authorities that Karl Theodor, the prince-elector and duke of Bavaria (r. 1724–1799), banned the group in 1787.
The Illuminati emerged as a reaction to the social and political environment of Bavaria in the late eighteenth century. Its institutions were dominated by the Church, and the Jesuits controlled university education. Weishaupt was frustrated by their interference in the university curriculum, particularly their resistance to the dissemination of ideas of the French Enlightenment (Billington 1980). That frustration moved him to create the Illuminati, which he hoped would spread Enlightenment philosophy and put it into practice.
Weishaupt was convinced that a secret society was the most effective way to accomplish these goals, and he utilized his experience with the Jesuits and Freemasons to create his new organization. Although he viewed the Jesuits as his enemies and the Freemasons as conservative and apolitical, he admired their secrecy, discipline, and organization, as well as their capacity to pursue their own interests even (in his view) at the expense of the interests of society as a whole (Roberts 1972). Weishaupt deliberately recruited Freemasons and used the organization’s structure and symbolism as a model for the Illuminati. Members took pseudonyms (Weishaupt became
Spartacus) and utilized Zoroastrian symbols to describe themselves and their ceremonies. Initiates read classical political philosophy, and as they moved through the movement’s ranks they were gradually exposed to the Illuminati’s true purpose: to spread the Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and egalitarianism. Only those within the movement’s inner circle, the Areopagus, were told of its related political goals. The Illuminati members were to infiltrate the social and political institutions of Bavaria and initiate a peaceful revolution. Bavaria would be freed from the tyranny of the Church, and reason and equality would flourish.
Membership in the Illuminati proved tremendously appealing to members of the Bavarian middle and upper classes. From its origins in Ingolstadt, the movement grew rapidly. By 1779, it had members in at least four other Bavarian cities, and by the time it was banned in 1787, its membership numbered between two and four thousand (Roberts 1972).
Although the Order of the Illuminists was shortlived, it had considerable influence. Cloaked in secrecy and symbols, the real substance of the Illuminati was its propagation of Enlightenment ideas. Theodor could declare that anyone caught recruiting new members would be executed and thus ensure the effective end of the organization, but he could not stop the influence of Enlightenment ideas on those who had come into contact with them. The Order’s members were scattered across the upper echelons of Bavarian society, and many were well placed to influence others. Its membership included doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, and government officials. Their exposure to Enlightenment philosophy affected the way they approached politics and probably also influenced those with whom they came into contact. Theodor attempted to purge the Illuminati from positions of power, but military force cannot, in the end, stop the spread of ideas. Illuminism became a source of inspiration for revolutionaries on both the left and right of the political spectrum (Billington 1980).
Weishaupt’s greatest genius may have been his transformation of the secret-society model into an effective political instrument. In devising the Order’s structure and doctrine, he made two important innovations. First, he deliberately created the Order of Illuminists as a political organization. He understood that secrecy could be not only an end in itself but also a political strategy. Second, he used existing secret organizations—namely, the Freemasons—for his own ends. In doing so, he created a network of secret societies that could be used for his own political purposes. While these achievements furthered his immediate goals, they also insured the Illuminati a place of particular importance in the history of conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories—expressing the belief that some covert power with malicious intent is directing world affairs—became a popular mode of political explanation in the early twentieth century, and they remained popular into the twenty-first century. Typically, conspiracy theories emerge during times of social change; they provide believers with a sense of certainty in uncertain times. The Illuminati play a pivotal role in many of the most influential modern conspiracy theories; the organization is, for example, believed in league with forces as diverse as aliens, Jewish financial power, and the individuals behind the events of September 11, 2001. Most scholars argue that the Order of Illuminists does not control history in this way. While political conspiracies have certainly existed— secrecy is often an element of political strategy—human beings exist in a contingent world and are limited in their ability to control history.
The Order of Illuminists therefore remains relevant today. It is most effectively understood as an eighteenthcentury model of the power of secrecy and the use of allies in executing political strategy.
- Billington, James H. 1980. Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. New York: Basic Books.
- Johnson, George. 1983. Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.
- Pipes, Daniel. 1997. Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. New York: The Free Press.
- Roberts, J. M. 1972. The Mythology of the Secret Societies. London: Secker and Warburg.
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