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 eighteenth-century model of the power of secrecy and the use of allies in executing political strategy.
SEE ALSO Politics; Secrecy
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.
Martha F. Lee
For many conspiracy theorists, the Illuminati is the ultimate secret society, a group that stretches its tentacles of control to encompass the entire world. According to these theorists, the members of the Illuminati are the real rulers of the world, and they have been pulling the strings from behind the political scenes for centuries. They have infiltrated every government and every aspect of society around the planet—and some say that their ultimate goal is to accomplish a satanic New World Order, a one-world government, that will prepare Earth's citizens for the coming of the Antichrist.
Although such paranoid claims make for exciting reading, the Illuminati of history, rather than legend, was a secret society formed in Bavaria in 1776 with the political goal of encouraging rebellion of the people and the abolition of the established monarchies. Structuring the society along the lines of the classes and orders of the Freemasons, the Illuminati included levels of enlightenment that could be achieved by undergoing initiation through various mystical rites and ceremonies. Although the society's founder, a professor of religious law named Adam Weishaupt, sought to establish a new world order in the late eighteenth-century, the Illuminati was destroyed within 15 years of its founding.
The term "Illuminati" was first used by Spanish occultists toward the end of the fifteenth century to signify those alchemists and magicians who appeared to possess the "light" of spiritual illumination from a higher source. The term may have originated in the Gnostic dualism of the forces of Light and Darkness, and many individuals who claimed to be Illuminati, those enlightened by a higher wisdom, joined the Rosicrucians and took refuge in France to escape the fires of the Spanish Inquisition.
The secret society known as the Order of the Illuminati was founded in the city of Ingolstadt in the southern German monarchy of Bavaria on May 1, 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a 28-year-old professor of religious law. Beginning with only five members, Weishaupt's order grew slowly, numbering about 60 in five cities by 1780. The professor deliberately blended mysticism into the workings of the brotherhood in order to make his agenda of republicanism appear to be more mysterious than a political reform group. He joined the Masons in Munich in 1777 and adopted many of their classes and orders and promised his initiates that they would receive a special communication of occult knowledge as they advanced higher in the ranks of the Illuminati.
Weishaupt's society had little effect on the German political structure until 1780 when he attracted the interest of Adolf Francis, the Baron Von Knigge, a master occultist and a man who had risen to the highest levels in many of the secret societies that preceded the Illuminati, including the Masons. Knigge had no problem melding his interest in the super-natural with Weishaupt's goal of political revolution, and the two men quickly established branches of the Illuminati throughout all of Germany. A few months after Knigge had joined Weishaupt's cause, membership in the Illuminati swelled to 300.
Weishaupt had taken great care to enlist as many young men of wealth and position as possible, maintaining that philanthropy, as well as mysticism, was a principal goal of the society. He had also managed to create around himself a great aura of mystery, permitting himself to be seen by none but those in the highest ranks of the society, encouraging the myth that he was an adept of such great power that he existed largely as an invisible presence. Initiates into the ranks of the Illuminati underwent secret rites, wore bizarre costumes, and participated in grotesque ceremonies that were designed to give complete obedience to Weishaupt. Soon the Illuminati became a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes in Germany's political life, and its members worked secretly to over-throw both church and state.
As their influence as a secret society grew, Weishaupt and Knigge became concerned that a good many authorities were beginning to take seriously the rumors of the existence of the Illuminati. If it should be proven that the society existed in fact, certain of the more powerful German princes would take immediate steps to suppress it. To hide the society even more completely from the scrutiny of public view, the leaders implemented Weishaupt's original plan of grafting the Illuminati onto the larger brotherhood of the Freemasons. The Illuminati were already utilizing the classes and grades of Freemasonry, so the initiates of the Illuminati would easily amalgamate with the more established society. To appear to become one with the Freemasons would allow Illuminism to spread more widely and rapidly, and Weishaupt and Knigge had great confidence that they would soon attain complete control over the blended organizations.
The hierarchy within the Freemasons were not long in discovering that the two interlopers had joined the fraternal brotherhood with less than honorable motives, and in 1782, a group within the Masons called the Strict Observance demanded that a council be held at Wilhelmsbad to examine the true beliefs of Weishaupt and the Illuminati. Knigge's powers of persuasion effectively blocked the attempt of the Strict Observance contingent to expel Illuminism from their society, and he managed to enroll almost all the members of the council in the Illuminati. By 1784, Illuminati membership had risen to 3,000, and the secret society appeared on the verge of assuming control of the entire Masonic establishment.
At the same time that their goals seemed within their grasp, Weishaupt and Knigge fell into a sharp disagreement about the correct manner of proceeding with their master plan; and in April 1784, Knigge withdrew from the Illuminati, leaving Weishaupt the supreme commander of the increasingly powerful society. Later in that same year, a number of initiates who had reached the highest level within the Illuminati became disillusioned when the special supernatural communication from a higher source that Weishaupt had promised had still not manifested after eight years of membership in the society. It now became obvious to them that Weishaupt had only sought to use them as blind instruments for the achievement of his political ambitions. The Illuminati was denounced as a subversive organization by many of its former members, some of whom informed the duchess dowager Maria Anna of Bavaria and the Bavarian monarch, Carl Theodore, that the society sought the overthrow of church and state.
In June 1784, Carl Theodore issued an edict outlawing all secret societies in his provinces. In March 1785, another edict specifically condemned the Illuminati. Weishaupt had already fled to a neighboring province in February, 1785, where he hoped to inspire the loyal members of the Illuminati to continue as a society. In 1787, the duke of Bavaria issued a final edit against the Order of the Illuminati, and Weishaupt apparently faded into obscurity. Although he never realized his goal of a German Republic and the overthrowing of the European monarchies, the sparks that he had ignited with the Illuminati would soon burst into the flames of the French Revolution in 1789.
Carroll, Robert Todd. "Illuminati, The New World Order & Paranoid Conspiracy Theorists," The Skeptics Dictionary. http://skepdic.com/illuminati.html.
Roberts, J. Mythology of the Secret Societies. New York: MacMillan, 1972.
Vankin, Jonathan and John Whalen. The Seventy Greatest Conspiracies of All Time: History's Biggest Mysteries, Coverups, and Cabals. New York: Citadel, 1998.
Wilgus, Neal. The Illuminoids. New York: Pocket Books, 1978.
Wilson, Robert Anton. Masks of the Illuminati. New York: Pocket Books, 1981.