The true story of the Illuminati

When Adam Weishaupt founded the Association of Perfectibilists in 1776, he surely did not imagine that he was adding fuel to the feverish imagination of all those who, in desperation, were looking for an explanation for a world that ended up giving way to another and only found it in the old resource of the enemy in the shadows, of conspiracy in short. Because that organization, whose members began to be called illuminati, joined a whole intellectual current that integrated enlightened people, Masons, Rosicrucians and others and would not take long to be accused together with them of the fall of the Ancient Regime.

Weishaupt was a young professor of Canon Law at the University of Ingolstadt, Bavaria; the only layman in a cloister controlled by ex-Jesuits (the company was dissolved in 1773), whose harassment of anything suspected of heresy (read Protestantism) ended up awakening an anticlerical sentiment in an enlightened man like him. As was frequent then, he looked for an escape valve in associationism but, since he did not sympathize with the exit that would have been natural, Freemasonry, he decided to create his own group.

Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Illuminati / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

He called it Bund der Perfektibilisten (Union of Perfectibility) and adopted as a symbol the owl of Minerva, the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom. Soon he was joined by several students, eager to gain access to censored or forbidden readings, and a dozen members joined him, who became almost thirty by the end of the year. They had not considered aspiring to more because they had conceived that as an intimate circle, despite the fact that everyone used a pseudonym – often taken from history or classical literature – to establish a relationship of equality; Weishaupt called himself Spartacus.

Original Bavarian Illuminated Symbol printed on a 1788 pamphlet / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

With this modesty they worked for two years until 1778, when new people joined, the association was reconsidered as a secret order (probably and paradoxically inspired by the Society of Jesus). The founder proposed to rename it as Order of the Bee, metaphorizing its task of gathering wisdom with that of the insects with the floral nectar, but it was preferred Bund der Illuminaten (Union of Illuminated), that finally ended up in Illuminatenorden, that is to say, Order of the Illuminated.

The name was a clear reference to the Enlightenment, so fashionable at the time, because its objective was in tune with that movement: education as an instrument to achieve freedom, the intellectual and moral formation of the citizen to make unnecessary both the spiritual tutelage of the Church and totalitarian oppression in the political sphere. More or less the ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity that the French Revolution would shortly wield.

Cover of The Encyclopaedia of Diderot and D’Alembert, the most representative work of the spirit of the Enlightenment / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

What is certain is that, among others, the so-called illuminati were blamed for its outbreak due to the thesis developed by its creator, according to which the absolutist regime was but one more stage in its history towards a better world, a world that would recover the childhood of Humanity, lost along the way, and in which there was no desire for power or property. However, Weishaupt rejected the revolutionary resource and advocated a redirection, feasible if one had access to the political resorts.

His work is, apart from being utopian, somewhat contradictory, because sometimes it is impregnated with quietism (a mystical movement, again ironically catholic, that the Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos preached, proposing spiritual passivity and contemplative life as a way to connect better with God and that was declared heretical by the Inquisition), while in others he exhorts to take the initiative in the changes.

Goethe in the Roman countryside (Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein) / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1780 reorganization, the order operated more seriously. First, because some illustrious characters were incorporated, including the German writer Goethe, the famous author of Faust, who was also a Mason and who called himself Abaris (a Scythian magician); the philosopher and theologian Herder (the creator of the Volksgeist concept, the national popular spirit typical of German Romanticism), who chose the nickname Damasus; and Mirabeau, a French politician, father of the Revolution, who had the alias Leonidas (the Spartan king) as his nickname.

Other highlights would be Knigge, a Freemason German literary defender of human rights who chose to be known as Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish philosopher of the Hellenistic era); the Count of Saint-Germain, one of the inspirers of Weishaupt; or the famous Cagliostro. A third came from the nobility and a small but not negligible percentage, was composed of clergymen, something curious considering that the regulations outlawed religious books.

Gerhard von Herder portrayed by Kügelgen / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The second factor was that it grew in all aspects. From that year on, the order spread to seventy cities and came to have almost two thousand members. However, it was a fundamentally local phenomenon because the most important centres were Bavarian and Turin (especially Weimar and Gotha), and outside Teutonic territory it only achieved some implantation in Switzerland and France. The majority of the illuminati had good academic training, the majority being civil servants of the administration although there was no lack of craftsmen and merchants.

Count Mirabeau/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

A third reason for the settlement of the order was that as there were more members it was necessary to establish a structure of greater complexity and Knigge was in charge of designing it, given that the main promoter of the order in its first moments, Anton von Massenhausen, had abandoned it immersed in a disordered life. Knigge imitated that of Masonry -remember that he was also a Mason-, based on degrees with progressive ascending acquisition of greater knowledge, even when that other organization was seen above all as a recruiting ground.

In fact, the Jesuits themselves followed a similar system, strongly hierarchized and with blind obedience to their numerals, so it must have exerted some influence as well. The fact is that the newly recruited were kept in ignorance regarding the modus operandi and were required a strict discipline. This rigidity, by the way, drove away many intellectuals, who did not want to enter or left because they felt uncomfortable.

Logo of the Society of Jesus in the Church of Gesú, Rome / photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The Illuminati were divided into three classes: a previous one, for the new ones (that’s why it was called The Nursery), graduated in high schools, novices, minervals and minor enlightened; another low one (Masonic), at the same time structured in pawns, officers, masters and enlightened (major and regent), and another high one (The Mysteries) with the degrees of priest, prince, magician and king. Weishaupt and Knigge were on the cusp, directing what they called the Aeropagus. Initiatic rites and ceremonies were also established, but what they were like is unknown because the short chronological route of the order prevented them from being written down. In addition, the secrecy was greater than in Masonry, despite the fact that a third of the enlightened ones also militated in it.

Adolph von Knigge/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

That was a double-edged sword. As it usually happens, sooner or later internal disputes had to come and a Mason like Knigge, who was against Weishaupt because he considered the anti-religious hostility counterproductive, threatened to reveal the secrets to the others because several aristocrats suspected of defending absolutism had been admitted. In February 1784 a congress was held in Weimar to deal with this complaint but the result was the election of a new Areopagus led by the Count of Stolberg-Roßlay (but presumably with Weishaupt in the shade), so Knigge left the order.

The conflict was too stentorian and worsened the image that the Rosicrucians had spread over the Illuminati (a secret order linked to Masonry but with a Protestant and proclerical spirit), after unleashing a defamation campaign against them with accusations of atheism, antichristianism and treason, surely irritated by the attempt of the former to recruit new members from their ranks.

Charles Theodore of Bavaria, the ruler who forbade the order / Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The fact is that authorities in Bavaria, aware of the existence of the order, banned all kinds of associations that did not have its approval in mid-June 1784, when the enlightened already numbered more than six hundred and fifty. Illuminati and Freemasons were temporarily outlawed, and all sorts of accusations fell on them: from being enemies of religion to conspiring against the government, to the murder of officials to take their place.

Pope Pius VI’s support for these measures, declaring Masons and enlightened people incompatible with the Catholic faith, gave rise to harsh repression. Searches, dismissals, arrests, exiles… The ethereal nature of the charges was evident in the fact that no detainee ended up in jail. But the following year the ban became definitive and in 1787 the threat of applying the death penalty to anyone who tried to revive such organizations was added. By then, given the hostile climate that had been unleashed against the enlightened, Weishaupt had gone into exile in Regensburg.

Portrait of Pius VI by Pompeo Batoni/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Although there continued to be secret societies, and Masonry was an example of survival, the Illuminati were definitively dissolved, especially when they were later identified, with more voluntarism than reality, with the revolutionary Jacobins (confusion usually comes from the existence of a revolutionary group called Les Illuminés). The myth had arisen.

Since then, all the news about the rebirth of the order that comes up from time to time do not surpass the character of legend or fanciful deception, except when some minority group adopts the name to take advantage of its fame; anyone can organize a more or less bizarre association and call it so. This is a subject often used by conspiracy theories linked to the extreme right and the most fundamentalist sector of Catholicism… or for cinematographic literary fiction.

Sources: Masones, caballeros e illuminati (Eduardo R. Callaey)/Sectas, logias y sociedades secretas (Salvador Retamar Sala)/Las sociedades secretas (Serge Hutin)/Masonería e Ilustración. Del siglo de las luces a la actualidad/Amos del mundo. Una historia de las conspiraciones (Juan Carlos Castillón)/Wikipedia