Illuminating the Illuminati
It is a devious path indeed, that which connects 18th century Bavaria to the 20th century United States. But it is an important one, because it traces the origins of one of the most prominent denizens in modern conspiracy theory mythology: the Illuminati, a shadowy cabal of powerful and influential people worldwide who secretly pull the strings of world governments and economies. From its surprisingly humble beginnings to its even more surprising modern rebirth, today's topic is the Illuminati.
You may be surprised that after more than 650 Skeptoid episodes about urban legends and conspiracy theories of all types, I've still never gotten around to talking about the Illuminati. It's not because the idea never occurred to me, it's because "the Illuminati" is so vague. The name has been used by many organizations over the centuries, including not only secret societies but also civic organizations and even mail-order clubs. And many of today's conspiracy theorists will use the term to refer to whatever group they believe to be the one secretly controlling all the world's governments from behind the scenes. In popular usage, the term has come to refer to this shadowy Cabal of Manipulators, whoever they might be.
Then I got an email from a Skeptoid member, a major donor at the "Illuminatus" level coincidently, who advised me that a search of his family history revealed that he may be the descendant of Adam Weishaupt, the founder of history's most famous group called the Illuminati. Apparently being an Illuminatus runs in the family bloodline.
We say the most famous group because the name has been used and reused many, many times. In Latin, the word means the illuminated ones, so historically it's been an obvious name for people who thought rather highly of themselves. But by far the most significant usage was by a group of Bavarians in the late 1700s, as they are the ones claimed to be the original forebears of today's enlightened manipulators.
The original Illuminatus was Adam Weishaupt, a radical young law professor at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria in the 1770s. The rest of the faculty was Jesuit, an order of staunchly conservative Catholic priests. In 1773, the Pope dissolved the Jesuit order, however they still controlled this university and others. Consequently Weishaupt — a liberal secularist who opposed the dictatorial power of the Church — was unpopular. He promoted freethought and liberalism in an environment where both were vilified. Weishaupt's efforts were driven underground, and so with a group of his current and former students, he formed a secret society wherein liberal ideas could be openly shared and debated. More like-minded young people joined them.
Weishaupt had looked into Freemasonry, and though he liked a lot of things about it, he disliked others. And so he took his secret society and devised a gradated degree system based on the structure of Freemasonry. After several name changes, his new society was called the Illuminati. Weishaupt devised ceremonies and signs and passwords, but struggled to write all the needed ritual documents. He borrowed a lot from the Freemasons, but ultimately all he ever managed to create were the documents for the lowest introductory degrees.
One new recruit was the young Adolph von Knigge who on his own had been seeking to create something much like what he discovered in the Illuminati. Knigge's skills at organization and recruitment soon elevated him to the role of Weishaupt's right-hand man, but they never worked well together and there was quite an internal rift that never closed. But externally, this idea of a liberal secret society was viewed as "radical chic" by a Bavarian culture where ritualism and philosophical dissidence were trendy. Society's elite wore their secret society memberships on their sleeve the way today's Hollywood celebrities show off their veganism and acupuncture habits. Knigge poached senior members of Freemasonry lodges, and made ongoing efforts to recruit public officials and the wealthy or influential.
At its peak, the Illuminati counted some 2,000 men as having ever joined (like the Freemasons, they admitted only men), but with only about 650 having ever taken it seriously enough to advance into at least the introductory degree.
There's one interesting and noteworthy point about the Illuminati. They didn't actually do anything. They read certain literature and awarded each other membership levels. They had a lot of political and philosophical conversations. Mostly, they ranted to friends and prospective members about the evils of organized religion, and trawled Freemason lodges trying to recruit people. As the historian Walter Utt wrote in Liberty magazine in 1979:
I found no references to the Illuminati ever influencing politicians, bribing officials, or taking any physical actions at all. It was really just Weishaupt and Knigge discussing and sharing their philosophies. Indeed, even Weishaupt's own written description of the purpose of the Illuminati was almost uselessly vague and devoid of pragmatism:
Given this vagueness of purpose, the Illuminati's lack of societal impact was virtually foreordained. The order attracted hundreds of men with its stated criticisms of cultural conventions, but neither prompted them to any action nor provided any mechanism for doing so.
The Illuminati were surprisingly short-lived. As most members were not very engaged, many were inclined to talk about it, thus violating the edict of secrecy. Secularism was unpopular in Bavaria at that time, so the existence of a secular secret society raised a bit of public ire. Negative newspaper articles were published about the Illuminati, and as they were only one of many secret societies of various types that were popular, the conservative government took action. Karl Theodor, the prince-elector and duke of Bavaria, banned all secret societies with a series of edicts from 1784 through 1790. Knigge left the order in frustration with Weishaupt, Weishaupt fled Bavaria to exile, and the government seized all the Illuminati's documents and published them, thus destroying their secrecy. The society of the Illuminati was no more.
And it's at this point that the true history of the Illuminati ended, and the pseudohistory began. Some conspiracy theorists claim that the Illuminati continued in secret, and even today still control world affairs. This began almost immediately, most notably at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Two books were published that year accusing the Illuminati of being behind the Revolution: the highly influential Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism by Augustin Barruel, a conservative French Jesuit who had a major axe to grind against Freemasons and the Illuminati; and Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies by the outspoken Scottish conspiracy theorist John Robison. However, today's national security analyst John Pike writes that these connections were tenuous at best:
Nevertheless, once made, conspiracy claims tend to stick; and from that moment on, the alternative literature has been liberally splattered with charges that the Illuminati have been behind just about every major world event.
This had been confined mainly to the fringes of European literature until the counterculture movement of the 1960s added an unexpected twist to our story. A writer at Playboy magazine, Robert Anton Wilson, was friends with author Kerry Thornley, who had co-written a satirical book called the Principia Discordia, the parody text for a parody religion called Discordia, which advocated hoaxing and misinformation. Wilson and Thornley began writing fake letters from Playboy readers talking about the Illuminati, and how they were behind this or that. Wilson himself would write the editor's reply, answering questions about the Illuminati and fanning the fires of suspicion that they were behind prominent assassinations and banking cartels, and confirming that the Aga Khan was their current leader.
These letters were so successful that Wilson took it a step further, co-writing a fanciful adventure novel called The Illuminatus! Trilogy in which the Illuminati were real and were behind just about everything. The book became a cult classic and was even turned into a stage play. It was the germinating seed from which the vast majority of modern mentions of the Illuminati in conspiracy theory culture have grown. And that brings us up to date; today's conspiracy theory videos on YouTube reflect an earnest belief whose believers are unaware that it was stoked by fake letters in Playboy. Somewhere, Robert Anton Wilson is still laughing.
But all of this still fails to disprove the premise that the Illuminati did survive and do today control world events. And it's true, we can't prove they don't; but we have some pretty good tips. For one thing, the Illuminati were almost all really young. Those who took any active role were mostly in their twenties. They weren't exactly the titans of Bavarian political influence. For another thing, the vast majority of those they recruited were ordinary people who generally agreed with their philosophy, said "Sure you can write my name on your list," and that was that. They simply weren't all that active. And finally, a lot of historians have dug into this over the years, searching for evidence that the society did continue, and come up empty handed. There is no evidence that the Illuminati continued to exist after they were dissolved.
If they had, we can reasonably expect evidence of that to have surfaced. Most obviously, we'd have their degrees. After Theodor's government published the existing incomplete degrees, the Illuminati would have written new ones or at least completed them; as the society hadn't existed long enough for anyone to attain the highest levels, neither Weishaupt nor Knigge ever got around to writing them. If the documents had been written, then they'd be the only secret society in history to successfully keep its documents secret. When we look at Freemasonry, Scientology, Rosicrucianism, and any other groups with supposedly secret or private documents, we find those documents are all over the World Wide Web. They're leaked by former members, they're stolen by hackers, they're photocopied by the curious. But no genuine Illuminati degrees have ever been found, despite more than two centuries of searching by highly motivated historians, authors, and fanatical conspiracy theorists. The best explanation for this is that they don't exist.
And that's the realm where we can most reliably leave the idea of the Illuminati conspiracy to control the world. A shadowy cabal indeed; a shadow not erased by illumination.
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