Adam Weishaupt (1748-1811)
and the “Illuminati”
Weishaupt was a professor of Church Canon Law at Ingolstadt, in the south German state of Bavaria and came from a family of Jews who had converted to Catholicism. In the 1770s he became involved with Freemasonry, though he remained sceptical of some of its more grandiose claims -- countering them with some grandiose designs of his own for a general reformation of government, religion, and science, in the name of "enlightenment," by which he meant an informed scientific reason bereft of "superstition" and priestcraft. In this endeavor, and in his overall socio-political sensibility, he may have some as yet hidden connection to the Rosicrucian brotherhood; if so, he wisely kept it secret.
His cadre of followers originated largely from the anti-church, anti-royalist students of his university. Though the term "Bavarian" has become attached to his abortive Order, Weishaupt always had global aspirations and would never have limited his group by such a restrictive geographical designation. He saw himself as the Leader, simply, of "The Illuminati" -- the Illuminated Ones -- an elite circle of intellectuals privy to the most esoteric mysteries of the cosmos, and the rightful heirs to the mysteries and secret societies of the ancient world. The term Illuminati was largely used by outsiders, members seemed to have referred to themselves as Perfectibilists, i.e., those who have been made (or seek to become) “perfect” in the ancient sense of complete or, in a more modern sense, “initiated” into the fullness of the mysteries.
Weishaupt was fascinated by the pyramids of Egypt, particularly the Great Pyramid of Giza, considering it to have been an ancient temple of initiation into the Mysteries – a supposition which is not far from the mark, and which other mystic adventurers such as Crowley also supported. Modern Egyptologists believe that, prior to the pyramid's completion as a tomb, it was likely used for both astronomical observations (given its advantageously high situation) and religious rites either on top (providing a convenient flat platform in its unfinished state) or deep within its hidden crypts. As is well known, the Illuminati used the Great Pyramid as a symbol for divine perfection, crowning it in their iconography with the Masonic emblem par excellence, the All-Seeing Eye of God. A version of this symbol can be found on the reverse of a U.S. dollar bill. The Pyramid is also a symbol of the hierarchy of initiation, progressing in discrete steps or stages upward to a point as one advances. At the very top, everything manifest is reduced to an infitesimal point (bindhu) of total illumination occupying neither space nor time (because the source of both), and projecting from it the pure witness perspective of the disembodied Eye. Precursors or chronological harmonics of this concept can be found all around the world, perhaps most notably in the Egyptian symbol of the Eye of Horus.
The Pyramid was also a symbol of the hierarchy of initiation, and the Illuminati were structured along the lines of a pyramid, with low-level members forming the broad base and the higher initiates comprising a small inner circle or the capstone of the structure.
The Illuminati were surprisingly successful for a time, taking as it did the best of Masonry (of which Weishaupt was an avid student, but also bore a healthy scepticism towards) and coloring it with Weishaupt's personal charisma and world-spanning ambitions (not unlike those of Christian Rosenkreutz) to reform human society. By the 1780s the Order had spread across Europe, from Russia to Portugal; a chapter was even formed in New York City and known as the Columbian Lodge (after Christopher Columbus, emblem of the New World.)
Weishaupt's internationalist ambitions did not sit well with all members of his Order, however; two native German members, Johann Herder and Johann Fichte, found themselves in opposition to Weishaupt's globalism in their commitment to working for a unified and independent German state. Germany at this time was still a collection of independent small principalities and kingdoms, sharing a common language and culture, but divided by petty political differences and economic interests. The cracks in the edifice of Weishaupt's "Great Pyramid" could already be seen.
In 1784 the King of Bavaria, having got wind of the Illuminati, banned the Order and Weishaupt found himself fired from his position at the University, and forced to flee on horseback through several Bavarian towns until finally finding refuge in Gotha. Still, his Order continued for some time, and may have gone underground in places, much like the first Rosicrucians. Weishaupt continued to inspire other members and students of occultism. He remains a highly controversial figure to this day, often serving as a symbol of evil for conspiracy theorists from all across the political spectrum. For the most part, rightists see the Illuminati, with its internationalist, anti-royalist and anti-traditionalist platform, as a continuing threat to what they perceive to be traditional cultural order. However, it would appear that from a more-or-less objective viewpoint, the influence of Weishaupt has been greatly exaggerated.
From a magical perspective, it is not clear how much influence the Illuminati (in their history form) had on later Orders. Most (such as the Golden Dawn) took their inspiration directly from Freemasonry, bypassing Weishaupt's innovations altogether. Yet in the form of rumor and innuendo, not to mention paranoic conspiracy theories, the Illuminati live on – like the Rosicrucians – and in this distorted sense their power may still have an effect upon the world. If, as is rumored, they still exist in some underground or disguised form, their influence behind the scenes may actually be much greater than supposed.
This is the great object held out by this association; and the means of attaining it is illumination, enlightening the understanding by the sun of reason which will dispel the clouds of superstition and of prejudice. The proficients in this order are therefore justly named the Illuminated. And of all illumination which human reason can give, none is comparable to the discovery of what we are, our nature, our obligations, what happiness we are capable of, and what are the means of attaining it. In comparison with this, the most brilliant sciences are but amusements for the idle and luxurious. To fit man by illumination for active virtue, to engage him to it by the strongest motives, to render the attainment of it easy and certain, by finding employment for every talent, and by placing every talent in its proper sphere of action, so that all, without feeling any extraordinary effort, and in conjuction with, and in completion of ordinary business, shall urge forward with united powers, the general task. This indeed will be an employment suited to noble natures, grand in its views, and delightful in its exercise.
And what is this general object? The happiness of the human race. But where are the proper persons, the good, the generous and the accomplished to be found? And how, and by what strong motives, are they to be induced to be engaged, in a task so vast, so incessant, so difficult and so laborious? This association must be gradual. There are some such persons to be found in every society. Such noble minds will be engaged by the heart warming object.
The first task of the association must therefore be to form the young members. As these multiply and advance, they become the apostles of beneficence, and the work is now on foot, and advances witha speed increasing every day. The slightest observation shows that nothing will so much contribute to increase the zeal of the members as secret union. We see with what keenness and zeal the frivolous business of Freemasons is conducted, by persons knit together by the secrecy of their union. Let this circumstance of our constitution therefore be directed to this noble purpose, and then all the objections urged against it by jealous tyranny and affrighted superstition will vanish. The order will thus work silently, and sucurely, and though the generous benefactors of the human race are thus deprived of the applause of the world, they have the noble pleasure of seeing their work prosper.
We have to struggle with pedantry, with intolerance, with divines and statesmen, and above all princes and priests are in our way. Men are unfit as they are, and must be formed; each class must be the school of trial for the next. This will be tedious, because it is hazardous. In the last classes I propose academies under the direction of the order. This will secure us the assistence of the literati. Science shall here be the lure. Only those who are assuredly proper subjects shall be picked out from the inferior classes for the higher mysteries, which contain the first principles and means of promoting a happy life. No religionist must, on any account, be admitted into these. For here we work at the discovery and extirpation of superstition and prejudices.
I say that Freemasonry is concealed Christianity. My explanation of the hieroglyphics, at least, proceeds on this supposition; and as I explain things, no man need be ashamed of being a Christian. Indeed, I afterwards throw away this name and substitute reason. But I assure you this is no small affair -- to create a new religion, and a new state-government, which so happily explain one and all of these symbols, and combines them in one degree. You may think that this is my chief work; but I have three other degrees, all different, for my class of higher mysteries, in comparison with which this is but child's play; but these I keep for myself as General, to be bestowed by me only.
Jesus Christ established no new religion; he only set religion and reason in their ancient rights. For this purpose he would unite men in a common bond. He would fit them for this by spreading a just morality, by enlightning the understanding, and by assisting the mind to shake off all prejudices. He would teach all men, in the first place, to govern themselves. Rulers would then be needless, and equality and liberty would take place without any revolution, by the natural and gentle operation of reason and expediency.
Many therefore were called, but few were chosen. To these elect were trusted the most important secrets; and even among them there were degrees of information. There was a seventy and a twelve. all this was in the natural order of things, and according to the habits of the Jews, and indeed of all antiquity. The Jewish theosophy was a mystery, like the Eleusinian or the Pythagorian, unfit for the vulgar, and thus the doctrines of Christianity were committed to the adepti, in a disciplina arcani. By these they were maintained, like the vestal fire. They were kept up, only in hidden societies, who handed them down to posterity; and they are now possessed by the Genuine Freemasons.
back to bio index