The Illuminati (plural of Latin illuminatus, "enlightened") is a name given to several groups, both real and fictitious. Historically, the name refers to the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society founded on May 1, 1776. The society's goals were to oppose superstition, prejudice, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power, and to support women's education and gender equality. The Illuminati—along with other secret societies—were outlawed by the Bavarian ruler, Charles Theodore, with the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church, and were permanently disbanded in 1785. In the several years following, the group was vilified by conservative and religious critics who claimed that they had regrouped and were responsible for the French Revolution.
In subsequent use, "Illuminati" refers to various organisations which claim or are purported to have links to the original Bavarian Illuminati or similar secret societies, though these links are unsubstantiated. They are often alleged to conspire to control world affairs, by masterminding events and planting agents in government and corporations, in order to gain political power and influence and to establish a New World Order. Central to some of the most widely known and elaborate conspiracy theories, the Illuminati have been depicted as lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings and levers of power in dozens of novels, movies, television shows, comics, video games and music videos.
The Illuminati movement was founded on May 1, 1776 in Ingolstadt, Upper Bavaria as the Order of the Illuminati, and had an initial membership of five. The founder was the Jesuit-taught Adam Weishaupt (d. 1830), who was the first lay professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt. The Order was made up of freethinkers as an offshoot of the Enlightenment and seems to have been modelled on the Freemasons. Illuminati members took a vow of secrecy and pledged obedience to their superiors. Members were divided into three main classes, each with several degrees, and many Illuminati chapters drew membership from existing Masonic lodges.
The goals of the Illuminati were to eliminate superstition, prejudice and the domination of government, philosophy and science by the Roman Catholic Church, to reduce oppressive state abuses of power, and to support the education of women and encourage their treatment as intellectual equals. Weishaupt's original plan was for the Order to be named the "Perfectibilists". The group has also been called the Bavarian Illuminati and its ideology "Illuminism".
Many influential intellectuals and progressive politicians counted themselves as members, including Ferdinand of Brunswick and the diplomat Xavier von Zwack, who was the Order's second-in-command. The Order had branches in most European countries and reportedly had around 2,000 members over a span of ten years. It attracted literary men such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder and the reigning dukes of Gotha and Weimar.
In 1777, Karl Theodor became ruler of Bavaria. He was a proponent of Enlightened Despotism and his government banned all secret societies including the Illuminati. Internal rupture and panic over succession preceded the society's downfall. A government edict dated March 2, 1785 "seems to have been deathblow to the Illuminati in Bavaria". Weishaupt had fled and documents and internal correspondence, seized in 1786 and 1787, were subsequently published by the government in 1787. Von Zwack's home was searched and much of the group's literature was disclosed.
Barruel and Robison
Between 1797 and 1798, Augustin Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism and John Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy publicised the theory that the Illuminati had survived and represented an ongoing international conspiracy. This included the claim that it was behind the French Revolution. Both books proved to be very popular, spurring reprints and paraphrases by others. A prime example of this is Proofs of the Real Existence, and Dangerous Tendency, Of Illuminism by Reverend Seth Payson, published in 1802. Some of the response to this was critical, for example Jean-Joseph Mounier's On the Influence Attributed to Philosophers, Free-Masons, and to the Illuminati on the Revolution of France.
The works of Robison and Barruel made their way to the United States, and across New England, Reverend Jedidiah Morse and others gave sermons against the Illuminati. Their sermons were printed and the matter was followed in newspapers. Concern died down in the first decade of the 1800s, although it revived from time to time in the Anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s and 30s.
Several recent and present-day fraternal organisations claim to be descended from the original Bavarian Illuminati and openly use the name "Illuminati". Some of these groups use a variation on the name "The Illuminati Order" in the name of their own organisations, while others, such as the Ordo Templi Orientis, have "Illuminati" as a level within their organisation's hierarchy. However, there is no evidence that these present-day groups have amassed significant political power or influence, and rather than trying to remain secret, they promote unsubstantiated links to the Bavarian Illuminati as a means of attracting membership.
Modern conspiracy theory
There is no evidence that the original Bavarian Illuminati society survived its suppression in 1785. However, writers such as Mark Dice, David Icke, Texe Marrs, Jüri Lina and Morgan Gricar have argued that the Bavarian Illuminati have survived, possibly to this day.
Many modern conspiracy theories propose that world events are being controlled and manipulated by a secret society calling itself the Illuminati. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that many notable people were or are members of the Illuminati. Presidents of the United States are a common target for such claims.
Other theorists contend that a variety of historical events were orchestrated by the Illuminati, from the Battle of Waterloo, the French Revolution and President John F. Kennedy's assassination to an alleged communist plot to hasten the New World Order by infiltrating the Hollywood film industry.
The Illuminati, or fictitious modern groups called the Illuminati, play a central role in the plots of novels, for example The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. They also make an appearance in Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. A mixture of historical fact and established conspiracy theory, or pure fiction, is used to portray them.
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- Original writings of the Bavarian Illuminati compiled by Terry Melanson