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Johann Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830)

German empiricist Popularphilosoph, founder of the Order of the Illuminati, a secret society which has inspired a number of conspiracy theories.  Although the Order was dissolved in the 1780s, it was not buried and forgotten but continued to live on in speculations about omnipotent secret masters whose influence has pervaded historical and political turning points such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the founding of the European Union. In fiction the Order has been popularized amongst others by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), and Dan Brown in Angels & Demons (2000). Umberto Eco made references to Weishaupt's brainchild in Foucault's Pendulum (1988).

"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 dispell the clouds of superstition and of prejudice. The proficients in this order are therefore justly named the Illuminated." (Weishaupt in An Exposition of the Mysteries: Or, Religious Dogmas and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Pythagoreans, and Druids by John Fellow, 1835, p. 369) 

Adam Weishaupt was born in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. His father, Johann George Weishaupt, was a professor of law. He died in 1753 in Heiligenthal, near Würzburg while spending a vacation there with his family. Adam Weishaupt was adopted by his godfather, Johann Adam Baron von Ickstatt, the leading Enlightenment professor at the University of Ingolstadt. Von Inkstatt was a proponent of the philosophy of Christian Wolff and rationalism. When the German physician and forerunner of the modern practice of hypnoitism Anton Mesmer studied in Ingolstadt, Ickstatt was his professor. It is possible that Mesmer met the young Adam.

From early on, Weishaupt was a voracious reader with a wide range of interests from history to economics to politics to philosophy. His godfather's private library comprised over 4200 volumes. Inkstatt had also a collection of forbidden and controversial books, mostly written French, which attracted Weishaupt's curious mind.

His early education Weishaupt received from Jesuits; his excellent memory made him an outstanding student. At the age of fifteen Weishaupt entered the University of Ingolstadt, where he studied philosophy and history, graduating in 1768. It was during these years, that he became radically sceptical: the Bible appeared to him unworthy to be taken seriously. Moreover, Weishaupt developed a lifelong distaste for the works of Cicero.

After finishing his dissertation, entitled Ius civile privatum, Weishaupt served four years as a tutor and catechist. In 1772 he was appointed as professor of civil law at the University of Ingolstadt. The next year, he married Afra Sausenhofer from Eichstatt; she died in 1780. Weishaupt then married the sister of his deceased wife.

Following the dissolving of the Jesuit Order by Pope Clement XIV, Weishaupt became the first layman to occupy the chair of canon law. In order the renew the faculty, he argued for the introduction of non-Catholic books and scientific subjects to the university curriculum. His liberal views were opposed by the Jesuits and many professors who also accused Ickstatt of nepotism. However, in 1775 Weishaupt is promoted to dean of the faculty of law.

As a rection to the opposition of religious and secular authorities, Weishaupt founded in 1776 the Order of the Illuminati, loosely based on Masonic organizational structure and rites. The Illuminati, "the Enlightened Ones", first called themselves Perfectionists, but Weishaupt who himself the took the alias Spartacus, changed the name of the order to Illuminatenorden, which was more mysterious, and had connections with some much older mystical groups. Their symbol, mostly used in internal correspondences, was a circle with a dot in the center. The organization was hierarchical, higher-ranking members controlled the actions and thinking of their subordinates. Weishaupt put together a list of obligatory reading for the novices. Many of the books had been banned by the Jesuits.

"To plunge a guilty world in penal woes,
The scourge of God, Bavarian Weishaupt rose –
In wild illusion's mystick chains to binf
The heaven-descended energies of mind,
And lead the groveling passions's mad career;
Cloud the bright dawn of Virtue's sacred reign,
And stab Religion in her mental fane . . ."
(John Clarke Hubbard, in Jacobinism; A Poem, 1801)

At first the Illuminati consisted only of five members. It has been estimated that the total number of Illuminati rose to no more than perhaps sixty in its first four years of existence. After Weishaupt was initiated into Freemasonry at the Strict Observance lodge, known as Loge Zur Behutsamkeit  (The Prudence Lodge), the influence of his Order started to grow. However, membership was almost exclusively restricked to the upper classes

The Illuminati preferred to use other organizations as a front to their secret mission. "A cover is always necessary" Weishaupt wrote in Die neuesten Arbeiten des Spartacus and Philo in dem Illuminatemorden (1794). "In concealment lies a great part of our strength. Hence, we must always hide ourselves under the name of another society." Eventually Weinhaupt gained complete control of the Lodge. Many luminous cultural figures, such as Goethe, Mozart, and Schiller, were closely associated with Weishaupt. ("I am neither an Illuminist nor a Mason" Schiller said, but he knew much about their activities.) Most likely they were not told all details about Weishaupt's Utopian dream of the New World Order, but only knew that the Illuminati cultivated independent critical thinking, freedom of thought and general toleration. The secret society also attracted charlatans like Cagliostro.

Weishaupt's revolutionary goals included: 1) abolition of monarchy and all ordered government, 2) abolition of all private property and inheritances, 4) abolition of patriotism and nationalism, 5) abolition of the family, and 6) abolition of all religion. The Göttinger philosopher Johann Georg Heinrich Feder, who had joined the Order in 1782, became one of the key figures in the internal struggles of the group. Politically less radical than Weishaupt, Feder urged his fellow-conspirator to free his thinking from pseudo-religion and stick to a moderate course.

"The Illuminati of Bavaria: with a name like that, they attracted, at the beginning, a number of generous minds. But Weishaupt was an anarchist; today we'd call him a Communist . . . Mind you, I admired Weishaupt a great deal – not for his ideas, but for his extremely clearheaded view of how a secret society should function. It's possible to have a splendid organizational talent but quite confused ideas." (Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum.)

The most important figure, who joined the Illuminati, was  Baron von Knigge, well-connected to the court of Hesse-Kassel and Weimar. He recruited many influential members and sought to have the Order recognised by the Freemasons at the Masonic Convention of Wilhelmsbad in 1782. For a period, Knigge and Weishaupt were very close allies until their quarreled over the direction and management of the Order.

In 1781 the ex-Jesuit Ignatius Franciscus Franck attacked the Illuminati, saying that they prepared the way for the Antichrist. Their enemies also included the Rosicrucians, who were supported by Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future King Frederick William II).  At the height of its power, the Illuminati was suppressed by edicts issued by Duke Karl Theodor. They declared illegal all societies which were not authorized by the law and approved by the Monarch. The Illuminati was named specifically as one of the outlawed groups. To protect the secrets of the Order, Duke Ernst II of Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg sent a collection of Illuminati documents, the so-called Schwedenkiste, to his contacts in Stockholm. The documents protected by the Swedish royal family until 1883 when the were sent back to Germany, where the Schwedenkiste became the property of the Masonic lodge Ernst zum Kompass.  The Gestapo seized the documents in the 1930s.

Weishaupt was dismissed from his post at Ingolstad in 1785 ‒ not because of his messing around with the Illuminatenorden but because he had urged the university library to acquire Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697-1702) and Richard Simon's Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1685), both condemned by the Jesuits. Driven from his hometown, he sought refuge in Regensburg. Commands were issued for his arrest if he set foot in Bavaria, where public opinion was turned against him.

On his flight from Bavaria, Weishaupt was accompanied by Jakob Lanz, a friar and fellow Illuminati, who was struck dead by a bolt of lightning during a thunderstorm. Weishaupt's opponents saw Lanz's death as a divine intervention. When his body was searched, a list of Illuminati members was found sewn in his clothing. In addition, the Bavarian government found more papers at the house of Franz Xavier Zwackh, a close associate of Weishaupt's. One of the documents indicated that Weishaupt had had a relationship with his sister-in-law and there had been an unsuccessful abortion attempt. The publication of these documents in 1787 aimed both at convincing the public that the league was pursuing a diabolical scheme to wreck the society and launching a counter-Enlightenment attack on liberalism.

Weishaupt finally settled in 1878 to the "enlightened" court of Gotha. His protector was the Illuminati member Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who refused to hand the leader of the Order over to the Bavarian elector. In Gotha Weishaupt enjoyed the position of a pensioned Hofrat, wrote pamphlets, among them Apologie der Illuminaten (1786), Vollständige Geschichte der Verfolgung der Illuminated in Bayern (1786), and taught philosophy at the University of Göttingen. Along with Feder and Gottlob August Tillet, he was one of the most notable critics of  Kant, publishing in 1788 three polemics against his philosophy, Zweifel über die kantiche Begriffe von Zeit und Raum, Gründe und Gewissheit des menschlichen Erkennens, and Kantische Anschauungen und Erscheinung. Weishaupt argued that Kant ends in a total subjectivism, the denial of all reality independent of our passing states consciousness. Weishaupt died on November 18, 1830, in Gotha. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he reconciled with the Catholic Church before his death.

Although the Order had been supressed in 1787, it did not go into oblivion. Many of Weishaupt's disciples took refuge in France, where they spread his ideas. It has even been claimed that the Illuminati were behind the French Revolution. This conspiracy theory was first presented by John Robinson, a Masonic scientist, in Proofs of a Conspiracy (1797) and other books, and by Augustin Barruel, an ex-Jesuit abbé, in Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (1797-1798 Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism). In England Thomas Love Peacock satirized in his novel Nightmare Abbey (1818) Shelley's preoccupation with "secret tribunals and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species." The Order was revieved in Dresden by Leopold Engel and Theodor Reiss, but when it was later taken over by Dr. Karl Kellner it was renamed the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.). Its most famous member was Alesteir Crowley.

In the United States the Illuminati scare found an exceptionally fertile soil. George Washington, a Freemason, wrote in a letter, "It was not my intention to doubt that, the Doctrines of the Illuminati, and principles of Jacobinism had not spread in the United States. On the contrary, no one is more truly satisfied of this fact than I am." Washington believed that the Illuminati "had a seperation of the People from their Government in view". Thomas Jefferson, who perhaps had met Illuminati members when he served as the American ambassador to France, thought that Weishaupt was a philanthropist. "He is among those . . . who believe in the infinite perfectibility of man."

Paranoid conspiracy theorists believe in the all-encompassing influence of the Illuminati – their secret symbols appear in the Great Seal of the United States, they financed Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto, President Barac Obama and the liberal media have advocated their cause, and Al-Qaeda is well connected to the top Illuminati families (the Bushes, the Clintons, the British royal family, etc). The former U.K. soccer star and broadcaster David Icke, who called himself the "most controversial author and speaker in the world," claimed that Illuminati-reptilians from the fourth dimension rule the world.

For further information: The Genesis of German Conservatism by Klaus Epstein (1966); Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson (1977); Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia: Volume 1: A-L, edited by Peter Knight (2003); The Secert Founding of America: The Real Story of Freemasons, Puritans, & the Battle for the New World by Nicholas Hagger (2007); Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen by Gary Lachman (2008); Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati by Terry Melanson (2009); Illuminati Manifesto of World Revolution (1792) by  Nicholas Bonneville, transtated, edited and introduced by Marco di Luchetti (2011); Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 by Jonathan Israel (2011); The Illuminati Mystique by Vanilo Quinzet (2013); A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America by Michael Barkun (2013); Cults and Conspiracies: A Literary History by Theodore Ziolkowski  (2017); Bavarian Illuminati: The Rise and Fall of the World's Most Secret Society by René Le Forestier; translated by Jon E. Graham (2022)

Selected works:

  • De lapsu academiarum commentatio politica, 1775
  • Apologie der Illuminaten ..., 1786
  • Vollständige Geschichte der Verfolgung der Illuminaten in Bayern, 1786
  • Gedanken über die Verfolgung der Illuminated in Bayern, 1786
  • Anzeige eines aus dem Orden der Frey-Maurer, oder der sogenannten Illuminaten getrettenen [!] Mitglieds in Bayern, über die Einrichtung und den Zweck dieser Gesellschaft: mit Anmerkungen, 1786
  • Schilderung der Illuminated, 1786
  • Ueber die Schrecken des Todes, eine philosophische Rede, 1786
  • Ueber Materialismus und Idealismus, 1786
  • Vollständiche Geschichte der Verfolgung der Illuminaten in Bayern, 1786
  • Schreiben an den Herrn Hofkammerrat Utschneider in Muenchen: Nebst Instruktion fuer den
  • Obern der Minervalkirche wegen Erteilung dieses Grades, 1786
  • Einleitung zu meiner Apologie, 1787
  • Kurze Rechtfertigung meiner Absichten, 1787
    - A Brief Justification of My Intentions (translated by Tony Page, 2014)
  • Nachtrag zur Rechtfertigung meiner Absichten, 1787
  • Apologie des Missvergnuegens und Uebels, 1787
  • Das verbesserte System der Illuminaten mit allen seinen Einrichtungen und Graden, 1787
  • Zweifel ueber die kantiche Begriffe von Zeit und Raum, 1788
  • Gründe und Gewissheit des menschlichen Erkennens, 1788
  • Kantische Anschauungen und Erscheinung, 1788
  • Das verbesserte System der Illuminaten mit allen seinen Graden und Einrichtungen, 1788
  • Der sterbende Adam an seine Kinder und Nachkommenschaft: Gedicht, 1790
  • Apologie des Misvergnügens und Uebels, 1790
  • Pythagoras oder Betrachtungen über die geheime Welt- und Regierungs-Kunst, 1790
  • Ueber Wahrheit und sittliche Vollkommenheit, 1793-1797
  • Die neuesten Arbeiten des Spartacus und Philo in dem Illuminaten-Orden jetzt zum erstenmal gedruckt und zur Beherzigung bey gegenwärtigen Zeitläuften herausgeben, 1794
  • Illuminatus Dirigens, oder Schottischer Ritter: Ein Pendant zu der nicht unwichtigen Schrift, 1794
  • Ueber die Selbstkenntniss, ihre Hindernisse und Vortheile, 1794
  • Ueber die Zwecke oder Finalursachen, 1797
  • Die Leuchte des Diogenes: Oder Prüfung unserer heutigen Moralität und Aufklärung, 1804
  • Die Illuminaten: Quellen und Texte zur Aufklärungsideologie des Illuminatenordens (1776-1785), 1984 (edited by Jan Rachold)

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