Calvinist Scottish author John Robison and French ex-Jesuit Augustin Barruel falsely argued that the Illuminati were behind the French Revolution.
by Massimo Introvigne
The Illuminati of Bavaria never achieved their political aims. However, the documents seized and published by the Bavarian Police, with their stories of preparing mysterious poisons, some of them inspired by Cagliostro, and even medicines to excite female sexuality, were enough to make them sexy for the printed media, which had started becoming important in Europe.
These accounts were read with interest by the opponents of Freemasonry, who found there confirmation of their worst fears. The Illuminati as an organization were dead, but their legend lived on. The first book transforming their history into legend was Essai sur la secte des Illuminés, published in a first edition in Berlin in 1788, and in a second, enlarged edition in Paris in 1789, by the marquis Jean-Pierre Louis de la Roche du Maine de Luchet (1740–1792). A totally unreliable cocktail mixing together some of the police-seized Illuminati documents and older tirades against Freemasons and Rosicrucians, the work went through a dozen reprints.
However, the influence of Luchet’s small book cannot be compared to that of two authentic war machines published after 1789 and aimed at proving that the French Revolution was the ripest fruit of the Illuminati conspiracy. They were Proofs of a Conspiracy by John Robison (1739–1805) and the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme by Augustin Barruel (1741–1820).
While Barruel was a Catholic priest, Robison was a Protestant. Mathematician, scientist, and professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh since 1773, Robison had been initiated into Freemasonry, in the lodge La Parfaite Intelligence in Liège in 1770. In 1783, he became the first general secretary of the newly formed Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is also remembered as the author of several scientific articles for the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A conservative Calvinist, he reacted with dismay to the French Revolution.
Reflecting on the French Revolution, Robison encountered the police-published documents on the Illuminati and Luchet’s book. In 1797, he published the book for which he remains famous, Proofs of a Conspiracy. The text is in itself of little value. It repeats the errors of Luchet, and takes extraordinary liberties with names and dates. However, it was successful enough in Great Britain, and became a bestseller in the United States. Its main thesis was that the Illuminati of Bavaria controlled Freemasonry, and Freemasonry was at the origin of the French Revolution.
Augustin Barruel entered the Jesuits in 1758 and remained there until their suppression in 1773. Having emigrated to England, he returned to France after the Napoleonic Concordat, and in 1802 became a canon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He had the satisfaction of returning in 1815 to the Jesuits, after they had been restored in 1814, and spent the last five years of his life in his old order. One of the earliest and most widely read Catholic authors hostile to the French Revolution, Barruel is known for his monumental Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme, the first volume of which was published in 1796 in London while the final edition, in five volumes, appeared in Hamburg between 1798 and 1799. The last three volumes are dedicated to the Illuminati of Bavaria. The third and the fourth reconstruct the history of the Illuminati on the basis of the German documents, while the fifth tries to show how Weishaupt’s order, through Freemasonry, was at the origins of the French Revolution.
Barruel has been widely ridiculed as extremist and gullible. However, the main academic historian of the Illuminati, René Le Forestier, wrote that the part about the history and rituals of the order is “despite the author’s bias, solidly and conscientiously constructed. Collections of the degrees of the Illuminati, depositions of former members, apologetic defenses of Knigge and Weishaupt, original writings, attacks by the main opponents: Barruel had read them all. His many quotations were translated from the German somewhat freely but faithfully. His plan was clear and well-articulated, and from the confused mass of documents he had collected, from the meticulous analysis of the original sources, he had been able to draw a complete and just slightly tendentious account of the organization of the order and of its history.”
This, according to Le Forestier, does not rescue the conspirationist parts of Barruel’s opus, where he insists that Freemasonry had planned the Revolution of 1789, but would not have been able to achieve it if its divided and confused forces had not placed themselves from 1786 under the energetic and capable direction of the Illuminati.
Barruel had only a second-hand knowledge of 18th-century French Freemasonry, as Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), a Catholic author who shared the Jesuit’s vehement hostility to the French Revolution but was also a Freemason, noted in two critical reviews of the Mémoires, which he did not publish but circulated in European diplomatic and political circles. “Never has a man of spirit written anything more stupid,” was Maistre’s severe judgment of the Mémoires. In fact, Maistre explained, French Freemasons never had a close relation with the Illuminati.
Robison and Barruel, from whom all the subsequent literature on the Illuminati derives, offered three arguments as evidence that the Illuminati did indeed lead the French Freemasons into organizing the Revolution. The first was about Cagliostro who, after he had been arrested in Rome, in his quite confused testimony before the Vatican judges confessed in 1790 that he had been initiated by the Illuminati in Germany, allowed to see one of their fabulous treasures, and informed that they were preparing two revolutions, the first in France and the second in Rome.
These statements by Cagliostro do appear in the Vatican-published summary of his prosecution and trial. However, Cagliostro was not above telling tall tales, including to prosecutors and judges, and his name does not appear in any German document of the Illuminati. However, that Cagliostro was a leader of the Illuminati continued to be repeated and found its way into fiction, from Alexandre Dumas père’s (1802–1870) five-volume novel Mémoires d’un médecin (1846–48) to Maurice Leblanc’s (1864–1941) stories of the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and Charles Shyer’s 2001 film The Affair of the Diamond Necklace, where Cagliostro was promoted to “Grand Master” of the Illuminati.
The second alleged link between the Illuminati and French Freemasonry in France revolves around three trips of the future revolutionary Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau (1749–1791) to Berlin between January 1786 and May 1787. Here, on an unofficial diplomatic mission on behalf of the French government, Mirabeau was warmly welcomed by Christoph Friedrich Nicolaï (1733–1811). A famous bookseller and author of anti-Jesuit controversy, Nicolaï suspected the Illuminati of atheism, for which he had no sympathy, but accepted to be initiated in 1784 to please several Masonic friends, while declaring that he did not intend to play any active role in the order. Mirabeau was also a friend of economist Jakob Mauvillon (1743–1794), another member of the Illuminati. In the papers of Mirabeau, there are notes signed by Mauvillon as “Arcesilaus,” which was his name as a member of the Illuminati.
But does the fact that Mirabeau had Illuminati friends mean that he became himself a member of the order? That he was initiated as “Leonidas” was claimed by the orientalist Johann August von Starck (1741–1816), a German Freemason and an opponent of the Illuminati who had supplied some information to Barruel, although he was very critical of the Mémoires after they were published. Starck was a biased source, but even if Mirabeau had become a member of the Illuminati, it is not believable that he might have been the agent leading the Bavarian order to take control of the French Freemasonry. If we believe Robison and Barruel, this should have happened in 1786–87, when the main activity of Weishaupt was trying to remain out of jail. Mirabeau himself was not a radical. He was a supporter of constitutional monarchy and an opponent of the Jacobins, and he even befriended Luchet.
Robison and Barruel offered as a third argument to support the Illuminati’s connection with the French Revolution the fact that they sent a delegate, Bode, to attend the second Convent of the Philalethes (Friends of Truth), organized in Paris by the adherents of the Masonic system of the same name created in 1773. The Philalethes sought to collect documentation on all Masonic systems, and organized conventions (“convents,” the first of which was held in 1785) to investigate the origins and development of Freemasonry. As far as we know, Bode went to Paris to warn French Freemasons that a Jesuit plot was hidden under some of the more mystical Masonic currents.
Those who want to interpret Bode’s trip to Paris as the moment in which the Illuminati took over French Freemasonry and began to organize it in view of the Revolution encounter several problems. The first is that the Philalethes themselves did not control the French Freemasonry and did not play a role in the French Revolution. In fact, some Philalethes such as Jean-Baptiste Willermoz (1730–1824) were persecuted by the Revolution. The second is that Bode himself was part of the wing of the Illuminati more attracted by esoteric mysteries than by revolutionary ideas. He gladly accepted to go to Paris because there he hoped to meet the Swabian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) and learn about his doctrine of “animal magnetism.” The third problem is that in fact, Bode did not attend the second Convent of the Philalethes, held from March 8 to May 26, 1787. He only managed to arrive in Paris on June 24, when the Convent was over. He did meet some Parisian Philalethes, but did not attend the Convent proper, and did not take part in any decision adopted there.
In the 19th and early 20th century conservative Catholic authors praised by the Vatican such as Jacques Crétineau-Joly (1803–1875) and Monsignor Henri Delassus (1836–1921) relied on Barruel and repeated that the Illuminati’s role had been crucial in preparing the French Revolution. They were not alone. However, that the theory is false is now taken for granted by academic historians. In the French Revolution, the Illuminati did not play any role.