Thanks to a new adept, Baron von Knigge, the Bavarian Illuminati grew into a substantial Masonic organization, recruiting princes and leading intellectuals.
by Massimo Introvigne
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With all his criticism of Freemasonry, the founder of the small secret society of the Bavarian Illuminati, Adam Weishaupt, tried between 1776 and 1781 to set up a quasi-Masonic system, with initiation ceremonies and three degrees, reminiscent of the basic Masonic ones, which he called novice, minerval, and illuminatus-minerval. Control over members was granted to the founder by the Quibus licet, “Reserved for those who are allowed to read them,” secret notebooks in which adepts were incited to record all their intellectual and spiritual experiences, and which Weishaupt had the right to examine and preserve. The order had both a public purpose and a secret one, of which the “novices,” i.e. the ordinary members not part of the elite “areopagus,” were not informed.
Publicly, the Illuminati proposed the moral improvement of their members, according to a natural ethics similar to the one expounded since 1755 by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The secret aim was the diffusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment coming from France, and the fight against the Catholic Church and the ex-Jesuits. The Illuminati thus had Enlightenment works on religion printed or imported clandestinely into Bavaria, ranging from a mild deism to an open atheism.
In the end, the secret of these early Illuminati consisted in the doctrines of Paul d’Holbach (1723–1789), and Claude-Adrien Hélvetius (1715–1771), whose works Weishaupt recommended to his most trusted initiates. While this may seem like a modest secret today, at that time these were works banned in Bavaria, the mere possession of which exposed to the risk of imprisonment.
Weishaupt soon faced problems connected with the Illuminati’s ambiguity. Except for the students, the order counted on Bavarian provincial notables, indispensable for the dues they paid, but who had affiliated themselves thinking of joining a kind of Freemasonry in small towns where either there was no Masonic lodge or they did not know where to find one. They had vaguely heard of alchemy and secret rites, and hoped they would be revealed to them, while they would not be particularly interested in Baron d’Holbach’s anti-religious philosophy even if it were revealed to them, which out of prudence it was not.
Weishaupt’s quasi-Masonic imitations were pedantic and uninspired. The answer he invariably gave to the disappointed was that, as in Freemasonry, in the Illuminati the first three degrees were preparatory to further initiations, where the true mysteries would be revealed. However, the rituals of the degrees beyond the third were never completed.
Weishaupt worked on a new intellectual fashion brought to Germany by the Orientalists, the Zoroastrian religion, believed (wrongly) to be the oldest in the world. He dated the “age of the Illuminati” from the year 632 A.D., that is, from the ascent to the throne of King Yadzegerd III (†651 A.D.), whom he confused with Yadzegerd II (†457 A.D., reigned from 438 to 457). Yadzegerd III was considered by the Zoroastrians to be the last legitimate king of Persia before the Muslim invasion. The Parsees of India, whose calendar was adopted by Weishaupt in 1779, still count the years since his coronation (June 16, 632).
“The Order in its higher degrees,” Weishaupt wrote, “will therefore be called the Cult of Fire, the Order of Fire, the Order of the Parsis. It is something so splendid that it will surpass everything that can be imagined.” In fact, Weishaupt sought a residence where he could establish the Cult of Fire and entertain the Illuminati with some prodigy of “amusing physics,” such as those of a certain “electricity” he has vaguely heard of. But even this project did not follow through: only the names of the Persian months remained in the order, but they were soon reinterpreted.
In fact, Weishaupt had already thrown in the towel in February 1777, when he went to Munich to be received in the Masonic lodge Zur Behutsamkeit (“Prudence”). As he originally intended to create a rival organization competing with Freemasonry, this was a way of admitting defeat. But the rituals of Zur Behutsamkeit did not seem to Weishaupt much superior to his own. And he needed his own lodge, from which to deal as equals with those in the Masonic hierarchies elsewhere.
In 1779, he induced the Illuminati of Munich to obtain, by paying what was due, a patent (on whose actual legitimacy they would have some scruples later) from a lodge in Berlin to create a new Masonic lodge in the Bavarian capital, named for prudence “Theodore at Higher Wisdom” in honor of the duke-elector Karl Theodor.
The new lodge in Catholic Bavaria immediately tried to enter into relations with the larger Masonic milieu of Protestant Frankfurt am Main, where Weishaupt hoped to find some new followers for the Illuminati. In fact, he found what will prove to be the decisive character for the success of the order, Baron Adolf Franz Friedrich Ludwig von Knigge (1752–1796), a restless courtier of several German princes and a well-known Freemason. Knigge had tried unsuccessfully to be received into the Golden Rosy Cross, an occult order rumored to be the keeper of ancient secrets, including on sexual magic. When, in January 1780, the Illuminati knocked on his door, boasting as usual of a fake ancient origin, he thought he had found the true keepers of occult secrets.
Knigge, however, young as he was, was familiar enough with Germany’s occult underground to understand that Weishaupt’s order was not as old as it claimed to be. In January 1781, Weishaupt wrote to Knigge apologizing for the “innocent deception,” and confessing that the Illuminati had just been founded and so far were largely at the stage of project. Rather than getting angry, Knigge saw in it an opportunity to finally realize his project of Masonic reform, which the German lodges, repeatedly urged, had so far refused to adopt.
With his considerable experience of things Masonic, in one year, from January 1781 to January 1782, Knigge nearly completed the work, preparing imaginative ceremonies, which did not disfigure in the face of those of many other German Masonic systems. He called these the rituals of a “reformed” Order of the Illuminati. The three degrees of novice, minerval and illuminatus-minerval (renamed “illuminatus minor”) became simply preparatory to the three canonical Masonic degrees of apprentice, fellowcraft and master, which were followed by two high degrees drawn from the tradition of continental European Freemasonry, Scottish novice and Scottish knight, and four “mystery degrees” of priest, regent, magus and king.
As many other Masonic systems of the time, the “reformed” Illuminati had a “legend,” claiming that the Illuminati dated back to John the Evangelist and, further back, to the legendary architect of Solomon’s temple, Hiram (the central character of the first English Masonic legends), and to Noah.
Old-time Illuminati objected that Weishaupt had told them that the order was born in Zoroastrian Persia on the eve of the Islamic invasion. Knigge now explained that this was a metaphor for a deeper truth. The name of the first month of the Parsi calendar, Jedzedjerd, Knigge argued, was actually an acronym for “Johannes Evangelista Zebedei, Detractus, Ecclesias, Domitiano Interfecto, Erexit Regnante Traiano,” “John the Evangelist, [son] of Zebedee, while in confinement [on the island of Patmos], erected new churches, after Domitian [51–96 A.D.] had been killed, in the reign of Trajan [98–117 A.D.].”
The “new churches,” Knigge insisted, were the new lodges of the Order of the Illuminati, founded by Noah but “awakened” by John the Evangelist. In fact, Knigge argued, in the primitive Christian church, before the corruption brought by the Popes of Rome, all Christians were Illuminati. As for Hiram, Knigge explained that his exact name was “Hieram,” whose name was a symbolic prefiguration of Jesus Christ. “Hieram” in fact meant “Hic Jesus Est Restituens Amorem Mundi,” “Here is Jesus who restores love to the world,” or “Hic Jesus Est Resurgens a Mortuis,” “Here is Jesus who rises from the dead.”
Or this was the story told to novices. In his private correspondence, Weishaupt confessed that he “could not help but laugh” when confronted with these fanciful acronyms, which were intended to present the order to the lower grades as composed of good Christians, or at least good Protestants. In the higher degrees of priest and regent, the veil fell, and the initiated discovered that behind the Protestant religion taught in the lower degrees, the Illuminati embraced a deism that rejected the notion of the immortality of the soul.
Beyond the degrees of priest and regent were these of magus and king. These degrees were taught only orally, and some have speculated that here rationalist deism was replaced, or supplemented, with elements drawn from the tradition of magic and alchemy, in which Knigge had always been interested, perhaps including theurgy and even sexual magic.
However, one element that distinguished the Bavarian Illuminati from other German Masonic systems continued to be its politics. Again, up to the degree of Scottish knight the rituals preached submission to the authorities. But in the more secretive degree of priest, there were allusions to the advantages of replacing monarchy with republic, such as, “If the king is not the best of the citizens, let the best be king.”
These were ideas that might arouse some interest in Germany, after the enthusiasm raised by the American Revolution, and the outrage against a German prince like Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel (1720–1785) who had literally sold England twelve thousand soldiers sent to America to fight the Revolution, 11,853 of whom died for a cause not their own. And every now and then, declaiming against princes and priests, Weishaupt also included private property among the objects of his vituperations, which will later make him a subject of interest in the German Democratic Republic.
However, the Illuminati regarded an armed revolution premature and beyond their means. They preferred the slow infiltration of people they trusted into the gears of power.
If the Illuminati could not organize a revolution, it was also, paradoxically, because of their success. They reached their peak around 1784, with a probable number of 2,500 members, a significant result for an 18th-century secret society, and with lodges in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, the Baltic area, and in almost the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Knigge recruited many disillusioned members of the European Freemasonry, but he certainly did not gain them to his cause by professing anti-religious or republican ideas. He confined himself to the usual legends about Noah, John the Evangelist, or the Knight Templars, and to elegant rituals.
The new, numerous adherents could not be promoted to ranks where they were taught to conspire against the aristocrats ad the princes for the good reasons that they were often aristocrats and princes themselves, including Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar (1757–1828), Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Gotha (1745–1804), and Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick (1735–1806), as well as numerous ministers and dignitaries.
It was Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar who persuaded their two most famous recruits to join the Illuminati in 1783: Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832, name in the order “Abaris”) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803, “Damasus Pontifex”). It seems, however, that the two glories of the German intellectual world took very little interest in the activities of the Illuminati, limiting themselves to being initiated to please the Duke. Although Goethe was directly conferred the rank of regent, most likely he never read the relevant instructions. Certainly, Goethe and Herder were not recruited for revolutionary activities. But others were.