Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution 1789-1799 - Vol. 1

By Samuel F. Scott; Barry Rothaus | Go to book overview
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ILLUMINATI, secret society. The founder was A. Weishaupt, professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. He intended, through an organization dedicated to education and propaganda, to combat the strong influence of the clergy and especially the ex-Jesuits in Bavaria. Ironically enough, Weishaupt held the chair of canon law, reserved before their expulsion in 1773 for the Jesuits. In 1776, Weishaupt, with a few friends, launched his secret society, which he initially called the Order of Bees; he constructed an entire allegory on the theme of a hive of bees ruled benevolently and absolutely by their queen. Weishaupt had hoped to attract students into his order, but as the organization spread slowly into other Bavarian cities in the next several years, it attracted instead a membership consisting mainly of bureaucrats, clerics, and nobles. The group came to be known as the Order of Illuminati, a name suggesting both the traditional Catholic mystical enlightenment embodied in Saint Augustine and Saint Teresa of Avila and the modern enlightenment expressed by F.-M. Voltaire, P. Bayle, and G. E. Lessing. Like many other young German and Austrian Catholics of his generation, Weishaupt was especially affected by the new intellectual interchange with the Protestant north, the first in two centuries.

Freemasonry had been another important intellectual influence on Weishaupt's generation, but initially there was no direct contact between the Freemasons and the Illuminati. Only in 1781, when Weishaupt and his associates were accepted into the Munich lodge called Théodore de Bon Conseil, did the interaction become important. The Illuminati made a key convert in Baron A. von Knigge, who for many years had been trying to reform the entire Masonic system. Initiated into the Illuminati, he set to work to create for them a more elaborate system of rituals and ranks and to extend their proselytizing efforts beyond Bavaria. It was Knigge who wrote the rituals for the higher grades that expressed a militant anti-Catholicism and the belief that society would evolve over the centuries to the point at which men would no longer need kings and all would be brothers. A decade later, the Illuminati were portrayed as the agents of violent subversion,


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