The Italian sounding word Illuminati keeps appearing in the media. Take the music industry for example: back in 2013, the word Illuminati was present in 33 song lyrics. In 2014, Madonna released the song “Illuminati.” Three years later, Beyonce sang, “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess” (Lyrics from “Formation”).
What is Illuminati?
Centuries ago, the secret society Illuminati existed for about a decade in Germany. At that time, the name of the country was Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, a name that alludes to the complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
The country of 17 million people was rather a collection of independent states each governed by an elector (ruler), in strange ways sometimes. The state of Hanover, for example, was ruled by the King of England. The German states Prussia (capital Berlin) and Austria (capital Vienna) were very powerful.
Overall, the country was not as advanced as England and France. In social terms, inequality characterized the German society of aristocracy, landowners and serfs, many of whom ended up searching for a better life in America, largely in Pennsylvania.
The Catholic Church, powerful in Europe, was in Germany as well. Bishops were important figures. They normally belonged to the ruling dynasties and aristocratic families. The religious vow they had taken didn’t prevent them from enjoying an opulent and influential lifestyle, just like their relatives in the secular society, such an incoherence with the simple life of early Christians.
Late in the 1700s, Catholic monasteries had extensive land holdings. In Bavaria, south of Germany, they controlled 56% of the land. The discontent with the Catholic Church accentuated the Protestant expansion, for example in Prussia by early 1800.
This was however, a time for great cultural expansion: Goethe (literature), Herder (philosophy and poetry), Schiller (history and poetry), Kant (philosophy), Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (music).
One should keep in mind that historical events are inserted in a context. Knowledge at that time, was not accessible to everyone, different from today. Universities, typically influenced by the Church, and Monasteries were the main centers of divulgation.
Sometimes the Church held inaccurate views, implemented through dogmas (“believe it, don’t question it”). Astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei fell victim to such circumstances. Although his studies produced evidence that Earth turns around the Sun, the Church taught otherwise. Galileo had to retract this “heresy,” and in return was given a light sentence – house arrest – until his death.
The power of the Church over the state and individuals, the marked social differences and difficult access to knowledge were some of the factors conducive to a wide European intellectual movement by mid-17 Century. It was called the Age of Reason, Age of Enlightenment or simply Enlightenment. In essence it aimed for a just, better society, reason-built knowledge and a non-Church controlled government.
Intellectuals such as Kant and Goethe embraced the movement and so did states such as Prussia. Land distribution took place, albeit timidly. More advanced states were governed in accord to the best guidelines of the philosophers, achieved economic development and legal reforms, abolished torture and improved the status of Jews.
In 1776, Adam Weishaupt created a secret society in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. Educated in the Catholic Jesuit Order – with solid discipline training and intellectual formation – Weishaupt became a professor at the local university, teaching Canonical Law – the norms that the Catholic hierarchy enforce to maintain the organization.
The society’s original name was the “Order of Perfectibilists.” That later changed to the “Order of the Bavarian Illuminati,” plural of Illuminatus, meaning “enlightened” in Latin. It aimed at the intellectual development of men, a better society and absolute separation of church and state.
An astute reader may inquire why had Weishaupt created such a society. Wasn’t he aiming for the same Enlightenment ideals? Weren’t there already other secret societies? In fact, the “Alumbrados” or (Aluminados, meaning “enlightened” in Spanish) had existed some 230 years before, and the Rosicrucian and the Free Mason Orders, founded respectively 150 and 60 years earlier were still active.
Certainly, Weishaupt was not fully satisfied with the Enlightenment nor with the secret societies. Perhaps the ambitious 28-year-old Weishaupt believed that he and nobody else, could bring an effective and definitive change. He personally selected the original members. They were young members of influential families.
Certain peculiarities distinguished his society. Absolute loyalty and secrecy, use of code-names and expansion at all cost, where the end justified the means. With the help of enthusiastic and influential members, the teachings spread in Germany and later in other European countries. Some members belonged to Masonic organization and he used the Mason structure to recruit new members.
The society expanded in Europe: Tyrol (now Austria), Warsow (Poland), Bratislava (Slovenia), Milan (Italy) and Switzerland. It reached a membership of 2,500 people (although because of the dual membership they were counted as Masons and not as Illuminati, some historians say the number of members reached no more than 650).
Illuminati extremist ideas became a danger, despite the Illuminati society’s small size; however, it had no future. The Catholic Church was overwhelmingly powerful, in Germany and Europe, as well as Lutheranism in some German states. In addition, other groups that Illuminati competed with – Free Masons and Rosicrucians – were better established.
Finally, the Elector of Bavaria Karl Theodore banned not only the Illuminati, but all other secret societies in 1789. Weishaupt had to escape to Regensburg, 50 miles northeast of Ingolstadt, remaining there, writing pamphlets and books until the end of his days.
The secret society Illuminati disappeared — to which conspiracists would respond, “that’s what the unawakened believe.”