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He was born and raised in Ingolstadt, where he attained the rank of Professor of Canon Law in 1772. Though he was educated by Jesuits and was clearly influenced by the discretion, loyalty and the hierarchic obedience of the Society of Jesus and was for a time a member of their order, his appointment as Professor of Natural and Canon Law at the University of Ingoldstadt in 1775 offended them. He broke with them and became increasingly liberal in his religious and political views, favoring deism and a kind of millennial natural order that swept aside states and organized religion.
With the help of Baron Adolph von Knigge, on May 1, 1776 Weishaupt formed the "Order of Perfectibilists", which was later known as the Illuminati. Some claim that this founding date is the origin for the date of the Communist May Day observance. He adopted the name of "Brother Spartacus" within the order. Though the Order was distinctly not egalitarian or democratic, its declared mission was the development of morality and virtue and the creation of an association of good men to oppose the progress of evil, by any means necessary. "Sin is only that which is hurtful, and if the profit is greater than the damage, it becomes a virtue," Weishaupt wrote: the ends justified the means. The actual character of the society was determined by its traditionalist enemies to be an elaborate network of spies and counter-spies, though with the high goal of ensuring virtue. Each isolated cell of initiates reported to a superior, whom they did not know, a party structure that was effectively adopted by some later groups, including more recently by the early Ba'ath party in Syria and Iraq.
Weishaupt was initiated into Freemasonry Lodge "Theodor zum guten Rath", at Munich in 1777. He worked at first to divest Freemasonry of its pseudohistorical mumbo-jumbo and reform it. Weishaupt had no use for other occultisms in general: "It is by this scale that we must measure the mad and wicked explanations of the Rosycrucions, the exorcists and Cabalists. These are rejected by all good Masons, because incompatible with social happiness." His project of "illumination, enlightening the understanding by the sun of reason, which will dispel the clouds of superstition and of prejudice" was an unwelcome reform. Soon however he had developed gnostic mysteries of his own, with the goal of perfecting human nature through re-education to achieve a communal state of nature, freed of government and organized religion. He began working towards incorporating his system of Illuminism into that of Masonry, with the aim of spreading his ideals throughout the world. "I did not bring Deism into Bavaria," he wrote, "more than into Rome. I found it here, in great vigour, more abounding than in any of the neighboring Protestant States. I am proud to be known to the world as the founder of the Illuminati."
Weishaupt's radical rationalism, sweeping away nations and religions, private property and marriage, with the vocabulary used by the French Revolution, was not likely to appeal, even to an establishment more liberal than the Wittelsbachs'. Writings that were intercepted in 1784 were interpreted as seditious, the Society was banned by Bavaria's government in 1784, Weishaupt lost his position at the University of Ingolstadt and fled Bavaria. He received the assistance of Duke Ernest of Gotha, and lived in Gotha writing a series of works on Illuminism, including A Complete History of the Persecutions of the Illuminati in Bavaria (1785), A Picture of Illuminism (1786), An Apology for the Illuminati (1786), and An Improved System of Illuminism (1787). He died there in 1811, though his later career was so obscure that some sources place the year of his death at 1830.
A century after his death, occultist interest in Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati picked up, through the writings of Aleister Crowley. Modern adepts trace the imagery of symbolism like the eye in the pyramid, and embrace the secrecy of the Illuminati traditions but ignore the specifics of Weishaupt's published essays and correspondence.
Quotes about Weishaupt
- As Weishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot and priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, and the principles of pure morality. This has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment.... If Weishaupt had written here, where no secrecy is necessary in our endeavors to render men wise and virtuous, he would not have thought of any secret machinery for that purpose.
- --Thomas Jefferson
- A human devil.
- --Abbe Augustin Barruel
- A harmless philanthropist.
- --Thomas Jefferson
Weishaupt in fiction
A fictionalized version, Adam Weisshaupt, appeared in Cerebus, as a combination of Weishaupt and George Washington. He appeared primarily in the Cerebus and Church and State I volumes. His motives were Republican confederalizing of city-states in Estarcion (a psudeo-Europe) and the accumulation of capital unencumbered by government or church.
- History and politics of Weishaupt's illuminati, without an occultist slant
- Catholic Encyclopedia: "Illuminati"; a critical view
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