German philosopher and founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, 1748–1811. Born in the Bavarian university town of Ingolstadt, Weishaupt came from an academic family with connections to Baron von Ickstatt, a member of the Bavarian Privy Council. Ickstatt’s patronage won the young Weishaupt a scholarship at a Jesuit school. The rigidly conservative education he received there irritated Weishaupt, but the discipline and organization of the Jesuits themselves impressed him deeply. At 15 he finished his studies with the Jesuits and enrolled at the University of Ingolstadt, where he studied the writings of liberal French philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot and quickly earned a reputation as a brilliant and independent thinker. He graduated in 1772 and immediately received a teaching position at Ingolstadt.
In the following year the Society of Jesus was dissolved by Papal edict. The conservative faction of the Ingolstadt faculty included many Jesuits, who retained their positions and opinions despite the abolition of their order, and struggles between liberal and conservative faculty broke out almost at once. Despite his youth, Weishaupt took an active part in these quarrels and was appointed to the chair of canon law at the university, which had been held by Jesuits for 90 years but became vacant in 1773.
The bitter struggles that followed, and the rumours that the ex-Jesuits at Ingolstadt and elsewhere had reorganized in secret, convinced Weishaupt of the need for a secret society to support progressive ideas. He considered naming it the Society of Perfectibilists, after the belief in the perfectibility of human nature he drew from the liberal French authors he loved, but finally settled on the name Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria. He and four friends founded the Order of Illuminati, as it was usually called, on May 1, 1776.
Weishaupt spent most of the next eight years working long hours for the order, creating an extensive study program for its members, drafting rituals and symbolism, amassing a large library for the order, and corresponding constantly with its members. During the early 1780s, the glory days of the order, he and a small number of associates controlled an order with more than 650 members scattered across most of central Europe, and secretly controlled scores of Masonic lodges in Germany and elsewhere.
In 1784, when the order was exposed and the Bavarian government moved against it, Weishaupt fled the country in time to escape arrest. He found a new home at Gotha, in relatively liberal Saxony, where the reigning Duke Ernst II gave him a pension and a position as ducal counselor. Weishaupt remained there for the rest of his life. He became an important figure in the German philosophical scene of his time, and wrote several books about the Illuminati and his experiences in Bavaria, but these received little attention amid the flood of conspiracy theories that gathered around the Illuminati in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006