Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati by Terry Melanson is a rich treasure trove of history, much of which I found I hadn’t quite been familiar with yet, and that, in spite of the author’s barely hidden bias, really puts the infamous Illuminati in a heroic position in their time.
I’ve always been surprised, and am now even more surprised, that the Illuminati are vilified. They were on the ground in the front lines of what became the Enlightenment. They were struggling against entrenched and violently repressive regimes in religious, scholastic and secular society. I think, ultimately, the Enlightenment and Revolutionary periods left them in the dust, perhaps justly, but they were there, at the beginnings, part of the vanguard for what has become the modern world. In the days before Revolution was possible, it seems rational to think “the only recourse, it would seem—short of a revolution—is to operate in the shadows.”
For example, I think, aside from the, perhaps spurious, part about poisoning and a caveat in regard to “passion rather than reason”, I can agree quite strongly with “such vicious moral and religious sentiments as that life should be controlled by passion rather than reason, that suicide is justifiable, that one may poison one’s enemies, and that religion should be regarded as nonsense and patriotism as puerility.” And, I largely laud “how harmful and dangerous the Order of the Illuminati will be for the State and religion, if allowed to flourish here and beyond.” I find I am mostly in agreement with the sentiment that “every King and every priest is a traitor and a thief,” just maybe not quite the Populist rural rabble’s revolting take on that, but in rather an equalitarian and egalitarian way of where humanity could be, if only it were perfected. I fear, for the author’s sake, I’m more aligned with the idea and ideals of this historical Illuminati now having read this history than I was ever before.
I agree with Weishaupt “in the indefinite perfectibility of man” and that humanity “may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless.” To the extent this is a “conspiracy against all government” and against the “evils of private property” then so be it, but we’re also not there yet.
The role of the Rosicrucian orders as agents of the Counter-Enlightenment was a bit of a surprise to me. Finding that out explains several things I found curious, not the least of which is Franz Hartmann’s switch from a Rosicrucian to an Illuminati focus in his fiction. But, I have a stronger idea of the tension around what became of literary Rosicrucianism when it began to accrete later innovations. But, suffice to say, it turns out, for me, anyway, the Rosicrucians are the villains that most people seem to think the Illuminati are.
I’ve gotten a lot of new book titles and names of people from this that I’ve put on my list of things to research. I’ve also become far more interested in the way Deism has played out in the Enlightenment in Europe and the Revolutionary period in North America. I’ve also started to read ancillary materials mentioned here, for example I picked up Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey because of this book. So, in addition to the historical information contained directly, this was a great point of departure as well.
Through this book I developed an appreciation for how the secrecy and hierarchical nature of the Illuminati went from being a reasonable and rational security culture to being a burden and ultimately, I think, the reason they were left behind by the overall Enlightenment, which proved too popular and too widespread for them to stay in control as much as the opposition was unable to control its advance. There’s much in the critical analysis of how the Illuminati failed as an organization that could be considered and contemplated by other orders that exist in the world. For example, Baron von Knigge is quoted:
“[As a rule, under the veil of secrecy, dangerous plans and harmful teachings can be accepted just as well as noble intentions and profound knowledge; because not all members themselves are informed of such depraved intentions, which sometimes tend to lie hidden beneath the beautiful façade … because for the most part, unknown superiors lie in ambush and it is unworthy of an intelligent man to work according to a plan, which he does not fully see, for whose importance and goodness he is responsible to people, whom he does not know, whom he must bind himself to, without them binding themselves to him.. because they [secret societies] cost time and money;…because they soon became the assembly places for adventurers and idlers; because they favor various species of political, religious, and philosophical Scwärmerei [zealous or insane enthusiasm]; because a monkish esprit de corps prevails in them and brings about much harm; finally, because they provide the opportunity for cabals, discord, persecution, intolerance, and injustice against good men, because they are not members of such an order or at least not the same order.”
In addition to technocratic autocracy dangerously enabling organizational dysfunction and antagonists, there’s much to be taken seriously here in the analysis of how hierarchical and secret orders can become burdens to themselves and their membership and the society in which they operate. I’m afraid that here I must finally, for reasons principled and philosophical and personal, part ways with this illustrious company so closely aligned with my own thinking, but ultimately not my allies.
The author makes a largely credible case that the Illuminati continued at least indirectly to exist past the point when it is largely considered to have demised as an order. I don’t take very seriously the idea that indirect influence and inspiration qualify as absolute continuity of conspiracy, as the author seems to believe, but it seems clear enough that the ideas of Enlightenment and methods of organization championed by the Order of the Illuminati were broadly influential long after the order, per se, ceased to be.
But, one thing else, that does come across for me, is that the Enlightenment is an ongoing struggle against which the collective diverse forces of Counter-Enlightenment are constantly and continually resisting. This is even more serious a point to me in the intervening months since I read this work to the time that I am writing now. There are people of serious mind to return to the way things were before the Enlightenment, and some of them are currently running the United States. The struggle is real. The Enlightenment is in danger.
Perhaps there is still a place, and moreover a need, for the Illuminati to continue to exist after all. But, it’s clear they don’t exist, because even if they did still exist, then they’re doing a really damned shitty job.
In the Kindle edition, the illustrations are awful and tiny. There’s also a lot of errors that appear to me likely problems of taking the original text and turning it into an ebook without proper quality control. One of the most common issues is that hardcoded line endings end up in the wrong place, causing lines of text to be split mid-sentence. Someone just didn’t bother checking the ebook output, I think. But there’s other numerous egregious errors, for just one example repeatedly misspelling something as obvious and central as “Wishaupt” instead of Weishaupt.
I made 151 highlights.