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As a historian of the occult, I receive more interview requests on one topic than any other. Halloween? No. Haunted houses? Almost never. Crocodiles in the sewers? Getting colder…
The question I am hit with more than any other: Is Jay-Z a member of the Illuminati? First of all, no. Secondly, and more seriously, a wide swath of our country has latched onto some variant of a conspiracy theory in circulation since the French Revolution, namely that a group of elite, antidemocratic control freaks are manipulating currency, plotting to steal our freedom, and worshipping goat-headed gods.
For some reason that only Alex Jones can fathom, these ultrasecret invisibles convey symbolic messages during Super Bowl halftime shows, Disney movies, and hip-hop videos.
As is often the case in matters of conspiracy theories, the truth is almost exactly the opposite of everything you’ve heard.
In actuality, the Illuminati has not existed for more than 200 years. The historic Illuminati was founded in Bavaria in 1776 by a lawyer named Adam Weishaupt. He believed in the same ideals that led to America’s Declaration of Independence that same year. His plan was to make his underground lodge — a kind renegade Freemasonic movement — into a vehicle for democratic revolution.
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote admiringly of Weishaupt in 1800:
“Wishaupt [sic] believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. That his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, & by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves.”
In other words, the Illuminati’s social aims were personal development, religious liberty, political freedom, separation of church and state, and an end to aristocratic privilege. That doesn’t sound very radical today, but in 18th-century Bavaria, such views could result in political persecution or worse, hence the need for Weishaupt and his colleagues to be secretive.
Jefferson further wrote: “[I]f Wishaupt had written here, where no secrecy is necessary in our endeavors to render men wise & virtuous, he would not have thought of any secret machinery for that purpose.” In the years immediately ahead, the Bavarian government outlawed secret societies. The Illuminati was effectively shut down less than a decade after its founding.
The Illuminati espoused the “religion of reason,” which to them meant an acceptance of science, democracy, and aspects of the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Persian faiths that sought to refine the individual. They also tended toward a kind of mystical Christianity, which was popular among European radicals, artists, and reformers, including Mozart and Goethe, who were friendly toward Weishaupt.
Following both the revolutions in France in 1789 and later in Russia in 1917, rumors of the Illuminati got kicked up again. When old social orders are completely and suddenly wiped away, it is, for some people, easier and less jarring to imagine a conspiracy afoot, rather than analyze the social factors that fomented upheaval.
Even in America, some today still associate the eye and pyramid on the back of our dollar bill as an Illuminati symbol. That eye and pyramid is actually the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal’s design began on July 4, 1776, on order from the Continental Congress and under the direction of Benjamin Franklin (a Freemason), Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The Latin maxim that surrounds the unfinished pyramid — Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Seclorum — can be roughly, if poetically, translated as “God Smiles on Our New Order of the Ages.”
I believe that image was inspired by the values of Freemasonry, another misunderstood organization. Masonry was a deeply felt commitment among some of America’s founders. George Washington was a member. Historically, Masons see the search for Universal Truth as a uniting factor of all nations and civilizations. Many of the founders saw the new republic as a place where the individual search for meaning could be protected. So, in the highest sense, America’s founding was a “new order of the ages.” I think that’s something to be proud of. That should fortify our respect for the right of each individual to pursue his private sense of truth without harassment or favoritism.
So much for the facts. Now back to paranoiaville. I’ve been accused myself of being an agent of the invisible empire. (It may not help that on my left forearm is an eye-and-pyramid tattoo surrounded by the “new order” slogan. I just like it.) In one intriguing example, I’ve been associated online with a rather ingenious Illuminati-themed card game from the 1990s, the images of which are said to have predicted 9/11 and other traumatic events. The “media card” and my image have been paired (see above left). Okay, a little creepy.
Far more disturbing, however, is the need that some people have to believe in a hidden power center. Their instinct is in right direction insofar as financial and governing structures should be more transparent and accountable. But rather than using that impulse toward educative ends, too many of us find it more thrilling, and less rigorous, to speculate about nonexistent star-chamber types stealing our power.
Is there evil in our culture? Yes — it comes not from secret societies, but from the more gray-toned realities of a healthcare company denying a legitimate claim or keeping you on hold for 20 minutes, knowing that hassled claimants often just go away.
The detachment of commerce from ethics is far more ominous than a mystical raccoon lodge somewhere.
Equally concerning is the vituperative tone of online culture. If some alien power wanted to undermine our civil society, it could hardly do better than to simply let people vent at one another across the 24/7 open-mic night that is the internet.
Next time you find yourself concerned about shadowy influences in the world, consider whether a gossipy remark, caustic aside, or sharing of someone else’s moment of humiliation and shame isn’t a more veritable culprit than anything our imaginations can cook up. As always, when we want to confront evil, the first place to start is the hardest: ourselves.