Two warnings: (1) I base my comments on Brown's depiction of the Illuminati in the book version; the movie may deviate from the book. (2) Although I do not reveal any plot twists, by necessity I will convey information about the Illuminati that appears in Brown's novel.
The Illuminati Really Existed
There have been several movements throughout history whose adherents were known by the name (translated into English) of "Illuminated Ones," or (in its Latin version) Illuminati. The movement to which Dan Brown is referring is the Bavarian Illuminati, founded on May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, a Jesuit-educated but anticlerical university professor who taught at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria (the southeastern part of what is now Germany). The Bavarian Illuminati (hereafter just Illuminati, for short) were a revolutionary group that proposed to overthrow the absolute powers of the day, the Church and the Monarchy. Their plan was to replace these with a reverence for Reason, and a sort of primitive Democracy.
For the most part, the Illuminati were high on revolutionary talk, and low on action. However, what they were talking about was truly revolutionary. Had the Illuminist agenda been carried out, it would have meant a thoroughgoing reorganization of society.
Weishaupt and his associates designed a series of initiatory ceremonies, or "degrees" of initiation, by which they brought people into what was truly meant to be a secret society in the proper sense: that is, a society whose very existence was supposed to be a secret from the surrounding greater society and culture. Under Weishaupt's leadership, agents of the Illuminati infiltrated several Masonic lodges in Europe, and subverted these lodges to serve as fronts for Illuminati activities. However, Weishaupt's plans were discovered by government authorities, and several European states worked to crush the Illuminati and the revolutionary activities of its members. Within about ten years of its founding, for all practical purposes, the Illuminati were no more. Reportedly, Weishaupt himself died reconciled to the Church he had once spurned.
Until my own book on the subject is published--and, I am actively seeking representation and interested publishers!--probably the best general reference on the Illuminati, in my opinion, is the portion on the Illuminati (chapter 11) in Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon's book, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies for Dummies. (Yes, this is a "Dummies" book--and a pretty good one, too.) Some material from this chapter is available on the May 1, 2009 post of these authors' blog devoted to this topic.
However, the Illuminati have had a much livelier existence after their suppression, as they have formed the core of Western conspiracy theories and conspiracy-themed fiction for over two centuries (a topic explored in detail in my book). However, the Illuminati of conspiracy theory and fiction differ in major ways from the real Illuminati of history. Below, I describe some of the ways that Dan Brown's Illuminati, as depicted in Angels and Demons, differs from the Illuminati of history.
The Real Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Italian Renaissance Artists and Scientists
In Angels and Demons (hereafter A&D), the Illuminati were a group that existed back in the time of Galileo, whose writings give important clues to Robert Langdon, the hero of Brown's novel (played by Tom Hanks in the movie). This is nonsense.
The real Illuminati were founded in 1776 in Bavaria. Galileo died in 1642, a full century and a half earlier. Basically, Galileo was as far from the days of the Illuminati as we are from the era of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. This is not a small discrepancy.
So, why did Dan Brown position the Illuminati in the time and place that he did? Consider this:
- As one can tell from both A&D and its sequel, The Da Vinci Code, Brown is interested in questions of religion and faith as these intersect with the historical positions of the Roman Catholic church. In addition, as we can see from these two books, he (and his wife Blythe Newlon) have a great love of Renaissance art. To address all of this, it makes a great deal more sense to write a story involving Rome and the Vatican, the artwork commissioned by the Renaissance-era Catholic Church, and so forth. Where else could he place such a story, but Rome? Ingolstadt? I don't think so.
- As appears to be the case based on his court testimony a couple of years ago, Dan Brown reads widely, but not necessarily with a discriminating eye. My suspicion is that Brown has dipped into the conspiracy literature more than once for inspiration. In turn, the conspiracy community has latched onto the Illuminati as the ur-conspiracy, the Mother Ship of Western conspiracies, for a long time. Some writers have connected it to revolutionary movements occurring after the Illuminati's demise (such as the French Revolution, and the rise of Communism in Russia). However, other conspiracy writers (like Jim Marrs and David Icke) have connected the Illuminati to groups and movements that date to much earlier times, even centuries and millennia earlier. From that perspective, pulling Galileo into the Illuminati isn't much of a stretch.
The Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Scientists At AllBrown's Illuminati are devoted to destroying the seat of Catholic governance through the use of extremely high-tech (even science fictional) means, as a way to usher in an age of science. This is a heavy distortion of the position of the historical Illuminati, who were not men or women of science. (I say "or women" because the historical Illuminati enrolled both genders.) The real Illuminati organization was devoted to making Reason, not Faith, the guiding principle of government and life, but that Reason was really a philosophical principal. (After all, 1776 fell well within the range of the period called the Enlightenment, right?) Reason was promoted as the principle to follow in the political process, rather than either religious faith or the supposedly divine right of kings. Thus, the Illuminati appealed to some figures in the arts, such as Goethe, and to liberally minded members of the European aristocracy. Scientists, however, barely figured into the historical Illuminati at all.
So why does Brown make his Illuminati into a conspiracy devoted to the ascendancy of science? The Illuminati, as a mythic icon, is a sort of Rorschach card into which each age reads its anxieties. To the clergy of the early American Republic in the late 18th and early 19th century, uncomfortable with their lesser power in a country with no established national church, the Illuminati were wild-eyed rationalists behind the anticlerical French Revolution. To our day, when issues of the relationship of science and religion are in the headlines, the Illuminati are anticlerical scientists. Brown is just reflecting the social anxieties of early 21st century America.
American Freemasons Were Never Involved With the Illuminati
One of the annoying claims in A&D is that the world's oldest fraternal organization, Freemasonry, is actually a front for the Illuminati. This is a staple of conspiracy literature, of course, and a full-blown refutation would take a great deal of space.
Let me put it this way. I am a Freemason: a Master Mason in the Blue Lodge, literally a man who has received "the Third Degree." In addition, I am a 32nd-degree Master of the Royal Secret in the Scottish Rite, and a Knight Templar in the York Rite (the Rites being appendant organizations that only accept Master Masons). I know several 33rd-degree members of the Scottish Rite, including some of the best-informed scholars in American Freemasonry. I have never detected even a whiff of a clue that Freemasonry is controlled by some secret "inner" organization.
The historical Illuminati did infiltrate several--probably dozens--of lodges in Continental Europe. They seem never to have had influence in English Freemasonry, where Grand Lodge Freemasonry began, let alone in the United States. Thus, what Dan Brown has to say on the subject is simply nonsense.
Then again, that's just what you would expect me to say . . . .
Enjoy the movie, as the work of fiction that it is.
[The image above, showing the cover of the book version of Angels and Demons, was obtained from Wikipedia. The copyright to this image is most likely owned by either the book publisher or the artist(s) who created the book cover. Wikipedia states that the use of this low-resolution image to illustrate an article dealing with the book is fair use under U.S. copyright law.]