Conspiracy theorists love lumping the Illuminati and the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) into the same pot. Some go as far as saying that the Illuminati run the O.T.O., while others say it is the other way around. Conspiracists have used this connection to argue not only that the Illuminati still exist, but that they use occult rituals to further a sinister, possibly even a satanic agenda. While the O.T.O.’s spiritual beliefs and practices may not be what one may encounter in one’s neighborhood Presbyterian church, they most certainly are not a satanic organization. Curiously, the O.T.O. claims to have the “concentrated the wisdom and the knowledge” of the “Order of the Illuminati,” and the O.T.O.’s ecclesiastical arm, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica lists Adam Weishaupt as one of its saints.
However O.T.O. and the Illuminati are two entirely different organizations with very different philosophies, visions, and practices. For one, we can say with certainty that the Illuminati no longer exist. Leopold Engel, in his Geschichte des Illuminaten-Ordens, sets the date of the Illuminati’s end at around 1785, about one year before Charles Theodore’s last prohibition against the Illuminati, while Peter Koenig claims the Illuminati ended in 1793, when Johann Joachim Bode, who took over the Illuminati’s reins from Weishaupt, died. And Terry Melanson, author of Perfectibilists, has stated that the last traces of the Illuminati disappear around 1820. The O.T.O., on the other hand, is still very much active, with local bodies worldwide. It remains a favorite target of the notoriously vicious British tabloid press.
The O.T.O.-Illuminati connection stems from Theodor Reuss’ and Leopold Engel’s reconstructive endeavor in the 1880s. Reuss abandoned his efforts with the reconstructed Illuminati and founded the O.T.O., while Engel, on the other hand, continued his reconstructive efforts, but within the context of esotericism — a move that certainly was at odds with the original intentions of Adam Weishaupt, who decried esotericism as fraudulent.
The similarities between the O.T.O. and the Illuminati are few. A stated goal of both organizations is the emancipation and enlightenment of the human race. We can also find similarities in the degree structure. However, the differences between these organizations are by far more striking.
In the O.T.O., spiritual progress ultimately leads to a state of gnosis, or union with deity, brought about by dramatic ritual, spiritual exercises, the practice of theurgic magick, and the discovery of one’s true will, or purpose. Although these practices occur, as much as it is feasible, within the context a supportive fraternal organization, spiritual progress is ultimately regarded as a matter of personal choice and responsibility, and so is every person’s course of action once this state has been achieved. Those who are familiar with initiatory traditions or belong to one can appreciate the transformative power of dramatic ritual.
To the Illuminati, it was not so much dramatic ritual and spiritual exercises that led to a state of enlightenment, but the continuous education of the heart and mind and the improvement of one’s moral character. The Illuminati did not consider this a matter of personal preference; a member’s progress, character, and conduct was under constant scrutiny by his superiors, who would share their observations, encouragement, reproaches, and suggestions in private as well as in their assemblies. The goal was to shape a member into a moral and ethical person, who would be able to help other persons become good and moral persons. A humanity whose majority would consist of the wise and virtuous would have regained its original virtue and thus be reconciled with the creator.
Further, the Illuminati rejected esoteric/occultist practices. Weishaupt wrote in Pythagoras, oder Betrachtungen ueber die geheime Welt- und Regierungskunst (1790) (Pythagoras, or Observations on the Secret Art of World Politics and Government) that he had become thoroughly disillusioned with esoteric speculations. In addition, many Freemasons joining the Illuminati had become wary of “unknown Superiors” offering occult knowledge for the exchange of money. Several such scandals had created shockwaves throughout the once influential Strict Observance Rite, which lay in its death throes at the time the Illuminati rose to power. The Illuminati’s stance on esotericism is expressed in the lecture given during the initiation the Presbyter or Priest degree.