The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician
One of the greatest magazine stories of the past generation, republished in Slate.
Eventually the excitement of actually having been paid began to die down. But curiosity about the institute and the identity of the author only continued to grow. "It is certainly the most bizarre philosophical undertaking in anyone's memory," Zimmerman contends. "It's unheard of. It's insane. You ordinarily get paid two hundred dollars by Oxford to review a six-hundred-page book." A few inquisitive reviewers snooped around and made some preliminary Web searches and telephone calls. But they turned up few leads.
Early this April, one reviewer contacted Lingua Franca, hoping to interest some "literary sleuths." I was assigned to the story. At one point in my research, the available evidence pointed to suspects as diverse (and as seemingly improbable) as the esteemed Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, the film actress Sigourney Weaver, and a suspiciously named professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, Anne Monius. None of those individuals, it turns out, is in any way responsible for the work or financial backing of the A.M. Monius Institute. But I have discovered who is. So here, for the first time, I recount the mad hunt for—and the unmasking of—the mysterious A.M. Monius.
* * *
My investigation began with the little information that the A.M. Monius Institute provided about itself. Dialing the telephone number on the institute's letterhead put me in contact with the institute's voice mail, which I called for several weeks without a reply. In addition, the letterhead listed a bricks-and-mortar address in Pennsylvania. On a map, it appeared to be located at the end of a small road just off Interstate 95, near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.
In a reverse-address directory, the institute matched three other telephone numbers, all under the name Jitendrah Shah. When I called one of these numbers, I reached a computer-sales business. I asked for Netzin Steklis and was assured that I had the wrong number. I called back several times, asking repeatedly for the A.M. Monius Institute until I provoked an irritated outburst: "Their number is 321-5809!" I asked the man how he had come to know the number so suddenly. "Why don't you ask them?" he barked back. "You want to buy a computer, you talk to me." Then he hung up.
Perhaps a more fruitful lead, I thought, was the institute's name. Antiquity boasted two Neoplatonist philosophers by the name Ammonius. Ammonius, son of Hermeas, produced commentaries on Aristotle's works, including On Aristotle's Categories. Since "Coming to Understanding" discusses Aristotle's Categories at some length, the son of Hermeas seemed a likely candidate for the institute's eponym. As for the other Ammonius—Ammonius Saccas, thought by some to have been the founder of Neoplatonism—he was a figure clouded in mystery, having sworn Plotinus and his other students to secrecy about his teachings. That sounded a bit like A.M. Monius, too. But it was all moot: Of the few scholars who know much about either Ammonius, none had heard of a well-to-do dilettante with a passion for their object of study.
It was time to turn to Netzin Steklis, a woman with a name that seemed designed by God for clean and economical database searches. ("Netzin" is short for "Nenetzin," which means royal doll in Mayan; "Steklis" is a German name.) Having spoken with Steklis by telephone, most of the reviewers told me that they assumed she was simply an office assistant who carried out the daily chores of running the institute.
The truth was far stranger: Netzin Gerald-Steklis, when not performing grunt work for this enigmatic institute of metaphysics, is the director of the Scientific Information Resource Center for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. She is thirty-four years old and married to Horst Dieter Steklis, a distinguished anthropologist at Rutgers University twenty-one years her senior. They live in Arizona with their two children, though they travel often to Rwanda, where they conduct field research as primatologists. The Steklises immediately became suspects, though doubtful ones. Given their intense commitment to gorillas—reported in both People magazine and The New York Times—neither fit the part of a philosopher manqué musing on the unworldly abstractions of speculative metaphysics. They did not respond to telephone messages I left on their home answering machine.
As far as I could tell, Steklis's only connection to exorbitant wealth was through her affiliation with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The fund's board of trustees included a number of wealthy mavericks (and thus suspects), not least among them the intrepid alien-slaying actress Sigourney Weaver and the multibillionaire software guru Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of the Oracle Corporation.
The final important piece of information available about the institute was its deed of incorporation, which yielded two names: Joseph H. Hennessy and Marc Sanders. A Web search produced Hennessy's name on a list of members of the Philadelphia Bar Association. By telephone, the bar association identified Hennessy as a partner in the Philadelphia office of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Hennessy made a strong suspect: In addition to earning undergraduate and law degrees, he had master's and doctorate degrees in political thought from Notre Dame. As a lawyer, Hennessy presumably had some disposable income. (His company profile mentioned neither a wife nor kids.) But would A.M. Monius be that careless, leaving a relatively uncommon and easily traceable name on a public document? I decided to put Hennessy on the top shelf until I had more to go on.
Sanders was another story. He didn't seem to work at Hennessy's firm. But that fact wasn't much help, for his was a fairly common name. Searches on the Web and on Lexis-Nexis produced a list of matches all across the country: a mathematical consultant to a program for gifted youth, a realtor, a legal assistant, a high school basketball coach, an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent, a contributor to a lay journal of Catholic thought called Eutopia,and many others. Worse, directory assistance seemed to cough up an "M. Sanders" in just about every town with a plausible connection to the institute. Even if I could identify and confront a potential suspect with that name, would I be prepared to call his bluff if he were to play dumb?
Reaching the end of my factual rope, I turned to a close reading of the manuscript "Coming to Understanding" for possible clues.
* * *
"Coming to Understanding" is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes's Meditations,Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as "a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.") With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide "a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together." The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?
James Ryerson is an editor at the New York Times.