A Strange Philosophical Manuscript. A Secret Benefactor. The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician.

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Feb. 10 2012 3:42 PM

The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician

One of the greatest magazine stories of the past generation, republished in Slate.

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Johnston made a poor candidate for the author; he is much too professional a philosopher. But perhaps he had been hired by A.M. Monius as a tutor? Or perhaps A.M. Monius had attended some of Johnston's seminars at Princeton? When I called Johnston, he admitted that he had been using "kindmates" for approximately fifteen years, but he hadn't thought "that it was original with me." He couldn't think of anyone he had taught who might fit the bill. But my suspect profile now included a likely Princeton connection.

Around this time, I finally made contact with Steklis at her home in Arizona. She was extremely courteous and apologized for having to "play this game with you." As expected, she could not divulge much information, though she did deny that her husband or the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund were in any way involved, save for the connection to her. She also informed me that the funding behind the institute was "not drug money."

Having spoken with Steklis, I felt I could call Hennessy without setting off any alarm. Hennessy, too, could not have been kinder or less forthcoming. "You're going to have to tell me why you're talking to me," he explained politely, "because I'm a lawyer and I need to be careful whom I'm talking to because of client confidences." He was willing, however, to deny that he was A.M. Monius.

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So I returned to Marc Sanders. Following up on Foster's "kindmates" tip, I checked directory assistance in Princeton, which did in fact produce a listing for a Marc Sanders. Furthermore, a database search on "Marc Sanders" and "Princeton" turned up a red-hot clue. In the "Institutions" listings of the June 1978 issue of Current Anthropology, there was a peculiar announcement: "The Institutum Philosophiae Naturalis [IPN], located in Princeton, N.J., has been formed to encourage theoretical and epistemological inquiries in the physical, natural, and social sciences which, because of their unusual scope or method, cannot be adequately supported within the confines of a single scientific discipline or traditional funding source." The IPN owed "its conception and backing to its Executive Director, Marc Sanders, a Princeton-area businessman."

To my ear, the listing read like the promotional materials for the A.M. Monius Institute: Both institutes existed to "encourage" a brand of far-ranging inquiry beyond the traditional boundaries of science; both bore ancient-sounding names; and IPN, like the A.M. Monius Institute, seemed to be able to draw academic heavyweights to its cause. Indeed, IPN's advisory board included some of the most famous names in postwar American intellectual life: the physicist Freeman Dyson, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the historian of science Thomas Kuhn, and the psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Sanders thus became my primary suspect. Even if he was not the actual author of "Coming to Understanding," I figured, he had to be financially involved. With no success in tracking down a sample of his writing, I decided to call his home in Princeton. When he picked up the telephone, I explained that I was writing an article about the A.M. Monius Institute, that I had already spoken with Steklis and Hennessy, and that I wanted to speak with him as well. He asked if I could call back the next day, and I agreed. An hour later I received an e-mail from him. Assuming that I had already figured him out, he confessed to being A.M. Monius.

* * *

And then, just like that, it was over. But not before Sanders made an appeal to leave his anonymity intact. "Now that you have discovered that I am Ammonius," he wrote, "I know that you will think it your job to inform the world." He had chosen to remain anonymous, he explained, so that his "failure to become a professional philosopher" would not come to light and thus tempt professional philosophers to "simply dismiss the idea of reviewing my work out of hand because the work was known to be by a devoted amateur."

It was a sad note. Having read it, I found that the unveiling of the man behind the great tapestry of the A.M. Monius Institute reminded me of the scene at the end of The Wizard of Oz when the dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard is actually a small and timid-seeming character, with nothing like the presence of his imposing facade.

But wait one melodramatic second: Wasn't there also something odd about Sanders's plea? After all, the philosophers I had spoken with had assumed from the very beginning that "Coming to Understanding" was the work of an amateur. Not only did the draft itself suggest an amateur's hand, but the whole elaborate production of the institute was a bright, shining neon advertisement for the fact that this was not a professional philosopher working through professional channels.

No, quite obviously it was the money that had convinced the reviewers to write their reviews. If anything, the institute's anonymity had only made reviewers reluctant to participate. So I wrote Sanders back, suggesting that if his primary goal was, as he stated, to attract reviewers, then he should rest assured that my article would only broaden the range of philosophers who might be interested in contributing to his project.

His reply was revealing, for his message had changed. He explained that he no longer expected that he could genuinely interest the sort of professional academics who read Lingua Franca. Despite his deep admiration for the work of trained philosophers, he had come to form a poor impression of the insular, cliquish culture of their discipline. "I have found professional philosophers to be a proud, demanding bunch who protect their terrain with great contempt for outsiders," he wrote. "My past attempts to publish my work did not get beyond the first contact stage because I had 'no standing in the academy.'"

Even the exciting process of having "Coming to Understanding" reviewed on his institute's Web site had left him somewhat dejected. "Obviously, none of the philosophers who reviewed the work would have done so without the substantial honorarium each was paid," he conceded. But that, on its own, did not concern him: "I look on the sums involved as probably inadequate remuneration for serious philosophical engagement, which I have come to value more than anything else." What actually disappointed him was that many of the philosophers failed to take his work seriously even after they had been offered a charitable sum of money to do so. He noted that there were some "intellectually honest people"—he cited Jan Cover as an example—who "really engaged with the work," rather than merely "going through the motions," and thus "made the whole enterprise worthwhile." But by and large, his worst suspicions about the profession had been confirmed. Having said that, he refused to provide me with any further details.

* * *

By cutting off contact, Sanders had left me with some loose ends. What was his connection to Steklis? How had he made his fortune? How much philosophical education had he had? What kind of organization had the Institutum Philosophiae Naturalis been? I could have pushed harder on these questions, but my deadline was nearing, and my leads had run dry. (Steklis and Hennessy had been forbidden to speak with me further, and the two surviving Institutum board members that I knew of, Dyson and Gould, never responded to my queries.)

Or perhaps it was something else that kept the investigation from pressing on. It was perfectly true that there were enough tantalizing contradictions in what I knew about Marc Sanders to sustain further inquiry. Here was a man who wanted to participate in scholarly debate as just another philosopher but who had managed to participate in so eccentric a fashion that he had made himself unlike any other philosopher before him. He was an independent scholar who resented his professional counterparts enough that he showered them with money. And he sought to join in the postpositivist world of contemporary metaphysics while retaining the mystical ornaments and trappings of the majestic visionaries of past philosophy that the positivists had so effectively mocked. All this was true of Sanders, and genuinely intriguing.

But the mystery of the A.M. Monius Institute had come to seem all too human in the aftermath of having solved it. One began to long for some sense of the enigma again, instead of the dreary realities of worldly motivation, embarrassment, and pride. As Socrates so eloquently reflects in Plato's Phaedrus—in a passage close to A.M. Monius's heart: The seeker of pure knowledge is "delighted at last to be seeing what is Real and watching what is True, and so feeds on all this and feels wonderful.... And when one has seen all things as they really are and feasted upon them, one sinks back inside heaven and goes home."

James Ryerson is an editor at the New York Times.