Why we remember

There is hardly any news about the Centennial these days, apart from the launching of a watch especially designed for the occasion by Jaime Zobel de Ayala.  President Ramos himself recently expressed disappointment over the lack of appreciation by the general public of the significance of the nation’s coming 100th birthday.  What clearly excites most of us when we look to 1998 is not so much June 12 as May 11.  Why is this so?

If I may say something irreverent, I think it is because our people do not find any great reason for remembering.  And quite possibly, the Centennial Commission has not been able to furnish them any pressing reason to remember either.  Not all remembering is useful to life.  The mind sometimes exiles traumatic events to the unconscious so that a person can move on.  So too, a nation’s memory can be a burden to itself, an obstacle, a deterrent to progress and unceasing invention.

Thus, like a person, a nation must learn to decide what to remember and what to forget.  This requires having a clear view of what is good in the long run for our people’s collective life.  History must promote the nation’s good.  Otherwise there is not much sense in remembering our beginnings and struggles.

Those who know his work will note that this view of history belongs to Nietzsche.  “There is a degree of insomnia,” he wrote, “of rumination, of historical sense which injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people or a culture.” But, one might protest, this observation hardly applies to Filipinos, whose charming virtue lies precisely in their lack of memory.

A lack of memory, however, is as injurious to life as the excess of it.

“History,” Nietzsche said, “ belongs to the living man in three respects: it belongs to him so far as he is active and striving, so far as he preserves and admires, and so far as he suffers and is in need of liberation.”  These three uses of history, according to him, correspond to three kinds of history: a monumental, an antiquarian, and a critical.

Monumental history is an account of the greatness of past generations.  “It is the knowledge that the great which once existed was at least possible once and may well again be possible sometime.” Much of Philippine history is of the monumental type.

Our account of the national past is an unbroken narrative of the greatness of our ancestors, as well as of their splendid disregard for life in the struggle for independence.  The brilliance of Jose Rizal is emblematic for successive generations of young Filipinos who seek personal excellence and achievement as signifiers of their nation’s worth and self-esteem.  Likewise, the boldness of Andres Bonifacio and the ill-equipped revolutionary army he led remains, for today’s generation, an antidote to easy resignation when faced with the seeming impossibility of our current struggles.  That is why we raise monuments in their name.

Monumental history has a dangerous side to it, however.  The temptation to fictionalize it is great.  Certain heroic individuals are singled out for attention, their roles mythified in total neglect of the train of causes that produced them, or of the movements of ordinary people that brought about the events.  Their beliefs and ideas are lifted out of context, are essentialized and then recycled to serve as the farcical legitimation of contemporary parties and politicians.

Such thoughtless and cynical employment of the past, Nietzsche said, must be countered by a dose of antiquarian history, which instills reverence in a person for the things that recall his origins and root him in his country’s soil.  “By tending with loving hands what has long survived, he intends to preserve the conditions in which he grew up for those who will come after him – and so he serves life.”   Antiquarian history is probably the one we are most familiar with.  We surround ourselves with old things because in them we find the history of our selves.  The old school, the ancestral home, the market, the river, the mountains, what Simon Schama calls the landscapes of our memory – these are what irresistibly draw us back to the country even after years of living abroad.

Of course, an antiquarian history can be corrupted into a mindless acquisition of everything old, a repugnant practice that strips venerable things of their personal meanings.  This is mummification, Nietzsche said, and has nothing to do with the life-promoting ends of history.  For history is not meant to be a celebration of decay.  It is meant to nurture new life.

Which is why, a third kind of history, critical history, is important.  The person who surveys the past must be prepared to question it.  “He must have the strength,” Nietzsche warned, “… to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it.”  By far, this is the most painful of the three kinds of history.  For it demands the ability to repudiate institutions, an entire way of life inherited from the past, a first nature given to us by tradition — in the interest of a new discipline that allows us to free ourselves from that which shackles us.

It is this critical history, I fear, that has been sadly missing in all the activities meant to commemorate the nation’s centennial.



  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, by Peter Preuss, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980.
  2. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Vintage Books, 1995.


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