Rizal and the art of living

In an earlier time, philosophy was understood not as the theoretical subject that we know today, but simply as the art of living.  The philosopher’s concern was the practical task of creating a self — an unforgettable human being, a meaningful life — from the raw material supplied by chance.

People like Socrates, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault exemplified this quest, says Alexander Nehamas in a new book titled “The art of living” (1998).  Like other philosophers, they too tried to sort out the deep questions about the nature of the world, of being, truth, and reality, but their work was distinctly self-referential.  They always came back to the question of what kind of life was worth living.

Although a practical art, the art of living, says Nehamas, is practiced primarily in writing.  It is both a literary and a philosophical accomplishment.  The self that emerges as a blueprint for living may thus be pieced together from the works of these philosophers of living, even as it may not necessarily be gleaned from the way they actually lived.

Jose Rizal, I believe, was an artist in this tradition.  Against the grain of the culture in which he was reared, he painted a style of living that was premised on the need to shape and define oneself, to claim one’s destiny, and to be more than the person that circumstances might allow.  Through the characters of Ibarra and Simoun, Rizal’s novels showed what it meant for the self-creating individual to confront the culture of his birth and to face all the traits that he had sought to overcome in himself.  The sense of despair and impatience may sometimes impel this individual to violence, Rizal warns, but he must be patient and never feel betrayed.

That warning, voiced by Elias in “Noli,” however, goes unheeded by the novel’s first readers.  The self-understanding that the novels enabled them to experience created its own momentum.  Thus we may say Rizal’s characters acquired a life of their own, while he, the author, not having completely understood them, could no longer dictate how they should act.  This is irony at its best, the steady companion of all romanticism, and one of the particular strengths of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s film, “Jose Rizal”.

Like Nietzsche’s notion of “ressentiment”, personal misfortune for Rizal was an inferior motive for wanting to change a society.  Such a historic task deserved a nobler and more stable impulse, a motive not derived from the vagaries of private pain.  Listen to Elias reproaching Ibarra as the latter spoke of war: “Do not be offended if I tell you that your heart misleads you.  You loved your country because your father had taught you thus…. You loved her because here everything had smiled on you; your country has not done you any injustice….But on the day that you find yourself poor, hungry, hunted, betrayed and sold by your own countrymen, on that day you will disown yourself, your country and all mankind.”  Ibarra was stunned by the words of this former rebel.  “Then I shall go on without you,” he replied.  “You are mistaken,” Elias continued, “because you see darkness everywhere, in believing that the country is desperate.”

An artist above all, Rizal kept questioning the purity of his own motives.  He was bothered by the thought that his writings could have sprung from the well of his own personal tragedy.  Ever conscious of the contingent nature of sentiments, he relentlessly examined the wisdom of his perspective.  His critique of Ibarra and of Simoun was a critique of an intelligentsia who would allow  private resentment to cloud their own vision of what was good for the country.

“Rizal,” the movie, takes up this theme and uses it as a device to interrogate Rizal, the writer.  If this is the same man who put those words in Elias’s mouth to chide Ibarra, the movie surmises, then it is safe to say the  auto-critique constituted by the novels would have haunted Rizal through the final hours of his life.  He might indeed have stayed up all night on the eve of his death to ask if it was right to turn his back against a movement he had inspired by his works.  Yet, in the same vein, he could also very well have asked if changing his mind about the revolution at that crucial hour would not just be a banal way of avenging his fate.

By all accounts, Rizal was calm when he faced the firing squad on Dec. 30, 1896.  He showed no regret for the kind of life he had fashioned for himself.  Even as the revolution hailed him as its icon, however, he believed he was innocent.  In his last letter to Paciano from his cell in Fort Santiago, he wrote: “I assure you, brother, that I die innocent of this crime of rebellion.  If my former writings had been able to contribute towards it, I should not deny absolutely, but then I believe I expiated my past with my exile.”

I do not think that Rizal sought death or martyrdom as a limit experience.  He embraced life fully and, like Nietzsche’s overman, tried to exceed himself as a person.  He also believed that the Filipino nation could steel itself through painstaking study and discipline. Philosophers need not always be faithful to the way of life they depict in their work, but Rizal was conscious that he should be.  That is why, as Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s film argues, his characters would have truly tormented him.

“Make up your mind, Mr. Writer,” the author Eduardo Galeano (Walking Words) wrote in a moment so reminiscent of the confrontation between Rizal and Simoun in the film, “and for once in your life be the flower that smells rather than the chronicler of the aroma.  There’s not much pleasure in writing what you live.  The challenge is to live what you write.”


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