Rizal and modernity

(Last Dec. 12, I spoke at the lecture series organized by the University of the Philippines in Los Baños to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal.  This is an abridged version of the lecture I gave.)

JOSE RIZAL, our national hero, is sometimes referred to as the “first Filipino.”  Though his life was short, he was certainly a Filipino without equal in the varied gifts and talents that he possessed.  He was thus truly first among equals.  But he was also the first of his generation to self-consciously claim the term “Filipino” as an identity.  Before that, the native inhabitants of this country were called “indios,” while “Filipino” was used to designate Spaniards born in the Philippines.

To me, however, Rizal was, more than anything else, the first Filipino modern.  He did not only subscribe to the power of scientific reason, he also believed in the basic equality of cultures.  And, for him, this equality applied as well to religion, which is why he was an early advocate of the freedom of religious belief.  Against the patriarchal norms of feudal culture, he also thought that women should have the same opportunities as men to develop themselves.

Rizal was especially critical of the racial supremacy that underpinned Western colonialism. In countless essays, he not only disputed the European claim to superiority, he also urged his fellow Filipino expatriates in Europe to always conduct themselves as the equals of the inhabitants of the countries in which they lived.  Every achievement of every Filipino in Europe in any field was to him one more proof of the universality of genius.  He particularly applauded Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo for the prizes they won in art competitions abroad.

“Luna and Hidalgo,” he told a gathering in honor of these two painters, “are Spanish as well as Philippine glories. They were born in the Philippines but they could have been born in Spain, because genius knows no country, genius sprouts everywhere, genius is like light, air, the patrimony of everybody, cosmopolitan like space, like life, like God.”

Rizal became a curious observer of everything European and modern, and formed a clear notion of what Filipinos could be if they were given the same chance to develop themselves. He was, of course, not oblivious of the many traits that hobbled them as a people.  One of these was their parochialism, the tendency to view the world from the narrow perspective of their tribal and linguistic identities.  Exploited by the Spanish colonizers, this tribalism made it easy for Spain to impose its rule on the islands.

So determined was he to persuade Filipinos to shed off their regional identities that in the constitution of the Liga Filipina that he drafted, Rizal inserted a provision pertaining to the organization: “7th – Each provincial council and popular council should adopt a name different from that of the locality or region.”  This was consistent with the organization’s first purpose: “To unite the whole Archipelago into one compact, vigorous, and homogenous body.”

It is easy to conclude from this that in talking about the need for national unity, Rizal was merely projecting a nationalist ideal.  But to him national independence was not as important as the enjoyment of civil liberties.  He was acutely aware that having a free country was no guarantee that there would be liberty.  In the statement for his defense that he wrote in his prison cell in Fort Santiago on Dec. 12, 1896, he formulated this belief in the clearest possible way:

“I also believed that if Spain systematically denied liberties to the Philippines, there would be insurrections and I have so written it down, deploring that such a thing might occur but not hoping for it.  Well now, many have interpreted my phrase ‘to have liberties’ as [meaning] ‘to have independence,’ which are two different things.  A people can be free without being independent, and a people can be independent without being free…. I have always desired liberties for the Philippines and I have said so.  Others who testify that I said independence either have put the cart before the horse or they lie.…” Written just a few weeks before his execution on charges of rebellion, these notes could be interpreted as one man’s desperate effort to save himself.  But Rizal was not that kind of person.

Rizal’s vision was of a people that was united rather than divided by parochial affiliations, a society in which every citizen, rich and poor alike, enjoyed the blessings of freedom and the opportunity for advancement through education.  He saw nationhood as a step in the direction of a modern democratic society, where every human being might have the chance to develop his or her true potential.  Rizal was however not a parochial nationalist.  He was in every sense a humanist, a democrat, and a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.  He thrived abroad because like a free intellectual, he was capable of “stepping out of the skin of his culture.”

Rizal was, in my view, at least a century ahead of his time. He was first and foremost a modern, a child of the Enlightenment. If he were alive today, he would be preaching modernity. He would continue to rail against feudal privilege, oligarchic tyranny and the suppression of basic human rights and freedoms.  He would surely have been aghast to find that these same conditions have persisted more than a hundred years after the departure of the Spaniards from the Philippines.  For, if there was anything that bothered him more than foreign tyranny, it was seeing educated and wealthy Filipinos oppress their own countrymen.