Mabini: Philosopher of citizenship

Apolinario Mabini is primarily known as the “brains of the revolution,” Emilio Aguinaldo’s brilliant adviser, who guided the leader of the revolution through the essential steps of political consolidation and state formation after the June 12, 1898, proclamation of Philippine independence from Spain. But, there is another side of Mabini that is less appreciated. In clear didactic language, he also instructed Filipinos on the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship in a modern state.

Like Jose Rizal, Mabini understood what more than three centuries of colonial subjugation and indoctrination by the religious corporations had done to the consciousness of Filipinos.  They had acquired all the wrong notions of what it meant to live in freedom, how to deal with authority, or how to lead an honorable life.  Having been enslaved for centuries, they wallowed in their misery and vices, and lost the will to improve themselves.

He was bothered by the thought that, because of this, they might not prove equal to the challenge of self-rule. He hoped to see them confidently assert themselves as free citizens of a republic, rather than live as docile subjects of a monarchy or of a few homegrown political dynasties.  To this purpose, he saw that an internal change was as necessary to political freedom as the building of new institutions of self-government.

It is worth recalling what Mabini wrote in his introduction to “The True Decalogue,” which was printed on June 24, 1898, and issued along with the other circulars of the revolutionary government. “[T]o be able to establish the true structure of our social regeneration, it is necessary for us to change radically, not only our institutions, but also our way of living and thinking.  It is important to undergo an internal and external revolution at the same time; it is necessary to establish a more solid basis for moral education and to foreswear the vices that we have inherited from the Spaniards.”

Mabini’s Decalogue is a fascinating document, not only because it offers basic lessons in citizenship that remain relevant to our time, but also because, at a deeper level, it tries to replace the entrenched dichotomies of a religious culture and a hierarchical society with the more nuanced concepts of a secular and modern society.  This subtle subversion begins with Mabini’s intriguing use of the word “true” (in Spanish, “verdadero”) as a qualifier for the Decalogue.  This was apparently deliberate on Mabini’s part, a decision born of long reflection.  In my view, he meant this harmless-sounding document to be a polemic against the other side of the distinction—namely, the “false” commandments of clerical rule.

Consider The True Decalogue’s first rule: “Love God and your honor over all things: God as the source of all truth, all justice and all activity; your honor, the only power that obliges you to be truthful, just and industrious.”  Notice that God and honor are made to sit on the same bench.  The closest synonym to honor I can think of is self-respect.  It is this, according to Mabini, not God or his earthly agents, that commands us to be truthful, just and industrious.

God himself communicates to us directly through our conscience, says Mabini, a member of the Masonic fraternity.  Hence, the second commandment: “Worship God in the form that your conscience deems most upright and fitting.”  One can’t find a more succinct formulation of religious freedom than this.

It is interesting to observe Mabini weave enlightenment themes into the strands of the deeply religious culture of his time.  He wanted every Filipino to strive for personal perfection, develop his or her God-given talents rather than passively accept his or her fate in life.  In this religious cosmology, he situates love of country.  “Love your country after God and your honor, and more than you love yourself, because your country is the only paradise that God has given you in this life; the only patrimony of your race; the only inheritance from your ancestors; and the only future of your descendants: because of your country you have life, love and interests; happiness, honor and God.”

His concept of honor (what I call self-respect) is instructive.  Filipinos, he said, must not equate the pursuit of this with the shedding of blood for one’s country.  This is not where honor is found but in the everyday work we do for our country and for our neighbors—“we are here to work honorably, and later find rest in death, according to the Father of our country.”  He knew that a nation of their own was a strange idea for many Filipinos at that time.

Our colonial masters hid this truth from us for a long time, Mabini said: “[T]hat you have a country and that you owe her everything, because she is all you have in this world.”  Therefore: “Always look on your countryman as more than a neighbor: you will find in him a friend, a brother and at least the companion to whom you are tied by only one destiny, by the same happiness and sorrows, and by the same aspirations and interests.”

But, this is not the soaring rhetoric of an ordinary patriot. Mabini was far from being a chauvinist. For a man who never went abroad for his education, he had a broader view of the human community than most intellectuals of his generation.  He saw nationalism as essential to the attainment of “all the objectives of human life” only “while the borders of the nations established and preserved by the egoism of race and of family remain standing….”  Mabini would, no doubt, have felt equally at home in the modern world as Rizal.