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Life, works, and political ideas of Dr. Jose Rizal Essay

Was Dr. Jose P. Rizal really the stubborn reformist who advocates peaceful and incremental social change as he is portrayed to be by popular culture and the dominant academic thought? Was he really the renaissance man the greatest ilustrado of the late19th century who was so obsessed with the values of education and enlightenment that he condemned any violence, even those that would have led to the freedom of the very people he sacrificed his life fighting for? Or was he something else, a character darker than what his brown skin suggests? Was he, in fact, a true revolutionary a Simoun, an Elias, aKa besang Tales? The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the historical and biographical studies conducted on the life, works, and political ideas of Dr. Jose Rizal. In particular, the paper aims to compare and contrast the two positions in the controversial reformist-revolutionary debate over the political thought of the writer-philosopher-ophthalmologist Filipino hero.

The main thesis that this paper hopes to develop is that the debate is in itself flawed and that a new and more nuanced understanding of Rizal is necessary if we wish to see the hero through more academic lenses. Specifically, I argue here that the contemporary image of Rizal perhaps, even Rizal himself whether in academic literature or popular media is nothing more than a social construct and one that is socially and culturally connived, conspired, and manipulated. Rizal was, for example, used as a social construct by both the propagandist movement and the Katipunan, though in different respective ways, and deconstructing him is perhaps necessary for a more sobered understanding. Before we proceed, however, an important pre-examination is inevitable: Why is this critical analysis important and relevant within the social context of its writing? There can be many reasons and one that is particularly important to me is that any study of Dr.Jose Rizal is exhilarating and surprising.

The man’s biography and the study of his mind can perhaps never be resolved, but the adventure towards their resolution gives us formerly unnoticed but equally rich insights as to what this man this First Filipino contributed or at least hoped to contribute to the germination of our nation and our nationalism. Nonetheless, the study is of course also relevant in a more societal sense. First, in the academic world, the story of Rizal as a hero and thinker is a continuous stream of dialectical discourse that is forever in danger of changing its course. It is quite puzzling to realize that, despite a century of discussions, the discourse-debate remains fragile and the balance of academic power remains a balance.

Certainly, the reformist arguments have established their ground in the nationalist geniuses of Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino and that their rhetoric prowess can seem daunting and intimidating, but the scale and depth of the dominance of the reformist position remains questionable. To what extent they have seeped into the Filipino consciousness, we can perhaps never resolutely determine but we do know that challenges to their gargantuan analyses continue to sprout. Thus, whatever contribution is a source of vitality for the discourse, even those that quite ironically challenge this very discourse. The latter is what this paper hopes to achieve. Second, 150 years after his birth in 1861, Rizal the man remains a mystery. In another project in celebration of Rizal’s birthday anniversary last June 19, 2011, I attempted to compile articles devoted to Rizal within the month of June and reached a number of more than 80 works. The literature is thus replete with mentions of and insights about Rizal and Rizal himself was an obsessive writer, giving historians and biographers no problem about first-hand documentation. However, the curse of studying a dead man is inevitable:

We will never know Rizal fully well. Thus, in an attempt to critically analyze the studies on Rizal, I also wish to contribute a few insights here on the hero, who he was, and what his thoughts really were. Finally, whatever contribution to the discourse on Rizal is also a contribution to the Filipino national project. A century since Rizal’s death at Bagumabayan and the eruption of the Philippine Revolution, the Filipino nation remains incomplete and, much like the unfinished roads of Metro Manila, the way towards its completion is intermittently hampered by moral, political, and even academic-intellectual corruption. Rizal, through his imagination and dream of a Filipino people, is more or less the foundation of this national project yet this foundation is still misunderstood in fact, its understandings are still misunderstood! A more sober examination of his political thought is therefore crucial if we wish to move on towards the building of this nation. On the one hand, for more than a century, it has been a dominating belief in both Filipino literature and active progressive circles that Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippines most prominent political thinker and writer, was in writing and in action a genuine reformist. The depiction of Rizal as such is so systematized that it would seem a grave mistake to liken the hero to other more revolutionary figures such as the subversive political organizer Andres Bonifacio and the politico-military leader Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.

For one, we are taught in our schools and universities that Rizal was a part and product of the propagandist movement and not of the revolutionary movement. In fact, as if only to make the historical moment of the 1880s-1890s more theoretically digestible, we clearly delineate between the two movements in terms of aims, means, nature, and even chronology. Rizal was an intellectual novelist, a social critic, a believer in the power of the pen over the sword. He did not lead the revolutionary Kataas-taasang Kagalang-galang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan or the KKK. He repudiated the Philippine Revolution at the time, symbolized most dramatically by his refusal to endorse and join Bonifacio’s Katipunan when he was invited by Dr. Pio Valenzuela in Dapitan in 1896.

Thus, it has been so ingrained in the Filipino psyche that Dr. Jose Rizal was, in truth, nothing more than areformist and nothing like a revolutionary. On the other hand, however, historiography and literary evidence would not as categorically declare Rizal as a reformist as suggested. Many academicians and Rizalist (Constantino, 1970) scholars point to different historical, biographical, and literary references to prove the point that Rizal did approve of the essence of armed struggle. For example, it can be argued that Rizal, being himself of the liberal democratic tradition, knew well of the merits of the 18th century French Revolution. The educated ilustrado was himself a fanatic of history and as such he knew that when there is no more choice and chance for peaceful change, the people must rise to the cause of their freedom and take arms against oppression and the perpetrators of the oppressive system. It is also no secret that Rizal had at the very least sympathies for revolutionary thought, portrayed most definitively by the characters he used in his two well-celebrated novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. From the plots of these fictional narratives, it is clear that Rizal believed in the validity of the reasons for revolting against the Spanish colonial and clerico-fascist systems of his time.

Illustratively, we see Elias and Kabesang Tales from Noli and Fili ,respectively, as genuinely oppressed personalities who were more or less, at least according to the internal narratives of the novels, justified in their cause of forwarding armed offensives against the exploitative machinations of the colonial regime. Further and in a more political sense, it makes one wonder how and why Rizal was used as an inspiration for the Katipunan if he really showed no sign of endorsing a, if not the, armed revolution against Spain. The question of why is relatively clearer: Dr. Jose Rizal was an inspiration for many indios natives of the archipelago at the time. It was quite convenient for the Katipunan to have used his name to capture the huge mass following Rizal has generated over the years.

This could not have been done as effectively, however, if Rizal was sincerely, whether in writing or practice, against armed struggle. Thus, the rhetorical question is: How could the Katipunan secret society that mobilized the Philippine Revolution and thereafter established the first indigenous revolutionary government in the country  have used Rizal if he really were nothing more than a staunch reformist? The main representatives from the reformist camp come from, as said above, the nationalist historians led by Agoncillo and Constantino of the latter 20th century, the same historians who also advocate for the prominence of Andres Bonifacio over Rizal as the true revolutionary leader the noble plebeian (Agoncillo, 1956) who organized the nationalist-separatist movement of the Katipunan in the 1890s.

Although Agoncillo in The Revolt of the Masses (1956) also postulates well that Dr. Jose Rizal was like the other ilustrados of his time merely a self-interested reformist whose gravest mistake was that he condemned the Philippine Revolution, the more compelling critique of Rizal’s political thought comes from Constantino’s Dissent and Counter-Consciousness (1970), in particular its ninth chapter entitled Veneration without Understanding. Constantino begins his critique of Rizal right away in his first two paragraphs, contrasting him with other principal heroes of other nations. The argument is difficult to challenge: According to Constantino, the main intriguing fact about Rizal as a hero is that, when seen in a matrix inclusive of other national heroes such as Washington of the United States, Bolivar of Latin America, and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Rizal did not lead the nationalist revolution of the Philippines our Revolution (Constantino, 1970). Constantino then moves on to directly address the question of reformism and revolutionism and Rizal’s claimed rejection of the Philippine Revolution, writing: In no uncertain terms [Rizal] placed himself against Bonifacio andthose Filipinos who were fighting for the country’s liberty, pointing to Rizal’s December 15, 1896 manifesto as evidence (Constantino, 1970).

After that, Constantino poses an important truth that, as he argues, has been ignored in mainstream academic thought the disjunctive contradiction between Rizal and the Revolution. According to the historian, this contradiction has led to the great dilemma that the Filipino people must face in order to make full sense of their national history; that the Filipino people must disown either the Revolution or their national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, and not neither. He presents the choice starkly: Because the national hero condemned the Revolution that brought us our freedom from the colonial grip of imperial Spain, either the Revolution was wrong or Rizal was wrong. Constantino writes: The Philippine Revolution has always been overshadowed by the omnipresent figure and the towering reputation of Rizal. Because Rizal took no part in that Revolution and in fact repudiated it, the general regard of our Revolution is not as high as it otherwise would be. On the other hand, because we refuse to analyze the significance of his repudiation, our understanding of Rizal and of his role in our national development remains superficial.

This is a disservice to the event, to the man, and to ourselves. (Constantino, Constantino solidifies his argument further by pointing to the Americans rational of endorsing and sponsoring Dr. Jose Rizal as the hero of the Filipino people. He cites Governor W. Cameron Forbes (1928, p. 55, as cited in Constantino, 1970) who exposes that the Americans favored Rizal’s symbolic status for the Filipinos precisely because he urged reform from within by publicity, by public education, and appeal to the public conscience. Thus, we see how even the Americans at the time knew and understood Rizal to be are formist, a non-separatist, and one who advocated nothing more radical than assimilation into Spain and peaceful social change for the improvement of the Filipino colonial condition. Finally, Constantino points out that such a reformist position was only to be expected of a man like Rizal whose status and place in history assured him of a less radical, non-revolutionary, and more optimistic ideological position.

Echoing loudly Agoncillo s analysis (Agoncillo, 1956) of the ilustrado position during the Philippine Revolution, to Constantino Dr. Jose Rizal was nothing more than the greatest of the propagandist-reformists the greatest, but still not ahead enough of his time to have agreed with and joined the Revolution. Nevertheless, the historian saves Rizal’s face by alluding to the power of structure over agency, claiming that Rizal should not be blamed nor disowned and that heroes should be seen not as movers but products of history. Constantino concludes with a grim but sensible depiction of Rizal: Today, we need new heroes who can help us solve our pressing problems. We cannot rely on Rizal alone The true hero is one with the masses; he does not exist above them The inarticulate are now making history while the articulate may be headed for historical anonymity, if not ignominy. When the goals of the people are finally achieved, Rizal, the first Filipino, will be negated by the true Filipino by whom he will be remembered as a great catalyzer in the metamorphosis of the decolonized indio. (Constantino, 1970; italics mine)Of course, Renato Constantino’s work and thesis did not remain unchallenged.

An example of an audacious critique of Constantino’s critique comes from Floro Quibuyen who defended Rizal’s revolutionary aspirations through his 1996 dissertation entitled Imagining the Nation: Rizal, American Hegemony and Philippine Nationalism, the second chapter of which was devoted entirely to Dr. Jose Rizal. Quibuyen in his work aims to reveal by historiographic evidence and content analysis that Rizal’s bourgeois reformism, opposition to the Philippine Revolution, and assimilationism are all but historical myths perpetrated to tarnish the image of Rizal as the Revolution’s inspiration. His main thesis therefore is quite the opposite of Constantino’s: To Quibuyen (1996), Rizal was not are formist obsessed with peaceful change but a genuine revolutionary, even a supporter of armed struggle as a means for true social change. To prove his point, Quibuyen uses three historical documents written by Rizal, namely, his correspondences with his close friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, his letters to Marcelo Del Pilar, and his last poem now known by many as Mi Ultimo Adios.

First, Quibuyen debunks the supposedly stubborn belief of Rizal in the prospects of peaceful change by referring to his January 26, 1887 letter to Blumentritt. In his letter, Rizal says, A peaceful struggle shall always be a dream, for Spain will never learn the lesson of her SouthAmerican colonies. It is clear therefore that Rizal understood well that peaceful change, though ultimately the ideal means, cannot be the means with which the freedom of the Filipino people will be obtained. Second, by referring to Rizal’s letter to Del Pilar, Quibuyen (1996) proves that Rizal’s reforms were only tactics within the larger and more encompassing strategy of a revolution. In a letter to Del Pilar dated April 4, 1890, we see a sudden shift in the aspirations of Rizal, particularly those that concern his advocacy of Filipino representation in the Spanish Cortes. Quibuyen’s excerpt of the letter reads: I could not accept a seat [in the Cortes although my ancestors on my mother’s side were Congressmen Jose Florentino and Lorenzo Alberto. I am no longer interestedin those things. (Quibuyen, 1996)Finally, Quibuyen points to Rizal’s last untitled poem as the biggest proof of both Rizal’s revolutionary characteristic and the conspiracies associated with his portrayal as nothing more than a reformist.

In particular, Quibuyen strongly criticizes the poem’s translation by Austin Coates, pointing most saliently at the lines that originally read, En campos se batalla, lunchando con delirio Otros te dan sus vidas sin dudas, sin pesar. These lines were translated by Coates as: Others are giving you their lives on fields of battle Fighting joyfully, without hesitation or thought for the consequence compare this translation with Nick Joaquin’s literally closer translation: On the field of battle, fighting with delirium, Others give you their lives without doubts, without gloom. The political implications of these two different translations are important and very much relevant to our aim: Whereas Coates portrays Rizal as thinking the revolutionary armed struggle was not careful and thoughtful of its consequences, Joaquin depicts Rizal a sin fact ameliorating and romanticizing violent revolution and sacrifices of human life for the country without doubts, without gloom. At the end of the chapter, Quibuyen (1996), in a final attempt to prove that Rizal was indeed a revolutionary not just in writing but in practice as well, conjures the Passion of Jesus Christ as Rizal’s inspiration of his own revolution.

According to Quibuyen, to Rizal, fighting an armed struggle and self-martyrdom are both valid forms of revolutionary struggle, pointing to Jesus revolutionary moment when he gave up his life for, supposedly, our redemption. As such, therefore, Rizal was revolutionary in his own, Jesus-like way. Which of the two scholars then makes more sense? As said above, I argue here that neither is correct and that, in fact, there is something terribly wrong with the entire discourse itself. I argue this for three reasons: that Constantino’s reformist position is flawed, that Quibuyen’s revolutionary position is as well just as flawed, and that reform andrevolution are, in the end, not mutually exclusive. First, it must be conceded that, despite Constantino’s genius in narrating the nationalist history of the Philippines, some flaws in his line of argumentation against Rizal’s revolutionary character must necessarily be pointed out. The first point to be made is that Constantino intentionally used American sponsorship of Dr. Jose Rizal’s heroism as a tool to prove that Rizal was genuinely an assimilationist and against anti-colonial revolution whereas he should not have. For one, this is not in any way fair.

Sponsorship by the US colonial regime does not necessarily put Rizal on the side of reformism against revolution even as the Americans say so. What needs to be studied is not what the Americans thought of Rizal but what Rizal really believed in, explicable through the various documents and letters he wrote. In fact, it makes one wonder: If Constantino were really pushing for a nationalist understanding of Rizal as a political thinker, then why should the American shave a say in this process of understanding? A second point to be made is that Constantino focused too much on what Rizal did and neglected what Rizal wrote. What is important to Constantino is that Rizal never approved nor joined the Philippine Revolution; he was outside it, writing his life away. How are we then to judge a man’s thought if we really did not consider his theory and looked only at his praxis? It is also quite salient in Constantino’s work that there is no reference to Rizal’s writings other than his December1896 letter to Blumentritt.

Again, the question of fairness can be raised: Was it fair to have judged Rizal’s political thought based only on a document that was written 15 days before his death? Do we judge a man’s lifelong journey with political theorizing according only to his last few words? Finally, it is clear that with Constantino’s non-negotiable class analysis of history, he really did not give Rizal a chance from the very beginning. Because Rizal was a bourgeois ilustrado of the 1880s-1890s, he was quite expectedly a traitor to the revolution and, even if he were the greatest of the propagandists, he was a propagandist nonetheless and by extension merely a reformist. While the structural analysis is to be admired, where then is the power of agency? Clearly, not within Rizal’s grasp in Constantino’s world. Second, examining Quibuyen’s work, we see that the revolutionary position on Rizal’s political thought is just as flawed. To illustrate, whereas Constantino was too focused with what Rizal actually did or did not do, Quibuyen on the other hand was toofocused on what Rizal wrote. Content analysis is never enough to judge a man’s thought and role in history. For example, while Rizal indeed wrote that peaceful struggle is but a dream, he was in practice an advocate of peaceful means as he was chiefly a writer, a novelist.

In fact, even if we were to employ content analysis strictly, this statement can be contrasted with what Rizal did with his revolutionary characters in Noli and Fili: They al lfailed. Kabesang Tales failed, Elias was killed, and Simoun died realizing his mistakes in conjuring a revolution that was largely borne out of self-interest. Another point is that Quibuyen’s strongest point is based only on Rizal’s last poem. If we were to base Rizal’s political thought on Mi Ultimo Adios, we would be no different from Andres Bonifacio who was hallucinated with a revolutionary Rizal approving of the Revolution he was leading .Again, I ask the question of whether it is fair or not to judge a man only by his last few words. Further, is it not also possible that Rizal merely sympathized with and did not necessarily approve of armed struggle as a valid form of fighting for freedom? Finally, and I hope there is in fact no more need of belaboring this point, I seriously think that the comparison made by Quibuyen between Jose Rizal and Jesus of the Christians is nothing more than an exaggerated extension of Rizal’s martyrdom. In the ultimate end, the third and final point that must be made is that reform and revolution are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In a book entitled Requiem for Reformism: The Ideas of Rizal on Reform and Revolution, Bonifacio Gillego (1990) makes a crucial point that Rizal in fact favored both reform and revolution. The only difference afforded by Rizal between reformism and revolutionism is that he favored the former before the latter but nonetheless saw the latter as a necessary resolution if the former were to fail. This makes more sense, judging by the merits of the two positions represented by Constantino and Quibuyen. As such, therefore, while Rizal strongly believed and hoped for a peaceful struggle a dream he also knew that, when push comes to shove and the Spanish regimeremains as stubborn and oppressive despite his more negotiating and reformist approach, a revolution will be necessary.

The Philippine Revolution (called the Tagalog War by the Spanish),[citation needed] (Filipino: Himagsikang Pilipino) was an armed military conflict between the people of the Philippines and the Spanish colonial authorities. The Philippine Revolution began in August 1896, upon the discovery of the anti-colonial secret organization Katipunan by the Spanish authorities. The Katipunan, led by Andrés Bonifacio, was a liberationist movement and shadow government spread throughout much of the islands whose goal was independence from Spain through armed revolt. In a mass gathering in Caloocan, the Katipunan leaders organized themselves into a revolutionary government, named the newly established government “Haring Bayang Katagalugan”, and openly declared a nationwide armed revolution.[2] Bonifacio called for a simultaneous coordinated attack on the capital city of Manila.

This attack failed, but the surrounding provinces also rose up in revolt. In particular, rebels in Cavite led by Mariano Alvarez and Emilio Aguinaldo, from two different factions of Katipunan in the province, won early victories. A power struggle among the revolutionaries led to Bonifacio’s death in 1897, with command shifting to Aguinaldo who led his own revolutionary government. That year, a truce with the Spanish was reached called the Pact of Biak-na-Bato and Aguinaldo went to self-exile in Hong Kong. Hostilities, though reduced, never actually ceased.[3] On April 21, 1898, the United States began a naval blockade of Cuba, the first military action of the Spanish–American War. On May 1, the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey decisively defeated the Spanish navy in the Battle of Manila Bay, effectively seizing control of Manila. On May 19, Aguinaldo, unofficially allied with the United States, returned to the Philippines and resumed hostilities against the Spaniards. By June, the rebels had gained control over nearly all of the Philippines with the exception of Manila.

On June 12, Aguinaldo issued the Philippine Declaration of Independence and the First Philippine Republic was established. Neither Spain nor the United States recognized Philippine independence. Spanish rule in the islands officially ended with the Treaty of Paris of 1898 which ended the Spanish–American War. In it Spain ceded the Philippines and other territories to the United States.[3] There was an uneasy peace around Manila with the American forces controlling the city and the weaker Philippines forces surrounding them. On February 4, 1899, in the Battle of Manila fighting broke out between the Filipino and American forces, beginning the Philippine–American War. Aguinaldo immediately ordered, “[t]hat peace and friendly relations with the Americans be broken and that the latter be treated as enemies”.[4] In June 1899, the nascent First Philippine Republic formally declared war against the United States.[5][6] The Philippines would not become an internationally recognized, independent state until 1946.


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