Why Rizal Went Bravely to His Death
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Often glossed over, coming as it does a little less than a week after independence day, is the birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero. In recent decades, the near-unassailable preeminence of Rizal in the official roster of heroes has come under attack. The foremost Filipino reformist, after all, has left a difficult legacy for those pursuing reform rather than revolution. That is, if one assumes reform is less difficult, and thus, ignoble, compared to revolution.
In his magnificent, but not often read biography, “Rizal,” the late Teodoro M. Locsin Sr. observed that, “…A man is presumed to have intended all the consequences of his act. Rizal was a revolutionary, for he incited the people to a revolution. That he did not mean to do so is beside the point.
“The voice of moderation, pleading for due process of law under an absolute despotism, arguing the possibility of persuading the tiger to change its stripes and cease to be a tiger, does not know the tiger. Asking the tiger and the lamb to lie down together in gentleness — as though it were possible — disarms the lamb and feeds the tiger. It is a form of pharisaism: Doing evil with a good conscience. Ultimately, the tiger, grown dull and stupid from undisputed rule, fails to distinguish between friend and food and devours not only lamb but pharisee.
“In the story of his life as a revolutionary by consequence rather than by intention, the distaste for violence however necessary and the distrust of the masses native to him, provide a kind of counterpoint to the main and classic theme of oppression and revolt. Rizal’s death, a monument to serene courage and intellectual confusion, of a peace that passes all understanding — his death which precipitated the revolution was one more instance of the peculiar logic and morality of the historical processes, the delicate perversity and smiling savagery of the gods.”
A perversity and logic Locsin saw in Rizal; and one that can always be said to have manifested itself persistently in our experience as a growing nation: Rizal, who had proclaimed the bourgeoisie a rose blooming on a dunghill (the dunghill being the masses), adopted as avatar of the revolution by the masses themselves and his fellow ilustrados as well. Prior to the revolution of 1896, one was inducted into the secret, revolutionary Katipunan under a picture of Rizal; decades later, in 1942, Jose Abad Santos, died for his autonomous government but also willingly died out of loyalty to the Great North American nation which had crushed the Malolos Republic of 1899. He was proclaimed a martyr to patriotism. Benigno Aquino Jr., who had come home to reason and appeal to the better instincts of the man who had jailed him for so long, assassinated in 1983 and made supreme icon of the religious revival now known as EDSA; and the farmers at Mendiola Bridge in Cory Aquino’s time, come to supplicate their government and mowed down in the same manner that Russian peasants were massacred before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
This is not to say that being a reluctant and accidental martyr, Rizal should be deprived of his status as our secular St. Stephen: Indeed one could say that precisely because of his dignity throughout the trial meant to make him a scapegoat for the revolution, he earned his distinction as first among patriots. For though he did leave a document behind condemning the revolution, we can see that the Spaniards, in a momentary fit of intelligence, chose not to circulate it because it was not condemnation enough — merely a statement of indignation over the revolution being premature.
You can see in Rizal’s posthumously titled last poem, “Ultimo Adios,” too, that there was no distinction to his mind between his fate and the fate of those dying in the trenches of the Katipunan:
Others are giving you their lives on fields of battle,
Fighting joyfully, without hesitation, or thought for the consequence.
How it takes place is not important. Cypress, laurel or lily,
Scaffold or battlefield, in combat or in cruel martyrdom,
It is the same when what is asked of you is for your country and your home.
Let Rizal’s contemporary, Mabini, have the final say.
Writing in his “La Revolucion Filipina,” Mabini penned this estimation of Rizal: “[Rizal] was found guilty of having been [the revolution’s] chief instigator because, had it not been for the articles he had published in La Solidaridad and for his novels, the people would never have taken to politics. This judgment was totally incorrect because political activities in the Philippines antedated Rizal, because Rizal was only a personality created by the needs of these activities: If Rizal had not existed, somebody else would have played his role. The movement was by nature slow and gentle, it had become violent because obstructed. Rizal had not started the resistance, yet he was condemned to death: Were he not innocent, he would not be a martyr.
“In contrast to [Fr.] Burgos who wept because he died guiltless, Rizal went to the execution ground calm and even cheerful, to show that he was happy to sacrifice his life, which he had dedicated to the good of all the Filipinos, confident that in love and gratitude they would always remember him and follow his example and teaching. In truth the merit of Rizal’s sacrifice consists precisely in that it was voluntary and conscious. He had known perfectly well that if he denounced the abuses which the Spaniards were committing in the Philippines, they would not sleep in peace until they had encompassed his ruin; yet he did so because, if the abuses were not exposed, they would never be remedied.
“From the day Rizal understood the misfortunes of his native land and decided to work to redress them, his vivid imagination never ceased to picture him at every moment of his life the terrors of the death that awaited him; thus he learned not to fear it, and had no fear when it came to take him away; the life of Rizal, from the time he dedicated it to the service of his native land, was therefore a continuing death, bravely endured until the end for love of his countrymen. God grant that they will know how to render to him the only tribute worthy of his memory: the imitation of his virtues.”
To Mabini’s prayer we can only say, Amen.