Reading shaped Rizal’s POLITICAL consciousness
(Editor’s Note: The author is the shrine curator of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.)
MANILA, Philippines – MANY Filipino heroes, like Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini, assiduously collected and read books and pamphlets. But Jose Rizal stands out as the foremost bibliophile, his interests ranging from the literary to the scientific.
Even as a three-year-old, according to his elder sister Narcisa, Rizal was determined to learn his alphabet from the cartilla, memorizing the letters and their pronunciation within a day. He was deeply indebted to his mother, Teodora Alonso, who taught him simple prayers, folk songs and nursery rhymes
As a student at the Ateneo Municipal, he wrote, “By this time I began to devote myself in my leisure hours to the reading of novels, though years before I had already read ‘El Último Abencerraje,’ but I didn’t read it with ardor. Imagine a boy of twelve years reading the ‘Count of Monte Cristo,’ enjoying the sustained dialogues, and delighting in its beauties and following step by step its hero in his revenge.”
Rizal wrote to Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt on Nov. 8, 1888, “In my town of only 5,000 to 6,000 inhabitants, there are some six small private libraries. Ours is the largest, consisting of more than one thousand volumes; the smallest may have twenty or thirty. The Indio, in general, is very fond of reading and studying…”
During trips to Europe, Rizal frequented the bookshops of Antonio Rosés, Pedro Vindel, Fernando Fe, and Cuevas in Madrid, tracking down rare Spanish books that detailed preHispanic Filipino culture and other ethnographic materials.
Noted historian Dr. Esteban de Ocampo indicated that, through these forays, the hero collected some 2,000 volumes. Rizal considered his collection important, and was angered by those who would steal his books: “Tell me if the book that was taken by a soldier had been returned already, and if not, what book it is. How good it is that while I economize money to buy books, anyone takes them away. You give me the temptation of buying everything in Germany with the certainty that there will be no lieutenant of the Civil Guard who understands them, but I will not do this for you, because you would not get any benefit…The books I have here are as many or more than what are there; see to it then that none will get lost, thanks that those gentlemen put up a library with involuntary donations.”
Unfortunately, Rizal’s valuable library, left in the care of his friend Jose Maria Basa in Hong Kong and sent back to the Philippines before World War II, was presumed to have been destroyed during the conflict.
In 1960, De Ocampo compiled a list of books and pamphlets collected by Rizal throughout his life. It appeared, from the list, that Rizal’s artistic and political preoccupations were shaped by the ideas and principles of Western thinkers.
Among the political theorists Rizal read was the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, whose atypical views on colonial reforms seemed to have been expounded in the hero’s second novel “El Filibusterismo.”
In “Man versus the State”, Spencer said, “In our days of active philanthropy, hosts of people eager to achieve benefits for their less fortunate fellows by the shortest methods, busily occupied in developing administrative arrangements of a kind proper to a lower type of society—are bringing about retrogression while aiming at progression. The normal difficulties in the way of advance are sufficiently great, and it is lamentable that they should be made greater. Hence, something well worth doing may be done, if philanthropists can be shown that they are in many cases insuring the future ill-being of men while eagerly pursuing their present well-being.”
Early on, Rizal was a firm advocate of assimilation with Spain through reforms. He gradually changed his views, as reflected in his letter to Blumentritt in June 1888: “I believe that it is already late; the majority of Filipinos have lost already the hope they have pinned on Spain! Now we await our fate from God and from ourselves, but never anymore from any Government!”
Consequently, in the Fili, published in 1891, Simon’s criticism of Basilio’s naïveté echoes Spencer’s trenchant remarks against colonial reforms: “You pool your efforts thinking to unite your country with rosy garlands and in reality you forge iron chains. You ask parity of rights, the Spanish way of life, and you do not realize that what you are asking is death, the destruction of your national identity, the disappearance of your homeland, the ratification of tyranny. . . What is to become of you? A people without a soul, a nation without freedom; everything in you will be borrowed, even your very defects. You ask for Hispanization and do not blush for shame when it is denied to you.”
The parallelism with Spencer’s views seemed to signify Rizal’s acceptance of the idea of an alternative form of governance for the Philippines, free from Spain’s “civilizing” involvement.
Though cautious, Rizal was not averse to the idea of revolution to effect extensive change. In June 1887, he said: “I can assure you that I have no desire to take part in conspiracies which seem to me too premature and risky. But if the government drives us to them, that is to say, when no other hope remains to us but to seek our destruction in war, when Filipinos would prefer to die rather than endure longer their misery, then I will also become a partisan of violent means.”
Rizal prepared for every possible event in the Philippines by reading and educating himself—from books on military history and strategy to politics, industry, and agriculture.
In April 1890, he wrote to Marcelo H. del Pilar: “I am assiduously studying the happenings in our country. I believe that nothing can redeem us except our brains: materialiter vel idealiter sumptum (materially or ideally considered). I still have faith in this belief of mine.”
Rizal’s passion for books contributed to the formation of his patriotic consciousness and, in due course, his literary voice as a political novelist.
Today, how many government officials have prepared for their leadership roles by educating themselves through books? With all the scandals besetting the country, perhaps they could learn from Rizal’s studiousness and selflessness: “…I do not aspire either for eternal fame or eternal renown; I do not aspire to equal others whose conditions, faculties, and circumstances could be and are in effect different from mine. My sole wish is to do what is possible, what is in my hands, the most necessary. I have glimpsed a little light and I believe that it is my duty to teach it to my countrymen.”
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