Stuff of heroes: Sword, pen, moral compass

/ 05:22 PM December 30, 2017

Here, a statue of Rizal in a scholarly pose is outlined against the sky at dusk in Intramuros, Manila. Contributed photo / JILSON SECKLER TIU

The nation commemorates today the 121st anniversary of the death of Dr. Jose Rizal. To remember Rizal is to ask the question: What is a hero?

Not too long ago, beginning May 23, 2017, Filipino soldiers fought in Marawi to prevent Islamic State militants including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf jihadists from carving a slice of Philippine soil to establish their caliphate in Mindanao.  Five months later, before the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit last November, Philippine government forces prevailed and were declared heroes.


“Marawi destruction incites kids to fight terror,” ran a news item across the entire page of the Inquirer on July 13, 2017. It should interest us to know why.

Mustapha, 12, told the Inquirer that, when fighting began, he would run to the banks of Lake Lanao near his village of Kialdan and see planes dropping bombs on the city. It pained him to witness the destruction and vowed: “I will continue my studies. I will fight the Maute.”


Many Maranao children interviewed by the Inquirer echoed the same sentiment for staying in school—to join the government to fight terrorism. Said Nabil, only 9: “I want to be a soldier to fight bad people.”

It is sad for little children to see such destruction. Their sentiments, however, were inspiring. Where did their sense of right and wrong come from? Whence came the urge to defend with their lives the land they loved? Where did that impulse to dream heroic come from? What is a hero?

Even without practical victory

Andrew Bernstein, an American social scientist, defines hero as “an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goal indefatigably in the face of a powerful antagonist. Because of his unbreached devotion to the good, no matter the opposition, a hero attains spiritual grandeur even if he fails to achieve practical victory. Of these, the hero’s moral stature is unquestionably the most fundamental.”

Four critical disciplines are identified by Bernstein: moral ascendancy, superior ability, action in the face of opposition, and triumph in at least a spiritual, if not a physical, form. His definition does not include dying as a necessary condition to become a hero.

The most familiar persona of the hero is the warrior who wields the sword.  Lapu-Lapu, the chief of Mactan, ended the first wave of Spanish conquest by slaying Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and seared his image in our historical imagination as defender of the land.

Lapu-Lapu’s brand of heroism would resurface again and again in the 333-year stream of Spanish rule. Countless revolts, from sporadic shows of discontent like Panay’s Tapar in 1663 to long-drawn resistance such as the epic 85-year Francisco Dagohoy defiance in Bohol, would relentlessly disturb the Spanish masters in their sleep.


Rise of the  ‘Ilustrado’

Those uprisings occurred during the period when the Philippines, to borrow the words of Bienvenido Lumbera, was but “the private archipelago of the Spaniards” who enriched themselves through the Manila-Acapulco trade monopoly.

But when the Manila-Acapulco trade ended in 1815 and the 1863 royal decree proclaimed a complete education system in the country, the economic and intellectual foundations in the archipelago began to shift.

In addition to a middle class, an ilustrado elite arose unafraid to speak out their minds against the oppressive social order. In this world of change, another persona of the hero emerged to mirror the temper of the age—the hero of the imagination.

Francisco Balagtas.  Formerly derided as a race bereft of culture until Spain gave it to them, the indios agraviados fought to gain respectability for their own traditions. Francisco Balagtas (1788-1862) and his Tagalog poetry epitomized this struggle.

The 19th century recognized Balagtas’ “Florante at Laura” as the best literary creation by a native writer and banished the image of Tagalog poetry as good only for the “hills.” It established the legitimate artistry and reputation of the native tongue, retrieving the collective pride of the people in their own worth.

And Balagtas, the poet of the people, by embedding his legacy of literary excellence with political activism, also planted, according to the late Sen. Blas F. Ople, the roots of Filipino nationalism.

Another persona

At about the same time, during the first half of the 19th century (1830s-1840s), yet another persona of heroism surfaced in Apolinario de la Cruz, more widely known as Hermano Pule. During those times, the Jesuits popularized religious movements called the Cofradias as vehicles of Christian consolidation. Refused admission to a religious order because he was an indio, Hermano Pule established his Cofradia de San Jose.

Because of economic impositions and abuses, the pueblo-parish world of colonial subjection prevented the natives from experiencing their traditional bonds of cordiality and reciprocal assistance. Hermano Pule created in the Cofradia a parallel and opposite world centered around devotion to Catholic saints, insistence on inner purity and mutual assistance, equanimity in the face of opposition, and the belief and practices in the prophecies of charismatic leaders like Hermano Pule.

The phenomenal growth of Cofradia members in Tayabas, Batangas, Laguna and Cavite aroused friar suspicion of heretical activities. Witch-hunts of Confradia members followed. In October 1841, government forces attacked the Cofradia encampment in Mount San Cristobal in Tayabas province killing about 500 members. Hermano Pule himself was captured and executed soon after, his dismembered head stuck in a pole along the road to Majayjay to warn others.

Without any evidence of Hemano Pule ever inciting the Cofradia to rise up against Spain, the friars had to suppress them because the parallel world they were creating was upsetting the traditional relationship between the friar-curate and his indio parishioners—that of the superior to the inferior. Hermano Pule offered the persona of the hero of the moral compass with his insistence on inner purity as the foundation of liberation from bondage, anchoring a similar insistence on inner transformation as the condition of revolution 50 years later.

Youth of 1872  

The persona of the hero from Lapu-Lapu, Balagtas and Hermano Pule would find convergence in the generation of 1872. Using the sword, the pen and the moral compass, the youth of 1872 would emerge as the finest expression of the amalgamated face of the hero in our country’s history.

At the vanguard were Marcelo del Pilar and Graciano Lopez Jaena, their sharp pens poked fun at friar hypocrisy and exposed their abuses.

Andres Bonifacio, on the other hand, proclaimed in prose and poetry that Spain was an uncaring mother and counseled the people to reach for the sword. He and Emilio Aguinaldo took to the battlefields and met the enemy face to face. And Apolinario Mabini gave structure to the first Republic that rose from those embattled grounds.

Wise counsel, fair warning

But it was Jose Rizal who contoured, with the greatest and deepest clarity, the heroes of the sword, the pen and the moral compass into the persona of the hero as Filipino. Within a short lifetime, his prodigious mind laid out not only the philosophical foundations of nationhood but the complete cartography of his people’s story.

His “Noli Me Tangere” showed the people their miserable present, the Morga annotations demonstrated the richness and liveliness of their pre-colonial past, and Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos boldly predicted their future.

Having shown them their entire story, Rizal then founded La Liga Filipina, giving his people not only a road map but a social blueprint for its development. He was preparing the people for the sacrifices and demands of the freedom they sought. And then, he gave them wise counsel and fair warning—they would win freedom only and ultimately by deserving it.

The gunshot that disturbed the lovely morning in the seaside park on Dec. 30, 1896, was the sweet distillate of the long and bitter struggles that made the birth of the Filipino nation and the rise of the Filipino hero both inevitable and irreversible. In remembering the death of Rizal, therefore, we are essentially reaffirming that our race possesses the spirit necessary to selflessly move this country forward. In that instant, our separate lives are enlarged. We ourselves become the collective push for national deliverance.

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Pablo S. Trillana III used to be the Grand Knight of the Knights of Rizal and the chair and executive director of the then National Historical Institute now National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He is also the legal counsel of the Historical Association of the Philippines and used to be the General Counsel of the Asian Development Bank of the Philippines.)

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TAGS: Hero, History, Jose Rizal, Lapu-Lapu, Rizal Day, Warriors
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