Jose Rizal: Veneration Without Understanding
By Renato Constantino
In the histories of many nations, the national revolution represents a peak of achievement to which the minds of man return time and again in reverence and for a renewal of faith in freedom. For the national revolution is invariably the one period in a nation’s history when the people were most united, most involved, and most decisively active in the fight for freedom. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that almost always the leader of that revolution becomes the principal hero of his people. There is Washington for the United States, Lenin for the Soviet Union, Bolivar for Latin America, Sun Yat Sen, then Mao Tse-Tung for China and Ho Chi Minh for Vietnam. The unity between the venerated mass action and the honored single individual enhances the influence of both.
In our case, our national hero was not the leader of our Revolution. In fact, he repudiated that Revolution. In no uncertain terms he placed himself against Bonifacio and those Filipinos who were fighting for the country’s liberty. In fact, when he was arrested he was on his way to Cuba to use his medical skills in the service of Spain. [p. 125] And in the manifesto of December 15, 1896 which he addressed to the Filipino people, he declared:
From the very beginning, when I first had notice of what was being planned, I opposed it, fought it, and demonstrated its absolute impossibility.
I did even more. When later, against my advice, the movement materialized, of my own accord I offered my good offices, but my very life, and even my name, to be used in whatever way might seem best, toward stifling the rebellion; for convinced of the ills which it would bring, I considered myself fortunate if, at any sacrifice, I could prevent such useless misfortune…. I have written also (and I repeat my words) that reforms, to be beneficial, must come from above, and those which comes from below are irregularly gained and uncertain.
Holding these ideas, I cannot do less than condemn, and I do condemn this uprising-which dishonors us Filipinos and discredits those that could plead our cause. I abhor its criminal methods and disclaim all part in it, pitying from the bottom of my heart the unwary that have been deceived into taking part in it. 
Rizal and The Revolution
Rizal’s refusal to align himself with the revolutionary forces and his vehement condemnation of the mass movement and of its leaders have placed Filipinos in a dilemma. Either the Revolution was wrong, yet we cannot disown it, or Rizal was wrong, yet we cannot disown him either. By and large, we have chosen to ignore this apparent contradiction. Rizalists, especially, have taken the easy way out, which is to gloss over the matter. They have treated Rizal’s condemnation of the Katipunan as a skeleton in his closet and have been responsible for the “silent treatment” on his unequivocal position against the Revolution.
To my knowledge, there has been no extensive analysis of the question. For some Rizalists, this aspect of Rizal has been a source of embarrassment inasmuch as they picture him as the supreme symbol of our struggle for freedom. Others in fact privately agree with his stand as evidenced by their emphasis on the gradualism of Rizal’s teachings particularly his insistence on the primacy of education. [p. 126] They would probably praise Rizal’s stand against the Revolution, if they dared. Since they do not dare for themselves, they are also prudently silent for Rizal’s sake. Others, careless and superficial in their approach to history and perhaps afraid to stir a hornet’s nest of controversy, do not think it important to dwell on this contradiction between our Revolution and our national hero and elect to leave well enough alone. Perhaps they do not perceive the adverse consequences of our refusal to analyze and resolve this contradiction. Yet the consequences are manifest in our regard for our Revolution and in our understanding of Rizal.
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 for 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.
Viewed superficially, Rizal’s reaction toward the Revolution is unexpected, coming as it did from a man whose life and labors were supposed to have been dedicated to the cause of his country’s freedom. Had someone of lesser stature uttered those words of condemnation, he would have been considered a traitor to the cause. As a matter of fact, those words were treasonous in the light of the Filipinos’ struggle against Spain. Rizal repudiated the one act which really synthesized our nationalist aspiration, and yet we consider him a nationalist leader. Such an appraisal has dangerous implications because it can be used to exculpate those who actively betrayed the Revolution and may serve to diminish the ardor of those who today may be called upon to support another great nationalist undertaking to complete the anti-colonial movement.
An American-Sponsored Hero
We have magnified Rizal’s role to such an extent that we have lost our sense of proportion and relegated to a subordinate position our other great men and the historic events in which they took part. [p.127] Although Rizal was already a revered figure and became more so after his martyrdom, it cannot be denied that his pre-eminence among our heroes was partly the result of American sponsorship. This sponsorship took two forms: on one hand, that of encouraging a Rizal cult, on the other, that of minimizing the importance of other heroes or even of vilifying them. There is no question that Rizal had the qualities of greatness. History cannot deny his patriotism. He was a martyr to oppression, obscurantism and bigotry. His dramatic death captured the imagination of our people. Still, we must accept the fact that his formal designation as our national hero, his elevation to his present eminence so far above all our other heroes was abetted and encouraged by the Americans.
It was Governor William Howard Taft who in 1901 suggested that the Philippine Commission to the Filipinos be given a national hero. The Free Press of December 28, 1946 gives this account of a meeting of the Philippine Commission:
‘And now, gentlemen, you must have a national hero.’ In these fateful words, addressed by then Civil Governor W. H. Taft to the Filipino members of the civil commission, Pardo de Tavera, Legarda, and Luzuriaga, lay the genesis of Rizal Day…..
‘In the subsequent discussion in which the rival merits of the revolutionary heroes were considered, the final choice-now universally acclaimed as a wise one-was Rizal. And so was history made.’