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Liberalism: Rizal’s Greatest Legacy to the Filipinos

By Jacob O. Apostol
The Netherlands
January 4, 2018


(Just 7 days ago, last year, 30th December 2017, marked the 150th death anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal who was one of the greatest Filipino heroes of all time. His life, works, and writings are still highly relevant today. Therefore, this article is dedicated to his unblemished memory).

 Francis Fukuyama, an American social scientist who wrote a famous political book The End of History and the Last Man, declares that 20th century was the triumph of western liberal democracy. But what does liberalism really mean for the Filipinos?  Many Filipinos don’t have any idea about liberalism as a political ideology. They surely know the word, but not the meaning since it is always associated with one of the oldest political parties in the Philippines.

Maybe, a little historical discussion on this concept would help us better understand this ideology. The word “liberalism” is always associated with the Western ideology. In fact, it is considered as the most controversial ideology in modern history. This ideology emphasizes the primacy of individualism in the realm of hierarchical values and beliefs in society. It promotes the virtue of equality, individual uniqueness and freedom. It also believes in the power of reason in search for human flourishing and happiness, and rejects the notion of tradition, collectivism, and human imperfection.

For us, Filipinos, liberalism was part of our political history. It began to grow during the last decades of the 19th century Spanish colonization in the Philippines, and deepened throughout the American occupation in the 20th century. Liberalism has partly shaped our laws, culture, tradition and way of thinking since then. But, are we aware that Rizal’s greatest legacy for the Filipinos was his liberal ideas?

Rizal’s thinking revolved around the ambit of liberalism. He had already cultivated liberal ideas by heart even long before the Filipino intellectuals of the 19th century Philippines embraced it during the Spanish rule. Indeed, his liberalism was solely responsible for what he is today – being acclaimed as one of the greatest Filipino Heroes. It was his liberal ideas, as the main culprit, that led his life into the grave, but put him in the pantheon of great Filipino heroes.

Let’s see some of Rizal’s writings that shed light on his liberal ideology. As a young boy, Rizal already showed his deep interest in liberal ideas through his various writings. Those ideas about the virtue of education, justice, individual freedom, equality before the rule of law and among others found expression in his famous poetry, essays, and novels. No doubt, Rizal was not only a born writer, but was also destined to be a purveyor of liberalism in the Philippines.

Rizal’s writing ability became his tool to spread the beauty of liberal principles for his countrymen, and in particular, the passel of intellectuals of his days. His ideas were so powerful and captivating that touched the conscience of many ordinary people of his time. These were the very ideas that caught the attention of the Spanish authorities, not only because of their nationalistic fervors, but also because of their political values, which were at loggerhead with the Spanish government’s conservative policy in the Philippines.

One striking example of Rizal’s early writing that undermined the Spanish policy was a poem written in 1875 entitled, “Education Gives Luster to Motherland”. This poem showed his propensity to promote the importance of education for the country. This was contrary to the unwritten policy of the Spanish authorities who wanted to limit the access to education only for a few aristocratic families in the Philippines during those times. The Spanish government didn’t encourage the natives to undergo a formal education for fear that they might use their erudition against the status quo.

In his winning poem “To the Filipino Youth”, Rizal called on the Filipino youth of his time to develop their talents and reason in order for them to excel in the fields of arts and science. This is a living proof that Rizal had laid his faith in the ability of the Filipino youth to use reason in fulfilling their human flourishing and freedom.

 A closer look at development of liberalism in the Philippines would give us a glimpse of how it eventually shaped Rizal’s thinking and the myriad factors that formed a congruence of his strong political conviction. It all started from the Enlightenment movement that took its roots during the mid-decades of the 17th and 18th centuries in Western Europe.

The most defining events that engulfed most parts of Europe with liberal ideals were the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Its progress provided a fertile ground for political thinkers to advocate a cluster of ideas centered on individual liberty, justice, and equality before the rule of law that later challenged the traditional institutions and beliefs in the nineteenth century Europe. John Locke, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and among others, were the purveyors of liberalism who sought to understand and explore the complex world through the lens of reason. Europe, the birthplace of liberalism, became the battleground for intellectual discourses among scholars, students, and politicians as well.

So much of it, the powerful influences of liberal ideas spilled over European colonies, especially during the late part of the 19th century. The Philippines, being a Spanish colony that time, was no exception. Spain ruled the Philippines for more than three centuries, but its long rule was characterized by intolerance, oppression, and discrimination.
However, when Governor Maria dela Torres was assigned to head the Spanish administration in the Philippines in 1869, he instituted political reforms by implementing a liberal policy. The indios (name given to native Filipinos during the Spanish period) savored for the first time the atmosphere of freedom and tolerance. But, the change of political power in Spain shortened Governor Maria dela Torres’ reign in the Philippines from 1868 to 1870. Nevertheless, during his stint, he was able to implant the seed of liberalism in the Philippines which later blossomed into a movement.

The execution of the three Filipino priests known as the GOMBURZA affected the young Rizal’s way of thinking. But, it was in Europe where Rizal’s mind was developed to the fullest towards liberalism. While in Europe, Rizal had the chance to freely express his liberal ideas to the fullest without fear of persecution or imprisonment. His adamant criticism on Spanish policy in the Philippines made him the leading voice of liberalism for his countrymen.

Rizal believed that the implementation of liberal policies in the Philippines was inevitable. In his essay “The Philippines in the Century Hence” published in 1889, Rizal warned Spain that it would lose the Philippines to Imperial America if it failed to reform its policy on the natives. His prophecy finally proved true by history. Ironically Rizal’s advocacy for liberal reform led him to his fate. But, he accepted it without remorse. His execution in 1896 signaled the end of peaceful struggle for liberal reform and the beginning of armed struggle for separation from Spain. But, it was the liberal Rizal who molded the separatists to choose death in the name of freedom over life under the evil of tyranny.

 As Rizal faced his death in Bagumbayan, he watered the seed of liberalism with his own blood so that the future of the Filipino nation would be secured against the danger of ignorance, bigotry and the tyranny of colonial rule.

But the question remains, has that seed grown in the hearts of today’s generation of the Filipinos?

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