Chapter 18: Rizal the Man



Any attempt to eulogize Rizal is like pouring perfume on the dama de noche (a fragrant flower in the Philippines). One cannot state the truth without seeming to strangers to overstate it, while those who know Rizal's life need no statement at all. Ten thousand eulogies couched in superlatives and charged with emotion rise from schools, from legislative halls, and from every plaza on Rizal Day. This chapter will attempt what is not so common, a judicious appraisal of the man. (01)

Rizal was not a "born angel." The words he uttered just before he fell dead, "I forgive every man from the bottom of my heart," were not natural to him, any more than they are natural for others. As a boy in Manila he was a "little terror" when he fought with the Spanish students, as he frequently did. Once in his earlier years he was seized with rage and fought a cab driver. More than once in Europe, when letters arrived telling of atrocities against his family and Calamba, he was heard to swear with anger. Twice he challenged men to duels. One can see the bulldog tenacity in his jaw. Against this background it is remarkable that he at last conquered the last vestiges of hatred so that, "while he resented the wrongs of his people with towering indignation, he viewed his own with an astonishing calm." A wild temper under control of a strong will is like Alexander's famous horse, it can carry a man far. It is a dangerous master, but a wonderful servant. Rizal put a bit in its mouth and drove it against the entrenched iniquity of his country.

It is a mistake also to call him a "super mind." Schoolmates in Biñan, the Ateneo, and Santo Tomas say there were boys with even more brilliant minds than José had, but there was one difference -- he worked harder than anybody else. He knew why he was studying, and put his whole heart into every subject. That counts more than natural brilliancy.


Rizal's secret, which soon sent him ahead of the other boys in his classes, was the flame which burned in his soul -- a consuming purpose; a purpose that was enkindled first during the two and a half years of his mother's imprisonment, and was fanned into a hotter fire by the death of Father Burgos, by the beating of José's neighbors, by the sword wound he himself received for failing to tip his hat, by the midnight flight to Europe, by the ten years of persecutions his relatives and neighbors in Calamba suffered on his account.

Rizal's vision was for universal education for the Philippine people.  This is a picture of early school educators under the American colonial administration


Very early he began to believe that the hope of his country lay in education. This faith he got from his father and his mother, his uncles and his professors in the Ateneo. If we knew which professor aided Rizal to write that amazing poem, written at the age of fifteen, "Through Education our Motherland Receives Light," we could pay tribute to an unusual soul and a really great educator.

Rizal's entire life was devoted to an educational program. Like all real educators, he had first to educate himself. During the years of propaganda in Europe he studied prodigiously and inspired the other young propagandists to follow his example. That is the finest type of educator -- the man who studies with his students, so that one hardly knows which is pupil and which is teacher -- friends in quest of the truth! Under these conditions education lives for students and teacher alike. Rizal was not only a reader, but a prodigious reader. Retana says that "whatever was left of his modest income he invested in books, of which he bought hundreds."

Rizal and his friends were all studying with an intense purpose. They did not seek "learning for its own sake" but for the sake of a cause which they regarded as supreme. Their project was to find out what they could do for their country. The project method is the most modern idea in education.

When fiction seemed the channel for the education of his country, Rizal employed that channel and became the author of two great novels. When historical research offered the best promise, he led the Filipino exiles in searching the libraries of Europe for unknown truth, and wrote epoch-making studies like his Annotations to Morga, The Indolence of the Filipinos, The Philippines a Century Hence, and My Views of the Race Problem. (02)

Professor Claudio and Dr. Osias, after a study of Rizal's writings, (03) find his educational ideas very modern, for he had absorbed the best each country of Europe had to offer. He demanded healthful school buildings, regularity and punctuality in attendance, moral suasion instead of corporal punishment, physical education and examination of children's health, subject matter useful for life instead of valueless studies, adult education, teaching through projects, and especially constant education of the teacher himself. The teacher must be what he desires the students to be. Example is more important, he thought, than precepts. Rizal was himself the finest possible example of the fact that a man teaches most by what he is.

What he did to transform Dapitan by the cooperation of his neighbors, introducing new ideas in agriculture, machinery, health, sanitation, and town beautification, is now, forty years later, being called "the newest idea on education."

Ethnographic Collection

Sketch of various fish specimens found in Dapitan


Rizal was eye-minded. Birds, plants and insects, -- all life -- interested him. For this F. Jagor, the great naturalist, loved him. There are three hundred and eighty-four of the specimens collected by Rizal in the Dresden museum. At least three bear Rizal's name.

He was more interested in human life than in any other, because here he found a great wrong that need to be righted. If others had not succeeded in righting it, the reason must be because they did not know enough. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." So he studied every science with the utmost zest, hoping that just around the corner might lay some secret which he could apply to the healing of his country.

He plunged into languages because he wanted to read what the greatest minds in all tongues had to offer. So Reinhold Rost, the most famous philologist of the nineteenth century, found in Rizal an apt student and delightful friend.

Knowing that the Filipinos had been grossly underestimated by Spain, he plunged into Sociology and Ethnology with such zeal and ability that the ethnologist, Dr. Fernando Blumentritt, regarded him as his own son, while Dr. Rudolph Virchow, the great scientist, philosopher, and democrat of Berlin, became his intimate friend. Another intimate friend, the great historian Professor Fredrich Ratzel, wrote a long glowing tribute [link] to his scholarship. Dr. A. B. Meyer collaborated with Rizal and Blumentritt in annotating a Chinese Codicil of the Middle Ages. Dr. L. de Weckert, the leading oculist of France, found in Dr. Rizal a colleague and close friend, as did the German Dr. Schülzer (04)

Indeed, José Rizal was appreciated very much more as a scientist in Germany, France, and England, than he was in the Philippines, where the people knew him only as "the best ophthalmologist in Asia."

He turned his highly trained mind also to economics, when, upon his first return trip to the Philippines, he collected his neighbors around him in Calamba, sifted all their prejudices and contradictions for basic facts, and wrote a scholarly, restrained, unanswerable case for the tenants of the Dominican estate. He could plunge to the heart of an agrarian problem with the same clear mind that he applied to every subject.

Girolamo Savonarola

(painting by Fra Bartolomeo)


Rizal was to the Philippines what the reformers like [Girolamo] Savonarola were to the Reformation in Europe [A Dominican religious and political reformer burned at the stake for heresy]. Spain in the Philippines had stagnated in an eddy, and was four hundred years behind Europe. Fifty years ago these Islands were suffering from the same corruption, oppression, and inquisition that had cursed Europe centuries before. The Church controlled the State and was herself ruined by that control.

It became necessary for Rizal, and the other real students among the Filipino exiles in Europe, to study theology and the history of the Church in an endeavor to discover (or forge out for themselves) an answer to their religious and Church problems.

The Jesuits who talked with Rizal and read his books were not sure whether he was a "freethinker, a rationalist, or a Protestant." Germany, they felt, had made him one or all of these. "He spoke with reverence of God, of Jesus Christ, and of the Sacred Scriptures." (05) Where he differed with the Jesuits was in his position about the final authority of the Church and of the Bible. He did not regard either an infallible, and thought man should use his reason to judge the truth of what they taught.

It was not Rizal's liberal views that got him into trouble, nor anything he ever said against Spain, but his frank condemnation of the friars. Governor Carnicero reported to the Governor General the following conversation with Rizal in Dapitan:

"In the Philippines, the friars are not liked, and their intervention in everything is becoming ever more obnoxious. The deportation of my family is due to the information from the friars."

"Is your Party in favor of expelling the friars?" he was asked.

"No, sir," he replied. "In our country there is room for everybody. Secularize the friars, bringing to a stop the control which these men exercise over the government and the country." (06)

Governor General Despujol said Rizal made "attacks on the monastic orders, and more or less casuistically wishes to believe that this is compatible in the Philippines with respect toward the Catholic faith." (07) This seems to have been the exact truth. Rizal did not wish to separate from the Catholic Church. He wanted to be the kind of Catholic whose minds was free to follow his own reason. He may have felt that he was the truest kind of Catholic because he was trying to remove the evils which cursed the Church in the Philippines. But that attempt is what brought down upon his head the wrath of those who were doing the evils.

La Vision de Fr. Rodriguez by Dimas Alang (pen name of José Rizal)

In Rizal's story, La Vision de Fr. Rodriguez, he contrasts the goodness of God with the cruelty of those men who ought to have been representing God. St. Augustine is supposed to be speaking for God:

"I, who created the millions of suns about which revolve millions of earths, each of which is inhabited by millions of beings whom I created to live in infinite bliss, I will not serve the mean passions of a few; I do not wish them in my name to exploit the misery and ignorance of their brothers; I do not wish them to enslave the intelligence and reason which I set free; I do not wish them to cause one tear to be shed, nor to spill one drop of blood.

"How could I, who have given air, light, life, love, and food to every being, so that all may be happy, how could I, in order to profit a few, and these certainly not the best men, deny true happiness to the many? Impious, absurd, absurd! Their enemies are not my enemies; I have never identified myself with them; their work is vain and blasphemous. I shall punish the least injury against the poor and the oppressed, for I have created nobody to make him unhappy or to enslave him to his brother men." (08)

Rizal could no more have agreed with the orthodox Protestants of Europe than with the orthodox Catholic view. The former made the Bible their final authority, the latter, the Church. Rizal made conscience, aided by reason, his final authority. This was the reason why he did not agree to join the church of Adelina Boustead. He would have felt perfectly at home with the liberalism of men like Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick [a noted liberal Protestant minister of the twentieth/ twenty-first century]. (09)

Writing to Pastells, Rizal said:

"I believe in revelation, but not in the revelation which each religion pretends to possess. As I examine them impartially I see in them all the human fingerprint, and the seal of the age in which they were written. I believe in the living revelation of nature which surrounds us on all sides; and this potent voice, eternal, continuous, incorruptible, clear, distinct, as universal as the being from which it comes; I believe in this revelation which speaks to us and penetrates us from birth to death. Man does wrong in seeking the divine will in parchments and temples instead of seeking Him in the works of nature and under the august vault of heaven. Instead of interpreting obscure passages which provoke hatred, war, and dissentions, it would be better to interpret the works of nature and its inviolate laws, and to use its forces for perfecting ourselves. The best religions are those most in harmony with the needs and aspirations of man, and here is the greatest excellence in the religion of Christ. God cannot create me in order to harm me. What injury have I done Him that he should make me for perdition? Why should He wish me to suffer in endless torment? He must have created me for a good end, and for this I have no better guide than my conscience, which must guide and restrain my acts."

This, we believe the students of Rizal's life will agree, is a true picture of his religion, during the last decade of his life. While not orthodox, he was profoundly religious. He told Father Pastells that it was his custom to pray. Neighbors in Dapitan told Mrs. Julia Sotto Yapsutco that they used to peek through the cracks of Rizal's room in the home of Governor Carnicero and see him on his knees. "To doubt the existence of God," he told Father Pastells, "would be to doubt my own conscience, and therefore to doubt everything. And then why should one live?" (10)

Sketch of

Leonor Rivera

Sketch of

Josephine Bracken


When one records the wide range of activities in which Rizal shone, the list is rather staggering:
· Poet -- perhaps the foremost in his race.
· Painter and sculptor who won gold medals.
· Novelist -- Noli Me Tangere was the greatest novel in fifty years," said William Dean Howells. (11)
· Dramatist
· Historian
· Sociologist
· Physician, ophthalmologist, and surgeon.
· Educator
· Economist
· Ethnologist
· Naturalist
· Psychologist
· Theologian
· Sanitary engineer
· Scientific farmer

As a philologist Rizal spoke Spanish, Latin, French, Italian, English, German, Japanese, Dutch, Catalan, Tagalog, Visayan, Ilocono, Cebuano, Subano and Malayan. He translated Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese. He could read Russian, Swedish, and Portuguese. In all these represent twenty-two languages! [NOTE: see annotation in chapter six]

This list indicates not only ability but hard work. Habitually he worked with brain and hand every working hour. He did not like to rest -- it made him nervous. "He was more careful of his time than any miser of his gold. . . . he would waste no hour." "I never saw him idle," said Senator Sandiko, who knew him well in Madrid. "He was profound in his studies and researches, and extremely methodical." In the words of Retana, "He assuaged his sorrows in work. He read, he studied languages, he painted, he modeled, he wrote, and never failed in his classes. He did not indulge in diversions except on rare occasions. . ."

Power of Will

Galicano Apacible, who knew Rizal ever since he was in fifth grade, says: "The most notable characteristic of Rizal was his tenacious and vigorous will power. When he proposed to get anything, and had many obstacles in his way, he got what he went after by sheer perseverance." (12)


He overcame the tremendous handicap of being born a sickly child through power of will. "From childhood his shoulders were high and his chest narrow, with a tendency to sickliness. He corrected this in the gymnasium, and by fencing a half hour every day. . . He was of a nervous temperament with a trembling hand. So he practiced shooting to stead his hand, until he became number one among the Filipinos in Europe, able to shoot, without missing, little balls and other objects thrown into the air." After his visit to Japan, where he studied jujitsu, he practiced at Japanese exercises every day. By the time he visited Madrid the second time, just before his second return to the Philippines, he was described as a man of "wholesome vigor and physical well-being. He was of rather slender build but all muscle and sinew compact, for he never remitted his exercises. In height he was five feet four inches. He could endure privations, subdue appetites, and urge himself along the road by sheer force of will".

Methodical Habits

From his days in the Ateneo, Rizal planned out every activity of his day and then stuck to his plan. "Whenever he was and whatever his aim, in any country he visited, the first thing he did was to make a schedule of his time, and fasten this on the edge of his bed. He obeyed his schedules with the regularity of a machine, not only for a day or a month or a year, but all his life. During those hours which he had set aside for rest, he modeled statues in clay, or bound a book, or made a box for his pistols, or some other useful thing; and while working he would entertain those who visited him by telling them of his dreams and principles of life."

Rizal's Chess Set.  You may note that it was designed for travel with holes put in the board to hold the chess pieces securely.

Tomas Arejola says that "such was his punctuality and his enthusiasm for study that he would abandon any ceremony, no matter how important it might be, if the hour he had previously arranged had arrived, and go home to his books. A certain hour of the day he played chess (at which he was a master.) But even though the moment of most intense interest had come, such as being able to checkmate the king or queen, if the clock marked the time his schedule said he should do something else, he would get up and leave, and no pressure from his friends could persuade him to change his mind." (13)

Moral Life

This book has said so much about Rizal's high moral standards that little more need be added. The men who knew him best are most emphatic in saying that he lived "the noblest, cleanest life of his generation." "He made himself certain rules of conduct, and to these he adhered with the stern inflexibility of an ascetic. . . The beauty of righteousness seemed to rule out of him all promptings to the coltish excesses of youth; that and the dignity of his love and his conception of the gravity of his mission."

"They punished me for the least lie," said Rizal of his parents. "His constant desire to know the truth was," as Padro de Tavera says, "his most notable characteristic." (14)

Dr. Baldomero Roxas says that Rizal's friends could depend upon his word better than upon the oath of other men. "If Rizal says a thing, it is as good as done," was one of their common sayings. His passion for truth was so great that he not only spoke it, but what is harder, he lived exactly what he spoke. He never gave himself any exceptions to what he regarded as right.

"I do not think Rizal would be popular if he lived now," recently said his friend General José Alejandro, who lived with Rizal in Brussels and Ghent. "He was too Puritanical, too much of a rigid disciplinarian for our day. We all admired his severe self-discipline. Nobody else I ever knew lived such a life as his. I lived with him and I know that his inner life was even better than the world realized."

The greatest tribute to his honesty was paid by his enemies. They deceived him with their "trap," and then permitted him, though a prisoner, to wander alone during four years along the coast of Mindanao. Sometimes officials even hinted that he might escape if he wished. But he had promised not to violate his parole, and José Rizal in all his life never broke a promise! No man on earth could persuade him to do what he considered dishonorable. "Not even the least connivance at a rescue would taint his word, not even by allowing other men to entertain the thought that his faith could be tainted, and not even in dealing with a government that had dealt perfidiously with him."

Social Qualities

"Stern and inflexible as he was in dealing with himself, he was generous and kindly toward everybody else. The love which overflowed from his heart combined with the pain which he constantly felt for his tortured homeland, gave him in his closing years a singularly appealing magnetism. He seemed without effort to make friends of all men who came near him. Set down in a steamer full of strangers, he would be noted at once by every passenger, and before dinner was served would be on good terms with most of the persons on board, the crew included. His voice was low in pitch, and so strangely vibrant that one hearing it at its best never forgot it. One of his rules was never to raise it. There was in Rizal's face something almost irresistibly winning. Good will looked out of it, and warm human sympathy, and a kind of downright sincerity that found a way to the notice of even the dullest. His handsome face retained its boyish oval, but rugged character and unshakable firmness were now stamped upon it. . . His eyes were still remarked for their brightness. He was always careful of his appearance and took pains to dress well, after the most modest taste. Even when he was poverty-stricken in Berlin, and living on a daily bowl of coffee and a piece of bread, he would allow himself no laxity in his attire."


His consuming life purpose was the secret of his moral courage. Physical courage, it is true, was one of his inherited traits. But that high courage to die loving his murderers, which he at last achieved, -- that cannot be inherited. It must be forged out in the fires of suffering and temptation. As we read through his life, we can see how the moral sinew and fiber grew year by year as he faced new perils and was forced to make fearful decisions. It required courage to write his two great novels, telling things that no other man had ventured to say before, standing almost alone against the most powerful interests in his country and in Spain, and knowing full well that despotism would strike back. He had reached another loftier plateau of heroism when he wrote those letters in Hong Kong, "To be opened after my death," and sailed into the "trap" in Manila without any illusions. Then in his Dapitan exile, when he was tempted to escape, and said "No", not once but hundreds of times for four long years, and when, on the way to Cuba, Pedro Roxas pleaded with him to step off the boat at Singapore upon British territory and save his life, what inner struggle it must have cost him to answer over and over again, "No, no, no!" When the sentence of death and the fateful morning of his execution brought the final test, December 30, 1896, he walked with perfect calm to the firing line as though by his own choice, the only heroic figure in that sordid scene.

An early Rizal Day Celebration. This historic Picture was taken on Dec. 30, 1903 at an unnamed place.

Rizal's old friend, Pardo de Tavera says: "Some suppose that he won the affection and admiration of his countrymen by his kindness, others by his talent or by his courtesy, valor, etc. etc. No, he did not win it by any single quality nor by several united; he won it because he cultivated all his good qualities in order to perfect them, and he practiced them in order to bring about the material and moral betterment of the men of his race, which had heretofore been considered incapable of producing individuals of the mental caliber of the white man. Rizal, therefore, demonstrated that the Filipino race was able to give birth to individuals endowed with the highest attributes, who could be considered an honor to the human race."
(01) The tradition that every American hears when he reaches the Philippine Islands is that William Howard Taft, feeling that the Filipinos needed a hero, made one out of Rizal. We trust that this book will serve to show how empty that statement is. It speaks well for Taft that he was sufficiently free from racial prejudice to appreciate in some measure the stature of a great Filipino.

Wenchesco E. Retana: A Spanish filipinologist; onetime adversary of Rizal who later came to admire his enemy and to write the first major biography of José Rizal in Spanish.

It was a Spaniard who did more than any other to save Rizal for posterity -- Retana, whose work is by far the most complete and scholarly that we have [NOTE: at the time of the publication of this biography (RLY)]. Like Rizal, he lost all his money in the cause of the Filipinos, and died a poor man.
(02) E. B. Rodriguez: "Rizal as a Historian." Philippine Social Science Review, vol. VII, Oct. 1935, p. 4.
(03) Eduardo L. Claudio: "Rizal, a Constructive Educational Critic," Dia Filipino, July, 1919, also Camilo Osias Rizal and Education. Manila: Mission Press, 1921.
(04) Wenceslao E. Retana. Vida y Escritos del Dr. José Rizal. (Madrid: Libreria General de Victoriano Suarez, 1907), p. 107.
(05) Fr. Pio Pi, S. J., La Murtee Cristiana del Doctor Rizal. Manila: 1909, p. 32.
(06) Retana, op. cit., pp. 169, 275. Cf. La Solidaridad, July 31, 1889.
(07) Ibid., p. 253.
(08) Written by Rizal in 1889. Quoted by Retana, op. cit., p. 162.
(09) Unknown to the biographer at the time of publication, it might be added that Rizal would have also found a kindred spirit with the early twentieth century Roman Catholic scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in whose work, The Phenomenon of Man, championed the social / spiritual development of humanity through evolution. (RLY)
(10) Letter to Father Pablo Pastells, April 4, 1893.
(11) George A. Malcom, Commonwealth of the Philippines. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1936, p. 319.
(12) La Vanguardia (newspaper), June 19, 1936.
(13) Dia Filipino, June 19, 1915. p. 52.
(14) Padro de Tavera. The Character of Rizal and Legacy of Obscurantism/ Quezon City: University of the Philippines, Publication Office, 1960. (Note: an English translation of El Caracter de Rizal. Manila: Manila Filatica, 1918.), p. 19.

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The Life and of Dr. José Rizal
Dr. Robert L. Yoder