Because Spanish friars and the Spanish colonial government had such control over the Philippines, Rizal naturally focuses much of his attention on the possibility of political change. He outlines two schools of thought for making political change: the moderate liberalism embodied by Ibarra, and the radical revolutionary ideology espoused by Elías. The first approach advocates for reform that would take place within the context of the oppressive religious and governmental forces that already exist in the Philippines. According to this point of view, there is still something worth salvaging in the prevailing system. The second approach—championed by Elías—argues for a complete overthrow of the existing power structures, which are irrevocably flawed and incapable of organic change. These opposing viewpoints run throughout the novel, posing an important question about political and cultural transformation: is it better to change a corrupt system from within, or is it better to completely overthrow it using whatever means necessary?
The Civil Guard, Spain’s militarized colonial law enforcement, has a strong presence in Noli Me Tangere, as it represents the Spanish government’s civic power. Although the ensign—the leader of San Diego’s Civil Guard—is often at odds with Father Salví (the embodiment of the church), the church and the state often work together to dominate Filipino natives who resist Spain’s civic and religious authority. The fact that Ibarra’s father is labeled a “subversive and heretic” is a perfect example of how the church and state work together to oppress townspeople, since they punish the man simultaneously and equally for being “subversive” to the government and for challenging Catholic doctrine. In this way, the church and Civil Guard mutually reinforce each other’s power, which makes them a formidable political force.
Throughout the novel, Ibarra and Elías debate the morality and logic of total revolution. Elías, for his part, believes that the current government is simultaneously too removed from and too harsh on the population. When Ibarra argues that the Civil Guard acts brutally toward its citizens in order to improve their behavior, Elías points out that the government doesn’t give its citizens the necessary tools to live the way it wants them to. In other words, the government—in conjunction with the church—has so disempowered the native population that it can’t possibly expect them to rise to the high standards it sets, and so punishing them is unjust. This is an important argument because it refutes Ibarra’s belief that there is a morally justifiable reason for the government to treat its citizens badly, and it justifies Elías’ commitment to overthrowing the system entirely.
Elías continues this argument by considering the notions of agency and empowerment. He believes that the “individual, neglected and abandoned by the state” has less “responsibility” under oppressive circumstances, since he will inevitably make bad decisions and live a less “enlighten[ed]” life. In other words, disempowerment creates unmotivated citizens, and in an oppressive system, there is no incentive to live a good and moral life. Because of this, the government must be more “lenient.” Unfortunately, the Civil Guard eagerly labels anybody who strays from what they view as the path of “enlightenment” as “subversive,” teaming up with the church to level claims of heresy against these individuals who have not been given the necessary tools to succeed on the “enlightened” path in the first place.
At first, Ibarra rejects Elías’ logic, since he optimistically believes that one must retain a small amount of faith in the systems that control the Philippines. He believes that the government recognizes the church’s corruption and is “working to introduce reforms that will correct these things.” He has even told Elías that he believes the church, for all its faults, is a positive presence: “This institution might be imperfect, yet I believe that, but for the fear it inspires, the number of criminals would increase.” Simply put, Ibarra believes that even the threats posed by such institutions are potentially valuable because they discourage criminality. However, Ibarra finally changes his mind after Father Salví organizes a revolt against the Civil Guard and frames Ibarra as their leader, leaving Ibarra at the mercy of the corrupt power of the Civil Guard and the friars. Ironically, his reaction to being labeled a subversive is to actually become a subversive: “They opened my eyes,” he tells Elías, “they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal! And so, just what they wanted, I will be a subversive, but a true subversive.” This reaction confirms Elías’s theory that the oppressive system ultimately drives good people into lives of crime because they have been given no other prospects or choices. With Ibarra’s transformation into a radical, Rizal champions retaliation and revolution, a risky political move for an author writing in a colonial state that is incubating rebellion.
Revolution and Reform ThemeTracker
Revolution and Reform Quotes in Noli Me Tangere
“Because sane people,” he went on with a bitter irony, “will think you are crazy, too. People believe that madness is when you don’t think as they do, which is why they take me for a madman. And I’m grateful for that, because, well, the day on which they restore my reason is the day they deprive me of the small bit of freedom I’ve purchased at the price of a reputation as a sane person. And who knows if they are right? I neither think nor live according to their laws. My principles, my ideals, are different. Among them the mayor enjoys a reputation as a sane individual, since he has not learned anything more than how to serve chocolate and suffer Father Dámaso’s ill humor.”
“The government, the government,” muttered the philosopher, lifting his eyes to the ceiling, “for all its enthusiastic desire to increase the benefit of this and the mother country, for all the generous spirit of the Catholic Monarchs that some functionary or other remembers and repeats to himself, the government neither sees, nor hears, nor judges any more than the priest or the mayor wants it to see, or to hear or to judge. The government is convinced that it relies on them, that if it maintains itself it is because of them, that if it lives, it is because they allow it to live, and the day it falters, it will fall like a puppet without a stick. The government is terrified of raising its hand against the people and the people of the forces of government. […]
“But, gentlemen,” the mayor interrupted. “What can we do? What can the town do? Whatever happens, the friars are always right!”
“They are always right because we always let them be right,” Don Filipo answered with impatience, emphasizing the word “always.” “Let us be in the right for a change and then let’s talk!”
The mayor scratched his head and, looking at the ceiling, replied sourly, “Ay, the heat of blood! It seems like we don’t even know what country we’re in; we don’t even know our own countrymen. The friars are rich and united, and we are divided and poor. Sure, try to defend him and you’ll see how everyone will abandon you to your task.”
“Sure,” Don Filipo exclaimed bitterly, “it will always happen if you think that way, while fear and restraint are synonymous. Everyone pays more attention to something bad rather than to a needed good thing. Suddenly it’s all fear and lack of trust. Everyone thinks about himself, and no one about other people. That’s why we’re so weak!”
A man who, like me, has spent his youth and maturity working for his own future and for that of his children, a man who has been at the beck and call of his superiors, who has carried out difficult tasks conscientiously, who has suffered his whole life in peace and in the possibility of tranquility, when this man, whose blood has been made cold by time, renounces at the brink of the grave his entire past and his entire future, it’s because he’s made the mature judgment that peacefulness neither exists nor is the supreme good. Why would I live out such miserable days in a foreign land? I had two sons and one daughter, a home, a fortune. I benefited from respect and esteem. But now I’m like a tree shorn of its limbs, a wandering fugitive, hunted like a wild animal in the forest, and everything that goes along with it. And why? Because a man undid my daughter, because her brothers demanded this man make restitution, and because the man’s station was above everyone else’s, with the title of God’s minister.
It’s a poor doctor, señor, who only seeks to treat the symptoms and choke them off without attempting to root out the cause of that malady, or when he learns what it is, is afraid of attacking it. The Civil Guard has no more objective than the suppression of crime by terror and force, an objective met or accomplished only by chance. And one must bear in mind that society can only be harsh with individuals when it has furnished the means necessary for their moral perfectibility. In our country, since there is no society, since the people and the government do not form a unified structure, the latter must be more lenient, not only because more leniency is needed, but because the individual, neglected and abandoned by the state, has less responsibility when he has been afforded less enlightenment.
Perhaps they need [the Civil Guard] more in Spain, but not in the Philippines. Our customs, our mode of being, which they are always invoking when they want to deny us our rights, they forget completely when there is something they want to impose on us.
You’re right, Elías, but man is a creature of circumstance. I was blind then, disgusted, what did I know! Now misfortune has ripped off my blinders. Solitude and the misery of prison have shown me. Now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, almost begging for a violent extirpation. They opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal! And so, just what they wanted, I will be a subversive, but a true subversive. I will call together all the downtrodden people, everyone who feels a heart beating in his breast, those who sent you to me…No, I won’t be a criminal, you aren’t a criminal when you fight for your country, just the opposite!