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What makes Jose Rizal extraordinarily smart? Ambeth Ocampo explains |

Arts and Culture

What makes Jose Rizal extraordinarily smart? Ambeth Ocampo explains

Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo -
What makes Jose Rizal extraordinarily smart? Ambeth Ocampo explains
Jose Rizal's portraits and writings displayed in their family home and museum in Calamba, Laguna / Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

MANILA, Philippines — Even with today’s standards and amid many gadgets, technologies and the Internet that could make people today smarter than their predecessors, national hero Jose Rizal is still considered exceptionally intelligent.

Not only was Rizal conversant in 22 languages; he was also an ophthalmologist, a writer with two major novels that paved way for the Philippine Independence; a sculptor who began carving at age five; and a scientist with three species named after him.

In an exclusive interview with last Friday at the Ayala Museum, former National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) chair and Ateneo de Manila University Professor in History and the Humanities Ambeth Ocampo explained why Rizal was so smart.

Ocampo reminisced that in 2002, when he was still NHCP’s chairperson, doctors asked his permission to dig Rizal’s remains to study his brain size to determine if it had something to do with his intelligence.

Related: Ambeth Ocampo reveals doctors’ plan to study Jose Rizal’s brain size

Brain size, however, only accounts for nine to 16% of overall intelligence, according to studies like that of Scientific American. Rizal reportedly used to subscribe to Scientific American to be regularly updated on technology as he was greatly involved in modernizing Dapitan in his four years of exile there.

Related: Rizal, the scientist

If not due to brain size, what made Rizal so smart? Was it because his family was rich and can afford to send him to the best schools in the Philippines and in Europe?

“But we have many wealthy people but they’re not (as smart as Rizal),” Ocampo noted.

Rizal was a bookworm

According to the historian, Jose, first, spent his life reading a lot, which is why he wrote a lot of poems, stories and letters.

“I think the mother, the household, they were not an ordinary family in that day. I mean, they had a house with a library, which was not common. So he grew up with books,” Ocampo explained.

Teodora Alonso, Rizal’s mother, had been proud of her son’s smarts even after he passed away.

Ocampo said they have two pictures of Teodora holding her son’s skull, which she used to show to those interviewing her about her son.

“During Rizal’s birthday, June 19, I was in Dapitan and then somebody said, ‘Do you know that they have the brain of Rizal?’ Sabi ko, ‘That’s impossible because the whole body is buried under Luneta and the only part that we know that’s out, the backbone, it’s in Fort Santiago.’ And the backbone is chipped in one side because it’s supposed to be where the bullet hit him,” Ocampo narrated.

But after the informant showed him a photo of the supposed brain fragments posted on Facebook, Ocampo noticed that the remains are in the Ateneo University archives, and he has been with the university as a professor for at least 25 years.

After asking the archives director for permission to see the fragments, Ocampo learned that the remains placed in a bottle belonged to Saturnina Rizal, one of Jose’s sisters.

Although the label, written in English, said that the pieces were Rizal’s brain, upon inspection, Ocampo thinks that the fragments could be from the national hero’s skull.

“Sabi ko, it couldn’t be brain matter because the brain is malambot (soft). Or if they preserved it in alcohol na natuyo na, hindi naman siguro s’ya magiging malutong na. Hindi naman ako doctor, it needs to be examined, I think it’s skull fragments.”

The pieces have not been examined because opening the bottle might cause the fragments to disintegrate, said Ocampo.

Apart from the label, the bottle came with Rizal’s original letters and Saturnina’s jewelry, so Ocampo thinks that the fragments could be authentic: “I don’t think his sister would have invented it at the time. Baka fake news din s’ya. We don’t know.”

Rizal’s family invested on him

Unknown to many, Jose was not the only smart guy in the Rizal family. His older brother, Paciano, was also intelligent, said Ocampo. 

“Eh siya ‘yung nag-aral talaga, pero actually, magaling din ‘yung kuya n’ya but the kuya had to give up (his studies),” Ocampo said.

“Matalino din si Paciano. Parang they poured all that they had on this one brother. ‘Di ba nag-lotto silang lahat, dito lahat itaya.”

Their nine sisters, however, were not groomed to be scholastic as women those days were only expected to marry and become good wives and mothers, the historian noted.

“I mean, it’s like the Philippine (culture), I mean, the elder one will work so that the younger one has a future.”

Ocampo recalled one letter proving that Paciano was also wise like Jose.

“When you read the letters, that’s the only way that you’d get to know Rizal. For example, when Paciano wrote to Rizal, Rizal’s in Europe, and then Paciano, this was in the 1880s, (asked his brother), ‘The price of sugar went down in the New York market. How will this affect my yield in Los Banos?’,” Ocampo shared.

“’Pag inisip mo, this was in 1880. A farmer in Calamba is looking at New York sugar prices? Even today, anong klaseng farmer ‘yung ganyan? So it shows you how cosmopolitan they were.”

It's what you did with what you know

Though it's in Rizal's genes or nature and how he was nurtured that made him smart, it is what he did with what he knew that made him great, said Ocampo.

“Ano rin ‘yan, it’s a confluence of having it and growing up with it and making something of it.”

Hence, for Ocampo, though people today have everything at their fingertips, not everyone could be like Rizal.

“We have everything; we have the Internet. But what do we use it for? Which I keep telling my students. I would always tell them, if Rizal would have a cellphone, Ambeth Ocampo would have no career kasi walang maiiwan, ‘di ba kasi sulat s’ya nang sulat? The point is, what would Rizal be doing with the Internet? Would he be watching porn? Or would he do TikTok rather than… I mean, use the Internet for what it was really made for, which is ‘di ba, universal knowledge, democratization of the mind. But human nature is just like that. We like to corrupt what we create.”

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