Beacon of ethical wisdom

Ramon Castillo Reyes, Doc Reyes to generations of Ateneo philosophy students and Filipino philosophy teachers nationwide, passed into eternal life last Friday, January 17, 2014. He went as he lived his good life, quietly and with dignity. But to those of us who were taught and mentored by this philosopher and teacher, knowing we will not be able again to engage in conversation with him and to ask his wise counsel, the leaving of Doc Reyes is not without sadness.

While I mourn the passing of Doc Reyes, I do celebrate his life. He taught me not just Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Husserl, Weil, Ethics, and social and political philosophy, but it was the example of his life as a philosopher, teacher, Filipino, and human being that influenced me the most.

For example, his “why sell soap” story was classic. According to him, he was set to work for one of the big soap companies as a salesman when a Jesuit priest challenged him to be more. So instead of selling soap, Doc Reyes ended up in a small town in Northern Luzon to become a teacher.

I remembered the “why sell soap” story when I too decided to become a philosophy teacher thirty three years ago. And to this day, when a young person comes to me for guidance on what she or he could do in life, I tell the same story as well. Its not that there is anything wrong in selling soap but, if one’s life is just about selling soap and making money, that something else. The point of the story is that to be happy, one must live and work for something greater than oneself.

Later, Doc Reyes continued his philosophy studies and became the first of many Ateneo philosophy teachers who would obtain his doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain. After coming back from Belgium, Doc Reyes started his long career as a philosophy professor at Ateneo de Manila where, as Chairman for decades, he built up what is now, to my biased mind, the best philosophy faculty in Asia.

Our undergraduate philosophy batch (1980) in Ateneo de Manila was lucky because Doc Reyes’ first son was born when we were his students in Contemporary Philosophy. The day after that birth, he still came to class to teach the dialectic of Hegel using as example his own experience as a new father and the transformation if a couple into a family. I still remember vividly that day – how excited Doc Reyes was, shaking actually, truly in a state of wonder and happiness. How can one not learn Hegelian thinking that day?

On a more personal note, during the last few years of martial law when I was teaching philosophy in Ateneo, Doc Reyes became my main sounding board in my discernment whether I should take up arms against the dictator. We spent hours in the room we shared in the Ateneo philosophy department sharing updates and political gossip, discussing scenarios and options, and always asking hard questions. During those challenging years, the counsel of Doc Reyes was also wise and practical – and was always grounded in ethical norms. After all, the main contribution of Doc Reyes to Filipino philosophy was in the field of ethics. Indeed, he is most original and brilliant of Filipino moral philosophers.

Take for instance his reflection in 1984 of what the Aquino assassination meant to the country and the role of philosophy in helping us discern forward:  “And so, it was the Aquino event, a moment of negation, which shook us from a certain level of life we had somehow come to accept and adjust to, putting into question our very manner of existence. On the other hand, just as the Aquino event has succeeded in transforming our consciousness and our conscience, we in turn address and question as it were the text or message of Aquino’s life and death, and eventually go beyond it, negating it, as it were, going to the very questions that his life and death were answers to, and eventually exploring other possible responses that Aquino himself perhaps had not ventured into toward a more fundamental restructuring of the economic and political bases of our communal life. In the course of this process of negation and transformation, we eventually shall have to create a renewed vision of man, thus, for example, pose new norms for a legal framework that would provide tighter guarantees for human rights, new norms for an economy that would be more equitable in the sharing of the burdens as well as of the benefits, and for a political system more participative, more effectively representative of the various sectors and interests of the people.”

Sometime in October last year, when Doc Reyes was confined in Medical City, I asked the permission of his wife, Dr. Nena Alcuaz Reyes, to visit my old teacher. She gracefully allowed me, saying that Doc Reyes would appreciate it. He could not talk when I came to visit but he seemed happy. I visited to thank him for how his teaching has helped me understand many things, and especially ethical issues and how they are intertwined with culture and politics. The visit happened just at the time the corruption crisis was reaching a peak and it became clear to me how we sorely needed ethical wisdom in our country. I told him that as the years go by, I was becoming more Kantian – convinced that there is such a thing as the categorical imperative, a universal obligation that applies to all regardless of circumstances – in my ethics.

Doc Reyes smiled when I said that. It was a gentle smile, slightly amused (at you or what you are saying), never judgmental, and always encouraging. I will always remember that smile. All those who knew Ramon Castillo Reyes – master teacher and beacon of ethical wisdom, and many more to those who loved him – will.

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