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[66]A few stories may be taken as illustrative of thousands to indicate the mischief and travesty of justice which arises from the neglect of this principle, and from the custom of making a legal inquiry into moral antecedents.This useless prodigality of punishments, by which men have never been made any better, has driven me to examine whether the punishment of death be really useful and just in a well organised government. What kind of right can that be which men claim for the slaughter of their fellow-beings? Certainly not that right which is the source of sovereignty and of laws. For these are nothing but the sum-total of the smallest portions of individual liberty, and represent the general will, that is, the aggregate of individual wills. But who ever wished to leave to other men the option of killing him? How in the least possible sacrifice of each mans liberty can there be a sacrifice of the greatest of all goods, namely, of life? And if there could be that sacrifice, how would such a principle accord with the other, that a man is not the[170] master of his own life? Yet he must have been so, could he have given to himself or to society as a body this right of killing him.

Your letter has raised in me sentiments of the deepest esteem, of the greatest gratitude, and the most tender friendship; nor can I confess to you how honoured I feel at seeing my work translated into the language of a nation which is the mistress and illuminator of Europe. I owe everything to French books. They first raised in my mind feelings of humanity which had been suffocated by eight years of a fanatical education. I cannot express to you the pleasure with which I have read your translation; you have embellished[5] the original, and your arrangement seems more natural than, and preferable to, my own. You had no need to fear offending the authors vanity: in the first place, because a book that treats of the cause of humanity belongs, when once published, to the world and all nations equally; and as to myself in particular, I should have made little progress in the philosophy of the heart, which I place above that of the intellect, had I not acquired the courage to see and love the truth. I hope that the fifth edition, which will appear shortly, will be soon exhausted, and I assure you that in the sixth I will follow entirely, or nearly so, the arrangement of your translation, which places the truth in a better light than I have sought to place it in.Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.

Such contradictions between the laws of a family and the fundamental laws of a State are a fertile[238] source of other contradictions between public and private morality, giving rise consequently to a perpetual conflict in every individual mind. For whilst private morality inspires fear and subjection, public morality teaches courage and freedom; whilst the former inculcates the restriction of well-doing to a small number of persons indiscriminately, the latter inculcates its extension to all classes of men; and whilst the one enjoins the constant sacrifice of self to a vain idol, called the good of the family (which is frequently not the good of any single member that composes it), the other teaches men to benefit themselves, provided they break not the laws, and incites them, by the reward of enthusiasm, which is the precursor of their action, to sacrifice themselves to the good of their country. Such contradictions make men scorn to follow virtue, which they find so complicated and confused, and at that distance from them, which objects, both moral and physical, derive from their obscurity. How often it happens that a man, in reflecting on his past actions, is astonished at finding himself dishonest. The larger society grows, the smaller fraction of the whole does each member of it become, and the more is the feeling of the commonwealth diminished, unless care be taken by the laws to reinforce it. Societies, like human bodies, have their circumscribed limits, extension beyond which involves inevitably a disturbance of their[239] economy. The size of a State ought apparently to vary inversely with the sensibility of its component parts; otherwise, if both increase together, good laws will find, in the very benefit they have effected, an obstacle to the prevention of crimes. Too large a republic can only save itself from despotism by a process of subdivision, and a union of the parts into so many federative republics. But how effect this, save by a despotic dictator with the courage of Sylla and as much genius for construction as he had for destruction? If such a man be ambitious, the glory of all the ages awaits him; and if he be a philosopher, the blessings of his fellow-citizens will console him for the loss of his authority, even should he not become indifferent to their ingratitude. In proportion as the feelings which unite us to our own nation are weakened, do those for the objects immediately around us gain in strength; and it is for this reason that under the severest despotism the strongest friendships are to be found, and that the family virtues, ever of an exalted character, are either the most common or the only ones. It is evident, therefore, how limited have been the views of the great majority of legislators.

The case of infanticide suggests similar thoughts. When we remember that both Plato and Aristotle commended as a valuable social custom that which we treat as a crime; when we recall the fact that the life of a Spartan infant depended on a committee of elders, who decided whether it should live or perish, we shall better appreciate the distance we have travelled, or, as some would say, the progress we have made, if we take up some English daily paper and read of some high-minded English judge sentencing, at least formally, some wretched woman to death, because, in order to save her child from starvation or herself from shame, she has released it from existence. Yet the feeling, of which such a sentence is the expression, is often extolled as one of the highest triumphs of civilisation; and the laws, as if there were no difference between adult and infant[76] life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.Paley, of course, defended the thing he found established; nor, considering the system he had to defend, did he state the case for it without ingenuity. He had, indeed, nothing to add to what Blackstone had said regarding punishment, namely, that it was inflicted, not in proportion to the real guilt of an offence, but in proportion to its facility of commission and difficulty of detection. To steal from a shop was not more criminal than to steal from a house, but, as it was more difficult to detect, it was more severely punished. Sheep, horses, and cloth on bleaching-grounds were more exposed to thieves than other kinds of property; therefore their theft required a stronger deterrent penalty.But the man who sees in prospect a great number of years, or perhaps the whole of his life, to be passed in servitude and suffering before the eyes of fellow-citizens with whom he is living in freedom and friendship, the slave of those laws which had once protected him, makes a useful comparison of all these circumstances with the uncertain result of his crimes and with the shortness of the time for which he would enjoy their fruits. The ever present example of those whom he actually sees the victims of their own imprudence, impresses him much more strongly than the sight of a punishment which hardens rather than corrects him.

Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of Protector of Prisoners, an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he[10] was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.

Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation[248] to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after mens minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?

Is it possible, then, so beforehand to apportion punishments to crimes that when a crime is committed it shall be but necessary to refer to a code and at once detect its appropriate punishment? Or must the law be general in its language, and leave a wide margin to the discretion of the judge? Beccaria would have the judicial function confined solely to the ascertainment of the fact of a crime, its punishment preordained by the law. On the other hand it is said, that it is impossible to anticipate every case that may arise; that no two cases are ever alike; that it is better to leave the nice adjustment of penalties to the wisdom and impartiality of a judge, and only limit his discretion by rules of a most expansive description.There are three sources of the moral and political principles which govern mankind, namely, revelation, natural law, and social conventions. With regard to their principal object there is no comparison between the first and the other two, but they all resemble one another in this, that they all three conduce to the happiness of this present mortal life. To consider the different relations of social conventions is not to exclude those of revelation and natural law; rather it is the thousandfold changes which revelation and natural law, divine and immutable though they be, have undergone in the depraved mind of man, by his own fault, owing to false religions and arbitrary notions of virtue and vice, that make it appear necessary to examine, apart from all other considerations, the result of purely human conventions, expressed or implied, for the public need and welfare: this being an idea in which every sect and every moral system must necessarily agree; and it will always be a laudable endeavour, which seeks to constrain the headstrong and unbelieving to conform to the principles that induce men to live together in society. There are, then, three distinct kinds of virtue and vicethe religious, the natural, and the political. These three kinds ought never to conflict, although all the consequences and duties that flow from any one of them do not necessarily flow from the others. The natural law does not require all that revelation requires,[114] nor does the purely social law require all that natural law requires; but it is most important to distinguish the consequences of the conventional lawthat is, of the express or tacit agreements among menfrom the consequences of the natural law or of revelation, because therein lies the limit of that power, which can rightly be exercised between man and man without a special mandate from the Supreme Being. Consequently the idea of political virtue may, without any slur upon it, be said to be variable; that of natural virtue would be always clear and manifest, were it not obscured by the stupidity or the passions of men; whilst the idea of religious virtue remains ever one and the same, because revealed directly from God and by Him preserved.

Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.Suicide is a crime to which a punishment properly so called seems inadmissible, since it can only fall upon the innocent or else upon a cold and insensible body. If the latter mode of punishing the crime makes no more impression on the living than would be made by inflicting violence on a statue, the other mode is unjust and tyrannical, inasmuch as political freedom necessarily presupposes the purely personal nature of[223] punishment. Men love life only too much, and everything that surrounds them confirms them in this love. The seductive image of pleasure, and hope, that sweetest illusion of mortals, for the sake of which they swallow large draughts of evil mixed with a few drops of contentment, are too attractive, for one ever to fear, that the necessary impunity of such a crime should exercise any general influence. He who fears pain, obeys the laws; but death puts an end in the body to all the sources of pain. What, then, will be the motive which shall restrain the desperate hand of the suicide?

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But undoubtedly punishment, although in its origin and present intention vindictive, must exercise a certain preventive force against crime, and this preventive force can scarcely be estimated, for that which is prevented is, of course, not seen. But the efficiency of punishment as a deterrent is proportioned to its certainty, and there is a large element of uncertainty that can never be eliminated. For every malefactor there are two hopes: first, that he may escape detection or apprehension; secondly, that he may escape conviction. That his hopes of impunity are not without reason greater than his fears of punishment the following facts attest.

The treatise Dei Delitti, instead of throwing any light on the subject of crimes, or on the manner in which they should be punished, tends to establish a system of the most dangerous and novel ideas, which, if adopted, would go so far as to overturn laws received hitherto by the greater part of all civilised nations.It was this system that Beccarias little work[3] destroyed, and had that been its only result, it would still deserve to live in mens memories for its historical interest alone. For upon the legislation of that time, and especially upon that of Italy, this pamphlet on criminal law broke like a ray of sunlight on a dungeon floor, making even blacker that which was black before by the very brilliancy which it shed upon it. To Beccaria primarily, though not of course solely, belongs the glory of having expelled the use of torture from every legal tribunal throughout Christendom.


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