I do not pretend to diminish the just wrath these crimes deserve; but, in indicating their sources, I think myself justified in drawing one general conclusion, and that is, that no punishment for a crime can be called exactly just—that is, necessary—so long as the law has not adopted the best possible means, in the circumstances of a country, to prevent the crimes it punishes.Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The ‘Lettres Persanes’ of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. ‘The imagination,’ says the writer, ‘bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.’ The ‘Esprit des Lois,’ by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccaria’s thoughts than the ‘Lettres Persanes,’ for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The ‘De L’Esprit’ of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as ‘a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books.’ Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.
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.The following letter by Beccaria to the Abbé Morellet in acknowledgment of the latter’s translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the ‘Spectator’ it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:—CHAPTER XIII. PROSECUTIONS AND PRESCRIPTIONS.
Judgment must be nothing but the precise text of the law, and the office of the judge is only to pronounce whether the action is contrary or conformable to it.This, then, is the way to avoid confounding the relations and invariable nature of things, which, being unlimited by time and in ceaseless operation, confounds and overturns all narrow regulations that depart from it. It is not only the arts of taste and pleasure which have for their universal principle the faithful imitation of nature; but the art of politics itself, at least that which is true and permanent, is subject to this general maxim, since it consists in nothing else than the art of directing in the best way and to the same purposes the immutable sentiments of mankind.Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.
But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccaria’s life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verri’s letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal, but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote.The following is the kind of reasoning adopted by the thief or the assassin, whose only motives for not breaking the laws are the gallows or the wheel. (I know that the analysis of one’s own thoughts is an art only learnt by education, but a thief does not the less act according to certain principles because he is unable to express them). ‘Of what sort,’ he argues, ‘are these laws that I am bound to observe, that leave so great an interval between myself and the rich man? He denies me the penny I ask of him, and excuses himself by ordering from me a work of which he himself knows nothing. Who has made these laws? Were they not made by rich and powerful men, who have never deigned to visit the wretched hovels of the poor, who have never divided a musty loaf of bread amid the innocent cries of famished children and the tears of a wife? Let us break these bonds, which are fatal to the greater number, and only useful to a few indolent tyrants; let us attack injustice in its source. I will return to my state of natural independence; I will live for some time happy and free on the fruits of my courage and address; and if the day should ever come when I have to suffer and repent for it, the time of suffering will be short, and I shall have one day of misery for many years of liberty and pleasure. As the king of a small band, I will correct the errors of fortune, and see these tyrants pale and tremble before one, whom in their insolent arrogance they rated lower than their horses or their dogs.’ Then religion hovers before the mind of the criminal, who turns everything to a bad use, and offering him a facile repentance and an almost certain eternity of bliss does much to diminish in his eyes the horror of that last tragedy of all.
CHAPTER XXVIII. OF INJURIES AND OF HONOUR.Torture was definitely and totally abolished in Portugal in 1776, in Sweden in 1786, and in Austria in 1789. In the latter country, indeed, it had been abolished by Maria Theresa sixteen years before in her German and Polish provinces; and the Penal Code of Joseph II., published in 1785, was an additional tribute to the cause of reform. Secret orders were even given to the tribunals to substitute other punishments for hanging, yet so that the general public should be unaware of the change. There was the greatest anxiety that it should not be thought that this change was out of any deference for Beccaria or his school. ‘In the abolition of capital punishment,’ said Kaunitz, ‘his Majesty pays no regard at all to the principles of modern philosophers, who, in affecting a horror of bloodshed, assert that primitive justice has no right to take from a man that life which Nature only can give him. Our sovereign has only consulted his own conviction, that the punishment he wishes substituted for the capital penalty is more likely to be felt by reason of its duration, and therefore better fitted to inspire malefactors with terror.’
It is the specific crime, not the fact that it is a second or third felony, which is injurious. Neither a community nor an individual suffer more from the commission of a crime by a man who commits it for the second time than from its commission by a man who has never committed it before. If two brothers are each robbed of a pound apiece on two several occasions, the one who is robbed each time by the same criminal suffers no more than the one who is robbed each time by different criminals. Still less is the public more injured in one case than in the other. Therefore the former brother is entitled for his second loss to no more restitution than the other, nor has any more claim on society for the infliction of a severer punishment on his behalf than that inflicted for the second loss of his brother.
Among other abuses of grammar, which have no slight influence on human affairs, that one is notable which makes the evidence of a condemned criminal null and void. ‘He is dead civilly’ say gravely the peripatetic lawyers, ‘and a dead man is incapable of any action.’ In support of this silly metaphor many victims have been sacrificed, and it has very often been disputed with all seriousness whether the truth should not yield to judicial formulas. Provided that the testimony of a condemned criminal does not go to the extent of stopping the course of justice, why should not a fitting period be allowed, even after condemnation, both to the extreme wretchedness of the criminal and to the interests of truth, so that, by his adducing fresh matter to alter the complexion of the fact, he may justify himself or others in a new trial? Forms and ceremonies are necessary in the administration of justice, because they leave nothing to the free will of the administrator; because they give the people an idea of a justice which is not tumultuary and self-interested, but steadfast and regular; and because men, the slaves of habit and imitation, are more influenced by their feelings than by arguments. But such forms can never without fatal danger be so firmly fixed by the laws as to be injurious to truth, which from being either too simple or two complex needs some external pomp to conciliate the ignorant populace.From this necessity of the favour of other people arose private duels, which sprang up precisely in an anarchical state of the laws. It is said they were unknown to antiquity, perhaps because the ancients did not meet suspiciously armed in the temples, the theatres, or with friends; perhaps because the duel was an ordinary and common sight, presented to the people by gladiators, who were slaves or low people, and freemen disdained to be thought and called private gladiators. In vain has it been sought to extirpate the custom by edicts of death against any man accepting a challenge, for it is founded on that which some men fear more than death; since without the favour of his fellows the man of honour foresees himself exposed either to become a merely solitary being, a condition insufferable to a sociable man, or to become the butt of insults and disgrace which, from their constant operation, prevail over the fear of punishment. Why is it that the lower orders do not for the most part fight duels like the great? Not only because they are disarmed, but because the need of the favour of others is less general among the people than among those who, in higher ranks, regard themselves with greater suspicion and jealousy.
CHAPTER XXXVI. CRIMES OF DIFFICULT PROOF.Sir Robert Peel, who was the first Ministerial law reformer, succeeded in getting the death penalty repealed for several crimes which were practically obsolete, but forty kinds of forgery alone still remained capital offences.
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What can be thought of an author who presumes to establish his system on the débris of all hitherto accepted notions, who to accredit it condemns all civilised nations, and who spares neither systems of law, nor magistrates, nor lawyers?Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a man’s cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.
In proportion as punishments become milder, clemency and pardon become less necessary. Happy the nation in which their exercise should be baneful! Clemency, therefore, that virtue, which has sometimes made up in a sovereign for failings in all the other duties of the throne, ought to be excluded in a perfect system of legislation, where punishments are mild and the method of trial regular and expeditious. This truth will appear a hard one to anybody living in the present chaotic state of the criminal law, where the necessity of pardon and favours accords with the absurdity of the laws and with the severity of sentences of punishment. This right of pardon is indeed the fairest prerogative of the throne, the most desirable attribute of sovereignty; it is, however, the tacit mark of disapproval that the beneficent dispensers of the public happiness exhibit towards a code, which with all its imperfections claims in its favour the prejudice of ages, the voluminous and imposing array of innumerable commentators, the weighty apparatus of unending formalities, and the adhesion of those persons of half-learning who, though less feared than real philosophers, are really more dangerous. But let it be remembered that clemency is the virtue of the maker, not of the executor, of the laws; that it should be conspicuous in the code of laws rather than in particular judgments; that the showing to men, that crimes may be pardoned and that punishment is not their necessary consequence, encourages the hope of impunity, and creates the belief that sentences of condemnation, which might be remitted and are not, are rather violent exhibitions of force than emanations of justice. What shall be said then when the sovereign grants a pardon, that is, public immunity to an individual, and when a private act of unenlightened kindness constitutes a public decree of impunity? Let the laws therefore be inexorable and their administrators in particular cases inexorable, but let the law-maker be mild, merciful, and humane. Let him found his edifice, as a wise architect, on the basis of self-love; let the general interest be the sum of the interests of each, and he will no longer be constrained, by partial laws and violent remedies to separate at every moment the public welfare from that of individuals, and to raise the appearance of public security on fear and mistrust. As a profound and feeling philosopher let him allow men, that is, his brethren, to enjoy in peace that small share of happiness which is given them to enjoy in this corner of the universe, in that immense system established by the First Cause, by Him Who Is.详情
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