As to the obscurity you find in the work, I heard, as I wrote, the clash of chains that superstition still shakes, and the cries of fanaticism that drown the voice of truth; and the perception of this frightful spectacle induced me sometimes to veil the truth in clouds. I wished to defend truth, without making myself her martyr. This idea of the necessity of obscurity has made me obscure sometimes without necessity. Add to this my inexperience and my want of practice in writing, pardonable in an author of twenty-eight, who only five years ago first set foot in the career of letters.No inconvenience that may arise from a strict observance of the letter of penal laws is to be compared with the inconveniences of subjecting them to interpretation. The momentary inconvenience in the former case involves, indeed, correcting the words of the law which are the cause of the uncertainty, a task both easy and necessary; but the fatal licence of arguing, the source of so many arbitrary and venal disputes, is thereby prevented. When a fixed code of laws, which must be observed to the letter, leaves to the judge no further trouble than to inquire into the actions of citizens and to decide on their conformity to the written law; when the standard of just and unjust, which should equally direct the actions of the ignorant citizen as of the philosophical one, is not a matter of controversy but of fact; then are people no longer subject to the petty tyrannies of many men, which are all the more cruel by reason of the smaller distance that separates the sufferer from the inflictor of suffering, and which are more pernicious than the tyrannies of a single man, inasmuch as the despotism of many is only curable by that of one, and a despot’s cruelty is proportioned, not to the power he possesses, but to the obstacles he encounters. Under a fixed code of laws citizens acquire that consciousness of personal security, which is just, because it is the object of social existence, and which is useful, because it enables them to calculate exactly the evil consequences of a misdeed. It is true they will also acquire a spirit of independence, but not such a spirit as will seek to shake the laws and prove rebellious against the chief magistrates, except against such of them as have dared to apply the sacred name of virtue to a spiritless submission to their own self-interested and capricious opinions. These principles will displease those who have assumed the right to transfer to their subordinates the strokes of tyranny they themselves have suffered from their superiors. I personally should have everything to fear, if the spirit of tyranny and the spirit of reading ever went together.
If pleasure and pain are the motors of sensitive beings, if the invisible lawgiver of humanity has decreed rewards and punishments as one of the motives to impel men to even their noblest endeavours, the inexact distribution of these motives will give rise to that contradiction, as little noticed as it is of common occurrence, namely, that the laws punish crimes which are entirely of their own creation. If an equal penalty is attached to two crimes of unequal injury to society, the greater crime of the two, if it promise a greater advantage than the other, will have no stronger motive in restraint of its perpetration. Whoever, for example, sees the same punishment of death decreed for the man who kills a pheasant and the man who slays his fellow or falsifies an important document, will draw no distinction between such crimes; and thus moral sentiments, the product only of many ages and of much bloodshed, the slowest and most difficult attainment of the human mind, dependent, it has been thought, on the aid of the most sublime motives and on a parade of the gravest formalities, will be destroyed and lost.
The Chinese penal code of 1647 is probably the nearest approach to Beccaria’s conception, and nothing is more marvellous than the precision with which it apportions punishments to every shade of crime, leaving no conceivable offence, of commission or omission, without its exact number of bamboo strokes, its exact pecuniary penalty, or its exact term or distance of banishment. It is impossible in this code to conceive any discretion or room for doubt left to the judicial officers beyond the discovery of the fact of an alleged crime. But what is practicable in one country is practicable in another; so that the charge so often urged against thus eliminating judicial discretion, that it is fair in theory but impossible in practice, finds itself at direct issue with the facts of actual life.
But the laws should fix a certain space of time both for the defence of the accused and for the discovery of proofs against him. It would place the judge in the position of a legislator were it his duty to fix the time necessary for the latter. In the same way those atrocious crimes, whose memory tarries long in men’s minds, deserve, when once proved, no prescription in favour of a criminal who has fled from his country; but lesser and obscure crimes should be allowed a certain prescription, which may remove a man’s uncertainty concerning his fate, because the obscurity in which for a long time his crimes have been involved deducts from the bad example of his impunity, and the possibility of reform meantime remains to him. It is enough to indicate these principles, because I cannot fix a precise limit of time, except for a given system of laws and in given social circumstances. I will only add that, the advantage of moderate penalties in a nation being proved, the laws which shorten or lengthen, according to the gravity of crimes, the term of prescription or of proofs, thus making of prison itself or of voluntary exile a part of the punishment, will supply an easy classification of a few mild punishments for a very large number of crimes.
It does not follow, because the laws do not punish intentions, that therefore a crime begun by some action, significative of the will to complete it, is undeserving of punishment, although it deserves less than a crime actually committed. The importance of preventing an attempt at a crime justifies a punishment; but, as there may be an interval between the attempt and the execution, the reservation of a greater punishment for a consummated crime may present a motive for its non-completion.Ramsay was so far right, that whether a revolution was the only hope for theories like Beccaria’s or not, the realisation of many of them was one of the first results of that general revolution, which seemed to Ramsay so impossible and undesirable. His letter, as it is a characteristic expression of that common apathy and despair of change which afflict at times even the most sanguine and hopeful, so it is, from its misplaced despair, a good cure for moods of like despondency. For the complete triumph of Beccaria’s theories about torture, to say nothing of other improvements in law that he lived to witness, is perhaps the most signal instance in history of the conquest of theory over practice. For albeit that his theory was at total variance with the beliefs and ideas of the whole practical school, Beccaria lived to see torture abolished, not only in Lombardy and Tuscany, but in Austria generally, in Portugal and in Sweden, in Russia as well as in France. Yet Ramsay’s fears at the time were more reasonable than the hopes of Beccaria.
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.Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.
Lastly, the surest but most difficult means of preventing crimes is to improve education—a subject too vast for present discussion, and lying beyond the limits of my treatise; a subject, I will also say, too intimately connected with the nature of government for it ever to be aught but a barren field, only cultivated here and there by a few philosophers, down to the remotest ages of public prosperity. A great man, who enlightens the humanity that persecutes him, has shown in detail the chief educational maxims of real utility to mankind; namely, that it consists less in a barren multiplicity of subjects than in their choice selection; in substituting originals for copies in the moral as in the physical phenomena presented by chance or intention to the fresh minds of youth; in inclining them to virtue by the easy path of feeling; and in deterring them from evil by the sure path of necessity and disadvantage, not by the uncertain method of command, which never obtains more than a simulated and transitory obedience.Whoever, therefore, shall wish to honour me with his criticisms, I would have begin with a thorough comprehension of the purpose of my work—a purpose which, so far from diminishing legitimate authority, will serve to increase it, if opinion can effect more over men’s minds than force, and if the mildness and humanity of the government shall justify it in the eyes of all men. The ill-conceived criticisms that have been published against this book are founded on confused notions, and compel me to interrupt for a moment the arguments I was addressing to my enlightened readers, in order to close once for all every door against the misapprehensions of timid bigotry or against the calumnies of malice and envy.Capital punishment being less general in the world now than torture was when Beccaria wrote, it seems to be a fair logical inference that it is already far advanced towards its total disappearance. For the same argument which Voltaire applied in the case of torture cannot fail sooner or later to be applied to capital punishment. ‘If,’ he says, ‘there were but one nation in the world which had abolished the use of torture; and if in that nation crimes were no more frequent than in others, … its example would be surely sufficient for the rest of the world. England alone might instruct all other nations in this particular; but England is not the only nation. Torture has been abolished in other countries, and with success; the question, therefore, is decided.’ If in this argument we read capital punishment instead of torture, murders instead of crimes, and Portugal instead of England, we shall best appreciate that which is after all the strongest argument against capital punishment, namely, that it has been proved unnecessary for its professed object in so many countries that it might safely be relinquished in all.
Adultery is a crime which, politically considered, derives its force and direction from two causes, namely, from the variable laws in force among mankind, and from that strongest of all attractions which draws one sex towards the other.But of far greater historical interest than such criticism is that of Ramsay, the Scotch poet and painter, to whom a copy of Beccaria’s treatise had been shown by Diderot, and who wrote a letter about it to the latter, which, though it contains some very just criticisms on Beccaria, yet reads for the most part very curiously by the light of subsequent history, and illustrates graphically the despair of all reform then felt by most men of reflection.详情
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