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The reason for translating afresh Beccaria’s ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ (‘Crimes and Punishments’) is, that it is a classical work of its kind, and that the interest which belongs to it is still far from being merely historical.

There is a remarkable contradiction between the civil laws, which set so jealous and supreme a guard upon individual life and property, and the laws of so-called honour, which set opinion above everything. This word honour is one of those that have served as the basis for long and brilliant argumentations, without any fixed or permanent idea being attached to it. How miserable is the condition of human minds, more distinctly cognisant of the remotest and least important ideas about the movements of the heavenly bodies, than of those near and important moral notions, which are ever fluctuating and confused, according as the winds of passion impel them and a well-guided ignorance receives and transmits them! But the seeming paradox will vanish, if one considers, that, as objects become confused when too near the eyes, so the too great propinquity of moral ideas easily causes the numerous simple ideas which compose them to become blended together, to the confusion of those clear lines of demarcation demanded by the geometrical spirit, which would fain measure exactly the phenomena of human sensibility. And the wonder will vanish altogether from the impartial student of human affairs, who will suspect that so great a moral machinery and so many restraints are perchance not needed, in order to render men happy and secure.Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at another’s expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right[67]) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which[214] alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a man’s labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.But it is probable that Beccaria owed his escape from persecution less to his apology than to the liberal protection of Count Firmian, who in his report of the affair to the Court of Vienna spoke of the Risposta as ‘full of moderation and honourable to the character of its author.’ That the Count fully agreed with Beccaria’s opinions on torture is proved by a letter he wrote, in which he declares himself to have been much pleased with what Beccaria had said on the subject. His vanity, he said, had been flattered by it, for his own feelings about torture had always been the same. The book seemed to him written with much love of humanity and much imagination. Beccaria always acknowledged his gratitude to the Count for his action in this matter. To Morellet he[18] wrote, that he owed the Count his tranquillity, in having protected his book; and when, a few years later, he published his book on Style, he dedicated it to Firmian as his benefactor, thanking him for having scattered the clouds that envy and ignorance had gathered thickly over his head, and for having protected one whose only object had been to declare with the greatest caution and respect the interests of humanity.

Who can read history without being horror-struck at the barbarous and useless torments which men, who were called wise, in cold blood devised and executed? Who is there but must feel his blood boil, when he regards the thousands of wretches whom misery, either intended or tolerated by the laws (which have always favoured the few and outraged the many), has driven to a desperate return to the original state of nature; when he sees them either accused by men endowed with the same senses, and consequently with the same passions as themselves, of impossible crimes, the fiction of timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but fidelity to their own principles; and when he sees them lacerated by slow tortures, subject to well-contrived formalities, an agreeable sight for a fanatical multitude?

The author of the book was a native of Milan, then part of the Austrian dominions, and under the governorship of Count Firmian, a worthy representative of the liberal despotism of Maria Theresa and her chief minister, Kaunitz. Under Firmian’s administration a period of beneficial reforms began for Lombardy. Agriculture was encouraged, museums and libraries extended, great works of public utility carried on. Even the Church was shorn of her privileges,[2] and before Firmian had been ten years in Lombardy all traces of ecclesiastical immunity had been destroyed; the jurisdiction of the Church, and her power to hold lands in mortmain were restricted, the right of asylum was abolished, and, above all, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Let these few facts suffice to indicate the spirit of the immediate political surroundings in the midst of which Beccaria’s work appeared.If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.

Nor are such scruples to convict unreasonable, when we consider the number who on apparently conclusive evidence have been falsely and irrevocably condemned to death. Playgoers who have seen ‘The Lyons Mail’ will remember how barely Lesurques, the Parisian gentleman, escaped punishment for the guilt of Dubosc, the robber and murderer. But the moral of the story is lost in the play, for Lesurques actually was executed for the crime of Dubosc, by reason of the strong resemblance he bore to him, the latter only receiving the due reward for his crimes after the innocent man had died as a common murderer on the scaffold. Then there are cases in which, as in the famous case of Calas, some one having committed suicide, some one else is executed as the murderer. That dead men tell no tales is as true of men hung as of men murdered, and the innocence of an executed man may be proved long afterwards or not at all.

It is not true that the sciences have always been injurious to mankind; when they were so, it was an inevitable evil. The multiplication of the human race over the face of the earth introduced war, the ruder arts, and the first laws, mere temporary agreements which perished with the necessity that gave rise to them. This was mankind’s primitive philosophy, the few elements of which were just, because the indolence and slight wisdom of their framers preserved them from error. But with the multiplication of men there went ever a multiplication of their wants. Stronger and more lasting impressions were, therefore, needed, in order to turn them back from repeated lapses to that primitive state of disunion which each return to it rendered worse. Those primitive delusions, therefore, which peopled the earth with false divinities and created an invisible universe that governed our own, conferred a great benefit—I mean a great political benefit—upon humanity. Those men were benefactors of their kind, who dared to deceive them and drag them, docile and ignorant, to worship at the altars. By presenting to them objects that lay beyond the scope of sense and fled from their grasp the nearer they seemed to approach them—never despised, because never well understood—they concentrated their divided passions upon a single object[247] of supreme interest to them. These were the first steps of all the nations that formed themselves out of savage tribes; this was the epoch when larger communities were formed, and such was their necessary and perhaps their only bond. I say nothing of that chosen people of God, for whom the most extraordinary miracles and the most signal favours were a substitute for human policy. But as it is the quality of error to fall into infinite subdivisions, so the sciences that grew out of it made of mankind a blind fanatical multitude, which, shut up within a close labyrinth, collides together in such confusion, that some sensitive and philosophical minds have regretted to this day the ancient savage state. That is the first epoch in which the sciences or rather opinions are injurious.

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The greatest effect that any punishment has upon the human mind is not to be measured by its intensity but by its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and permanently affected by very slight but repeated impressions than by a strong but brief shock. Habit holds universal sway over every sentient being, and as we speak and walk and satisfy our needs by its aid, so moral ideas only stamp themselves on our mind by long and repeated impressions. It is not the terrible yet brief sight of a criminal’s death, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of[172] his liberty, who, having become as it were a beast of burthen, repays with his toil the society he has offended, which is the strongest restraint from crimes. Far more potent than the fear of death, which men ever have before their eyes in the remote distance, is the thought, so efficacious from its constant recurrence: ‘I myself shall be reduced to as long and miserable a condition if I commit similar misdeeds.Another principle would serve admirably to draw still closer the important connection between a misdeed and its punishment, and that is, that the latter should as far as possible conform to the nature of the crime. This analogy facilitates marvellously the contrast that ought to exist between the impulse to[188] the crime and the counter-influence of the punishment, the one, that is, diverting the mind and guiding it to an end quite different from that to which the seductive idea of transgressing the law endeavours to lead it.Even the idea of public utility as the final test and standard of morality is derived from Beccaria, and the famous expression, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ occurs, in capital letters, in the very first page of the ‘Delitti e delle Pene.’[30] Bentham himself fully acknowledged this. ‘Priestley was the first,’ he says, ‘unless it was Beccaria, who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth: that the[47] greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and happiness.’ And with reference to his idea of the measurable value of different pains and pleasures, he says: ‘It was from Beccaria’s little treatise on Crimes and Punishments that I drew, as I well remember, the first hint of this principle, by which the precision and clearness and incontestableness of mathematical calculations are introduced for the first time into the field of morals.’

Banishment, it would seem, should be employed[181] in the case of those against whom, when accused of an atrocious crime, there is a great probability but not a certainty of guilt; but for this purpose a statute is required, as little arbitrary and as precise as possible, condemning to banishment any man who shall have placed his country in the fatal dilemma of either fearing him or of injuring him, leaving him, however, the sacred right of proving his innocence. Stronger reasons then should exist to justify the banishment of a native than of a foreigner, of a man criminated for the first time than of one who has been often so situated.

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