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.They who have thought that the criminal’s intention was the true measure of crimes were in the wrong. For the intention depends on the actual impression of things upon a man, and on his precedent mental disposition, things which vary in all men and in each man, according to the very rapid succession of his ideas, his passions, and his circumstances. It would, therefore, be necessary to form not only a particular code for each citizen, but a fresh law for every crime. Sometimes with the best intentions men do the greatest evil to society; and sometimes with the very worst they do it the greatest good.
In these ‘Notes and Observations’ Beccaria and his work were assailed with that vigour and lucidity for which the Dominican school of writing has always been so conspicuous. The author was described as ‘a man of narrow mind,’ ‘a madman,’ ‘a stupid impostor,’ ‘full of poisonous bitterness and calumnious mordacity.’ He was accused of writing ‘with sacrilegious imposture against the Inquisition,’ of believing that ‘religion was incompatible with the good government of a state;’ nay, he was condemned ‘by all the reasonable world as the enemy of Christianity, a bad philosopher, and a bad man.’ His book was stigmatised as ‘sprung from the deepest abyss of darkness, horrible, monstrous, full of poison,’ containing ‘miserable arguments,’ ‘insolent blasphemies,’ and so forth.
Wise governments suffer not political idleness in the midst of work and industry. I mean by political idleness that existence which contributes nothing to society either by its work or by its wealth; which gains without ever losing; which, stupidly admired and reverenced by the vulgar, is regarded by the wise man with disdain, and with pity for the beings who are its victims; which, being destitute of that stimulus of an active life, the necessity of preserving or increasing the store of worldly goods, leaves to the passions of opinion, not the least strong ones, all their energy. This kind of idleness has been confused by austere declaimers with that of riches, gathered by industry; but it is not for the severe and narrow virtue of some censors, but for the laws, to define what is punishable idleness. He is not guilty of political idleness, who enjoys the fruits of the virtues or vices of his ancestors and sells in exchange for his pleasures bread and existence to the industrious poor, who carry on peacefully the silent war of industry against wealth, instead of by force a war uncertain and sanguinary. The latter kind of idleness is necessary and useful, in proportion as society becomes wider and its government more strict.Whatever improvement our penal laws have undergone in the last hundred years is due primarily to Beccaria, and to an extent that has not always been recognised. Lord Mansfield is said never to have mentioned his name without a sign of respect. Romilly referred to him in the very first speech he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of law reform. And there is no English writer of that day who, in treating of the criminal law, does not refer to Beccaria.
From this we see how useful is the art of printing, which makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians of the sacred laws, and which has scattered that dark spirit of cabal and intrigue, destined to disappear before knowledge and the sciences, which, however apparently despised, are in reality feared by those that follow in their wake. This is the reason that we see in Europe the diminution of those atrocious crimes that afflicted our ancestors and rendered them by turns tyrants or slaves. Whoever knows the history of two or three centuries ago and of our own, can see that from the lap of luxury and effeminacy have sprung the most pleasing of all human virtues, humanity, charity, and the toleration of human errors; he will know what have been the results of that which is so wrongly called ‘old-fashioned simplicity and honesty.’ Humanity groaning under implacable superstition; the avarice and ambition of a few dyeing with human blood the golden chests and thrones of kings; secret assassinations and public massacres; every noble a tyrant to the people; the ministers of the Gospel truth polluting with blood hands that every day came in contact with the God of mercy—these are not the works of this enlightened age, which some, however, call corrupt.
What influence have they on customs?
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 life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.The death of a citizen can only be deemed necessary for two reasons. The first is when, though deprived of his personal freedom, he has still such connections and power as threaten the national security; when his existence is capable of producing a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen becomes then necessary when the nation is recovering or losing its liberty, or in a time of anarchy, when confusion takes the place of laws; but in times when the laws hold undisturbed sway, when the form of government corresponds with the wishes of a united nation, and is defended internally and externally by force, and by opinion which is perhaps even stronger than force, where the supreme power rests only with the real sovereign, and riches serve to purchase pleasures but not places, I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except when his death might be the real and only restraint for diverting others from committing crimes; this latter case constituting the second reason for which one may believe capital punishment to be both just and necessary.
Another way to prevent crimes is to reward virtue. On this head I notice a general silence in the laws of all nations to this day. If prizes offered by academies to the discoverers of useful truths have caused the multiplication of knowledge and of good books, why should not virtuous actions also be multiplied, by prizes distributed from the munificence of the sovereign? The money of honour ever remains unexhausted and fruitful in the hands of the legislator who wisely distributes it.
There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.I know that those general principles which tend to enlighten and improve the human race are not absolutely useless … that the enlightenment of nations is not without some effect on their rulers … provided that the prerogative of the latter, their power, their security, their authority, their safety, is not touched thereby.… I know well that this general enlightenment, so much boasted of, is a beautiful and glorious chimera, with which philosophers love to amuse themselves, but which would soon disappear if they would open history, and see therefrom to what causes improved institutions are due. The nations of antiquity have passed, and those of the present will pass, before philosophy and its influence have reformed a single government.…Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.
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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.Whosoever disturbs the public peace, or obeys not the laws, that is, the conditions under which men bear with and defend one another, ought to be excluded from society, that is, to be banished from it.
The good faith of contracts and the security of commerce compel the legislator to assure to creditors the persons of insolvent debtors. But I think it important to distinguish the fraudulent from the innocent bankrupt, the former of whom should receive the same punishment as that assigned to false coiners, since it is no greater crime to falsify a piece of coined money, the pledge of men’s mutual obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupt—he who, after a searching inquiry, has proved before his judges that the wickedness or misfortune of some one else, or the inevitable vicissitudes of human prudence, have despoiled him of his substance—for what barbarous reason ought such an one to be thrown into prison, and deprived of the only poor benefit that remains to him, a barren liberty, in order to suffer the agonies of the really guilty, and, in despair at his ruined honesty, to repent perhaps of that innocence, by which he lived peacefully under the protection of those laws that it was not in his power not to offend against? Laws, too, dictated by the powerful by reason of their rapacity, and endured by the feeble by reason of that hope, which generally glimmers in the human heart, and leads us to believe that unfavourable contingencies are reserved for others, favourable ones for ourselves! Men left to their natural feelings love cruel laws, however much, as subject to them themselves, it might be for their individual interest that they should be mitigated; because their fear of being injured by others is greater than their desire to inflict injuries themselves.详情
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