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.
The multiplication of the human race, slight in the abstract, but far in excess of the means afforded by nature, barren and deserted as it originally was, for the satisfaction of men’s ever increasing wants, caused the first savages to associate together. The first unions necessarily led to others to oppose them, and so the state of war passed from individuals to nations.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.
But, in spite of the liberalism of the Count, the penal laws and customs of Lombardy remained the same; and the cruel legal procedure by torture existed still, untouched by the salutary reforms effected in other departments of the Government. There was the preparatory torture, to extort confession from criminals not yet condemned; there was torture for the discovery of a criminal’s accomplices; and there was the extraordinary or greater torture, which preceded the execution of a sentence of death. It is true that torture could only be applied to crimes of a capital nature, but there was scarcely an act in the possible category of crimes that was not then punishable with death. Proofs of guilt were sought almost entirely from torture and secret accusations, whilst penalties depended less on the text of any known law than on the discretion—that is, on the caprice—of the magistrate.
There are, however, certain limitations even to the supposed universality of the custom. For the Roman jurists did not consider a re-conviction as a circumstance in itself which justified aggravation of punishment; and all that can be gathered from some fragments in the Pandects and Code is, that some particular cases of repeated crimes were punished more severely than a first offence. But they were crimes of the same kind; and a man whose first crime was a theft and whose second was an assault would not have incurred an aggravated penalty. It is the same to-day in the Austrian, Tuscan, and a few other codes: a second crime is only punished more severely as a second crime when it is of the same kind as the first, so that it would not suffice to prove simply a previous conviction for felony irrespective of the particular sort. There is also another limitation that has sometimes been recognised, for in the Roman law the rule of an increased penalty fell to the ground, if three years elapsed without offence between the punishment for one crime and the commission of a second.
Yet, supposing it were proved to-morrow that punishment fails entirely of the ends imputed to it; that, for example, the greater number of crimes are committed by criminals who have been punished already; that for one chance of a man’s reformation during his punishment there are a hundred in favour of his deterioration; and that the deterrent influence of his punishment is altogether removed by his own descriptions of it; shall we suppose for a moment that society would cease to punish, on the ground that punishment attained none of its professed ends? Would it say to the horse-stealer, ‘Keep your horse, for nothing we can do to you can make you any better, nor deter others from trying to get horses in the same way?’CHAPTER XXXVII. OF A PARTICULAR KIND OF CRIME.
The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a man’s air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.Romilly’s first idea with respect to the reform of the criminal law was a sufficiently humble one. It was nothing more than to raise the amount of the value of the property, the theft of which should expose a man to death. Twelvepence, as fixed by the statute of Elizabeth, originally signified a much greater theft than it had come to signify after a lapse of two centuries. Romilly had at first no idea of removing the death penalty for theft; his only hope was to get it affixed to a graver theft than the larceny of a shilling. Yet even so he could not bring himself to consult with the judges on the subject of his intended bill, for ‘he had not the least hope they would approve of the measure.
We have seen that the true measure of crimes is the injury done to society. This is one of those palpable truths which, however little dependent on quadrants or telescopes for their discovery, and fully within the reach of any ordinary intelligence, are yet, by a marvellous combination of circumstances, only recognised clearly and firmly by some few thinkers, belonging to every nationality and to every age. But Asiatic ideas, and passions clothed with authority and power, have, generally by imperceptible movements, sometimes by violent assaults on the timid credulity of mankind, dissipated those simple notions, which perhaps formed the first philosophy of primitive communities, and to which the enlightenment of this age seems likely to reconduct us, but to do so with that greater sureness, which can be gained from an exact investigation into things, from a thousand unhappy experiences, and from the very obstacles that militate against it.
The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.Beccaria entertains a similar despair of truth. The history of mankind represents a vast sea of errors, in which at rare intervals a few truths only float uppermost; and the durability of great truths is as that of a flash of lightning when compared with the long and dark night which envelops humanity. For this reason he is ready to be the servant of truth, not her martyr; and he recommends in the search for truth, as in the other affairs of life, a little of that ‘philosophical indolence’ which cares not too much about results, and which a writer like Montaigne is best fitted to inspire.CHAPTER I. BECCARIA’S LIFE AND CHARACTER.
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Even if we assume that death is absolutely the severest penalty devisable by the law, and that as a punishment for murder it is not too severe, it remains certain, that, relatively to the circumstances of a trial for murder, to the reluctance of judges or juries to pass an irretrievable sentence, to their fear of error, to their conscientious regard for human life, it is really a much less terrible danger for a malefactor to face than a penalty which would justify fewer hopes of impunity.
CHAPTER XXXIX. OF FAMILY SPIRIT.When the community is one of individuals, the subordination that prevails in the family prevails by agreement, not by compulsion; and the sons, as soon as their age withdraws them from their state of natural dependence, arising from their feebleness and their need of education and protection, become free members of the domestic commonwealth, subjecting themselves to its head, in order to share in its advantages, as free men do by society at large. In the other condition the sons—that is, the largest and most useful part of a nation—are placed altogether at the mercy of their fathers; but in this one there is no enjoined connection between them, beyond that sacred and inviolable one of the natural ministration of necessary aid, and that of gratitude for benefits received, which is less often destroyed by the native wickedness of the human heart than by a law-ordained and ill-conceived state of subjection.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.详情
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