CHAPTER XXVII. CRIMES AGAINST PERSONAL SECURITY—ACTS OF VIOLENCE—PUNISHMENTS OF NOBLES.It certainly should moderate our reverence for ancestral wisdom to find even a man like Fielding, the novelist, speaking, in his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, of the pillory and the loss of a man’s ears as ‘an extremely mild’ punishment for a bad case of libel, or declaring our punishments of that time to be ‘the mildest and most void of terror of any other in the known world.’ Yet Fielding recognised several of the true principles of punishment. He attributed the increase of crime to the great abuse of pardons, which, he said, had brought many more men to the gallows than they had saved from it. He also advocated the diminution of the number of executions, their greater privacy and solemnity, whilst he recommended their following as closely as possible on conviction, that pity for the criminal might be lost in detestation for his crime.
If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.But (he goes on) since it would be an absurd folly to expect this general revolution, this general reconstruction, which could only be effected by very violent means, such as would be at least a very great misfortune for the present generation, and hold out an uncertain prospect of compensation for the next one, every speculative work, like the ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene,’ enters into the category of Utopias, of Platonic Republics and other ideal governments; which display, indeed, the wit, the humanity, and the goodness of their authors, but which never have had nor ever will have any influence on human affairs.…
From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.The lighting of a city by night at the public expense; the distribution of guards in the different quarters; simple moral discourses on religion, but only in the silent and holy quiet of churches, protected by public authority; speeches on behalf of private and public interests in national assemblies, parliaments, or wherever else the majesty of sovereignty resides—all these are efficacious means for preventing the dangerous condensation of popular passions. These means are a principal branch of that magisterial vigilance which the French call police; but if this is exercised by arbitrary laws, not laid down in a code of general circulation, a door is opened to tyranny, which ever surrounds all the boundaries of political liberty. I find no exception to this general axiom, that ‘Every citizen ought to know when his actions are guilty or innocent.’ If censors, and arbitrary magistrates in general, are necessary in any government, it is due to the weakness of its constitution, and is foreign to the nature of a well organised government. More victims have been sacrificed to obscure tyranny by the uncertainty of their lot than by public and formal cruelty, for the latter revolts men’s minds more than it abases them. The true tyrant always begins by mastering opinion, the precursor of courage; for the latter can only show itself in the clear light of truth, in the fire of passion, or in ignorance of danger.
One of the greatest preventives of crimes is, not the cruelty of the punishments attached to them, but their infallibility, and consequently that watchfulness on the part of the magistrates and that inexorable severity on the part of the judge which, to be a useful virtue, must coincide with a mild system of laws. The certainty of a punishment, moderate though it be, will ever make a stronger impression than the fear of another, more terrible, perhaps, but associated with the hope of impunity; for even the least evils when certain always terrify men’s minds, and hope, that gift of heaven, which often makes up to us for everything, always throws into the distance the idea of greater evils, especially when its force is increased by impunity, which avarice and weakness so often grant.
From all that has gone before a general theorem may be deduced, of great utility, though little comformable to custom, that common lawgiver of nations. The theorem is this: ‘In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime, dictated by the laws.’Corporal and painful punishments should not be inflicted for those crimes which have their foundation in pride, and draw from pain itself their glory and nutriment. For such crimes ridicule and infamy are more fitted, these being penalties which curb the pride of fanatics by the pride of the beholders, and only let truth itself escape their tenacity by slow and obstinate efforts. By such an opposition of forces against forces, and of opinions against opinions, the wise legislator destroys that admiration and astonishment among a people, which a false principle causes, whose original absurdity is usually hidden from view by the plausible conclusions deduced from it.
CHAPTER XLII. CONCLUSION.The credibility, therefore, of a witness must diminish in proportion to the hatred, friendship, or close connection between himself and the accused. More than one witness is necessary, because, so long as one affirms and another denies, nothing is proved, and the right which everyone has of being held innocent prevails. The credibility of a witness becomes appreciably less, the greater the atrocity of the crime imputed, or the improbability of the circumstances, as in charges of magic and gratuitously cruel actions. It is more likely, as regards the former accusation, that many men should lie than that such an accusation should be true, because it is easier for many men to be united in an ignorant mistake or in persecuting hatred than for one man to exercise a power which God either has not conferred or has taken away from every created being. The same reasoning holds good also of the second accusation, for man is only cruel in proportion to his interest to be so, to his hatred or to his fear. Properly speaking, there is no superfluous feeling in human nature, every feeling being always in strict accordance with the impressions made upon the senses. In the same way the credibility of a witness may sometimes be lessened by the fact of his being a member of some secret society, whose purposes and principles are either not well understood or differ from those of general acceptance; for such a man has not only his own passions but those of others besides.
What influence have they on customs?
Since mankind generally, suspicious always of the language of reason, but ready to bow to that of authority, remain unpersuaded by the experience of all ages, in which the supreme punishment has never diverted resolute men from committing offences against society; since also they are equally unmoved by the example of the Romans and by twenty years of the reign of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, during which she presented this illustrious example to the fathers of their people, an example which is at least equivalent to many conquests bought by the blood of her country’s sons, it is sufficient merely to consult human nature itself, to perceive the truth of the assertion I have made.
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