After crimes of high treason come crimes opposed to the personal security of individuals. This security being the primary end of every properly constituted society, it is impossible not to affix to the violation of any citizen’s right of personal security one of the severest punishments that the laws allow.
All punishment is unjust that is unnecessary to the maintenance of public safety.There is a general theorem which is most useful for calculating the certainty of a fact, as, for instance, the force of the proofs in the case of a given crime:
Even inanimate objects or animals it has been thought through many ages reasonable to punish. In Athens an axe or stone that killed anyone by accident was cast beyond the border; and the English law was only repealed in the present reign which made a cartwheel, a tree, or a beast, that killed a man, forfeit to the State for the benefit of the poor. The Jewish law condemned an ox that gored anyone to death to be stoned, just as it condemned the human murderer. And in the middle ages pigs, horses, or oxen were not only tried judicially like men, with counsel on either side and witnesses, but they were hung on gallows like men, for the better deterrence of their kind in future.
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.It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery, according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his children’s wants he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve duck’s eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust?
There is no doubt that Beccaria always had a strong preference for the contemplative as opposed to the practical and active life, and that but for his friend Pietro Verri he would probably never have distinguished himself at all. He would have said with Plato that a wise man should regard life as a storm, and hide himself behind a wall till it be overpast. He almost does say this in his essay on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination,’ published soon after the ‘Crimes and Punishments.’ He advises his reader to stand aside and look on at the rest of mankind as they run about in their blind confusion; to make his relations with them as few as possible; and if he will do them any good, to do it at that distance which will prevent them from upsetting him or drawing him away in their own vortex. Let him in happy contemplation enjoy in silence the few moments that separate his birth from his disappearance. Let him leave men to fight, to hope, and to die; and with a smile both at himself and at them, let him repose softly on that enlightened indifference with regard to human things which will not deprive him of the pleasure of being just and beneficent, but which will spare him from those useless troubles and changes from evil to good that vex the greater part of mankind.PREFACE.
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.…In methods of trial the use of torture is contrary to sound reason. Humanity cries out against the practice and insists on its abolition.
Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. ‘No, no,’ was the reply, ‘it isn’t that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once.’ And this represented the prevalent opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, ‘Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case?… Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley!’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.
There is also a fourth consequence of the above principles: that the right to interpret penal laws cannot possibly rest with the criminal judges, for the very reason that they are not legislators. The judges have not received the laws from our ancestors as a family tradition, as a legacy that only left to posterity the duty of obeying them, but they receive them from living society, or from the sovereign that represents it and is the lawful trustee of the actual result of men’s collective wills; they receive them, not as obligations arising from an ancient oath (null, because it bound wills not then in existence, and iniquitous, because it reduced men from a state of society to that of a flock), but as the result of the tacit or expressed oath made to the sovereign by the united wills of living subjects, as chains necessary for curbing and regulating the disorders caused by private interests. This is the natural and real source of the authority of the laws.
The Translator has abstained from all criticism or comment of the original, less from complete agreement[vi] with all its ideas than from the conviction that annotations are more often vexatious than profitable, and are best left to the reader to make for himself. There is scarcely a sentence in the book on which a commentator might not be prolix.A few stories may be taken as illustrative of thousands to indicate the mischief and travesty of justice which arises from the neglect of this principle, and from the custom of making a legal inquiry into moral antecedents.详情
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