Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.Hence both in the state of extreme political liberty and in that of extreme political subjection the ideas of honour disappear or get perfectly confused with others. For in the former the despotism of the laws renders the pursuit of the favour of others of no avail; and in the latter state the despotism of men, by destroying civil existence, reduces everybody to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, therefore, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies that are a mitigated form of despotism, being to them what revolutions are to despotic States, namely, a momentary return to the state of nature, and a reminder to the chief ruler of the condition of primitive equality.
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?
In those days to steal five shillings’ worth of goods from a shop was a capital offence, and Paley had explained the philosophy of the punishment. It would be tedious to follow the course of Romilly’s bill against this law, called the Shoplifting Act, through the details of its history. Suffice it to say that it passed the Commons in 1810, 1811, 1813, 1816, but was regularly thrown out by the Lords, and only definitely became law many years later. But though the debates on the subject no longer possess the vivid interest that once belonged to them, and are best left to the oblivion that enshrouds them, it is instructive to take just one sample of the eloquence and arguments, that once led Lords and Bishops captive and expressed the highest legal wisdom obtainable in England.
The following letter by Beccaria to the Abbé Morellet in acknowledgment of the latter’s translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the ‘Spectator’ it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:—
From political morality, unless founded on the immutable sentiments of mankind, no lasting advantage can be hoped. Whatever law deviates from these sentiments will encounter a resistance which will ultimately prevail over it, just in the same way as a force, however slight, if constantly applied, will prevail over a violent motion applied to any physical body.
What should we think of a government that has no other means than fear for keeping men in a country, to which they are naturally attached from the earliest impressions of their infancy? The surest way of keeping them in their country is to augment the relative welfare of each of them. As every effort should be employed to turn the balance of commerce in our own favour, so it is the greatest interest of a sovereign and a nation, that the sum of happiness, compared with that of neighbouring nations, should be greater at home than elsewhere. The pleasures of luxury are not the principal elements in this happiness, however much they may be a necessary remedy to that inequality which increases with a country’s progress, and a check upon the tendency of wealth to accumulate in the hands of a single ruler.In the third place, there is the discharge from prison; and truly, if the prevention of crime be a main object of society, it is just when a man is released from prison that, from a social point of view, there would seem most reason to send him there. For even if, whilst in prison, he has learned no dishonest means of livelihood, how shall he, when out of it, set about obtaining an honest one? If temptation was too strong for him when all doors were open to him, is it likely to be less strong when most are closed? Will it not be something like a miracle, if, with two pounds paid to him on his discharge and his railway fare paid home, he eat for any considerable time the bread of honesty, and sleep the sleep of the just?CHAPTER VIII. WITNESSES.
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.…What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him?
There are a few obvious remedies by which the inducements to crime might be easily diminished. In 1808 Sir Samuel Romilly brought in a bill, to provide persons tried and acquitted of felony with compensation, at the discretion of the judge, for the loss they incurred by their detention and trial. This was objected to, on the ground that the payment of such compensation out of the county rates would discourage prosecutions; and the only justice done to men falsely accused from that day to this is the authorisation given to goal-governors in 1878 to provide prisoners, who have been brought from another county for trial at the assizes and have been acquitted, with means of returning to their own homes. Something more than this is required to save a man so situated from falling into real crime.There are three sources of the moral and political principles which govern mankind, namely, revelation, natural law, and social conventions. With regard to their principal object there is no comparison between the first and the other two, but they all resemble one another in this, that they all three conduce to the happiness of this present mortal life. To consider the different relations of social conventions is not to exclude those of revelation and natural law; rather it is the thousandfold changes which revelation and natural law, divine and immutable though they be, have undergone in the depraved mind of man, by his own fault, owing to false religions and arbitrary notions of virtue and vice, that make it appear necessary to examine, apart from all other considerations, the result of purely human conventions, expressed or implied, for the public need and welfare: this being an idea in which every sect and every moral system must necessarily agree; and it will always be a laudable endeavour, which seeks to constrain the headstrong and unbelieving to conform to the principles that induce men to live together in society. There are, then, three distinct kinds of virtue and vice—the religious, the natural, and the political. These three kinds ought never to conflict, although all the consequences and duties that flow from any one of them do not necessarily flow from the others. The natural law does not require all that revelation requires, nor does the purely social law require all that natural law requires; but it is most important to distinguish the consequences of the conventional law—that is, of the express or tacit agreements among men—from the consequences of the natural law or of revelation, because therein lies the limit of that power, which can rightly be exercised between man and man without a special mandate from the Supreme Being. Consequently the idea of political virtue may, without any slur upon it, be said to be variable; that of natural virtue would be always clear and manifest, were it not obscured by the stupidity or the passions of men; whilst the idea of religious virtue remains ever one and the same, because revealed directly from God and by Him preserved.
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In the third place, there is the discharge from prison; and truly, if the prevention of crime be a main object of society, it is just when a man is released from prison that, from a social point of view, there would seem most reason to send him there. For even if, whilst in prison, he has learned no dishonest means of livelihood, how shall he, when out of it, set about obtaining an honest one? If temptation was too strong for him when all doors were open to him, is it likely to be less strong when most are closed? Will it not be something like a miracle, if, with two pounds paid to him on his discharge and his railway fare paid home, he eat for any considerable time the bread of honesty, and sleep the sleep of the just?But if the custody of the criminal class has been overrated as a preventive of crime, or regarded as the sole preventive instead of one amongst many, it does not follow that crime on that account must be left to itself. It only follows that we should trust to punishment less and to other agencies more in our war with crime, and that we should seek to check the latter at its source, not in its full stream, by attending to the improvement of the general conditions of life. It is quite certain, for instance, that the spread of education, of which Beccaria wrote in terms of such despair, means the diminution of crime; and as the majority of crimes are committed between the ages of twenty and forty, it may be predicted that from the present year onwards the great Act of 1870 will bear increasing fruit in lowering our criminal statistics. More too may be hoped for from the electric light than from any multiplication of prisons.
Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.Why then did Pietro Verri not write it himself? The answer would seem to be, out of deference for the position and opinions of his father. It was some time later that Gabriel defended the use of torture in the Milanese Senate, and Pietro wrote a work on torture which he did not publish in his father’s lifetime. It was probably due also to the father’s position that Alessandro held his office of Protector of the Prisoners, so that there were obvious reasons which prevented either brother from undertaking the work in question.详情
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