CHAPTER XXVII. CRIMES AGAINST PERSONAL SECURITY—ACTS OF VIOLENCE—PUNISHMENTS OF NOBLES.
Your letter has raised in me sentiments of the deepest esteem, of the greatest gratitude, and the most tender friendship; nor can I confess to you how honoured I feel at seeing my work translated into the language of a nation which is the mistress and illuminator of Europe. I owe everything to French books. They first raised in my mind feelings of humanity which had been suffocated by eight years of a fanatical education. I cannot express to you the pleasure with which I have read your translation; you have embellished the original, and your arrangement seems more natural than, and preferable to, my own. You had no need to fear offending the author’s vanity: in the first place, because a book that treats of the cause of humanity belongs, when once published, to the world and all nations equally; and as to myself in particular, I should have made little progress in the philosophy of the heart, which I place above that of the intellect, had I not acquired the courage to see and love the truth. I hope that the fifth edition, which will appear shortly, will be soon exhausted, and I assure you that in the sixth I will follow entirely, or nearly so, the arrangement of your translation, which places the truth in a better light than I have sought to place it in.
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?
Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paley’s reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern. That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.If it be said that a second conviction makes it necessary for society to protect itself by stronger measures against a member who thus defies its power, it may be asked whether this is not an application of exactly the same reasoning to the crimes of individuals, which as applied to the crimes of all men generally led our ancestors so far astray in the distribution of their punishments. Nothing could have been more plausible than their reasoning: ‘The punishment in vogue does not diminish the crime, therefore increase the punishment.’ But nothing could have been less satisfactory than the result, for with the increase of punishment that of crime went hand in hand. The same reasoning is equally plausible in the case of individuals, with the same perplexing question resulting in the end: ‘How comes it that, in spite of the threatened greater punishment, the majority of criminals are yet old offenders?’As a matter of fact the law affords a very clear proof, that its real purpose is to administer retributive justice and that punishment has no end beyond itself, by its careful apportionment of punishment to crime, by its invariable adjustment between the evil a man has done and the evil it deals out to him in return. For what purpose punish offences according to a certain scale, for what purpose stay to measure their gravity, if merely the prevention of crime is the object of punishment? Why punish a slight theft with a few months’ imprisonment and a burglary with as many years? The slight theft, as easier to commit, as more tempting accordingly, should surely have a harder penalty affixed to it than a crime which, as it is more difficult, is also less probable and less in need of strong counter-inducements to restrain it. That the law never reasons in this way is because it weighs offences according to their different degrees of criminality, or, in other words, because it feels that the fair retaliation for the burglary is not a fair retaliation for the theft.
The knowledge of the true relations between a sovereign and his subjects, and of those between different nations; the revival of commerce by the light of philosophical truths, diffused by printing; and the silent international war of industry, the most humane and the most worthy of rational men—these are the fruits which we owe to the enlightenment of this century. But how few have examined and combated the cruelty of punishments, and the irregularities of criminal procedures, a part of legislation so elementary and yet so neglected in almost the whole of Europe; and how few have sought, by a return to first principles, to dissipate the mistakes accumulated by many centuries, or to mitigate, with at least that force which belongs only to ascertained truths, the excessive caprice of ill-directed power, which has presented up to this time but one long example of lawful and cold-blooded atrocity! And yet the groans of the weak, sacrificed to the cruelty of the ignorant or to the indolence of the rich; the barbarous tortures, multiplied with a severity as useless as it is prodigal, for crimes either not proved or quite chimerical; the disgusting horrors of a prison, enhanced by that which is the cruellest executioner of the miserable—namely, uncertainty;—these ought to startle those rulers whose function it is to guide the opinion of men’s minds.It is, however, probable that the frequency of any crime bears little or no relation to the punishment affixed to it. Every criminal begins a new career, in which he thinks less of the nature of his punishment than of his chances of eluding it. Neither tradition nor example count with him for much in his balance of the chances in his own favour. The law can never be so certain in its execution as it is uncertain in its application, and it is the examples of impunity, not of punishment, to which men turn when they violate the law. So that whether the punishment for murder be an excruciating death, as in ancient Rome, or a mere fine, as in ancient England, the motives for escape are always the same, the means to effect it are always the same, and the belief in his power to effect it is correspondingly powerful in every criminal guilty of homicide.
English philosophy and legislation, therefore, owe enough to Beccaria for his treatise never to be forgotten among us. Standing, as it does, in reference to law as Bacon’s ‘Novum Organon’ to science, or Descartes’ ‘Principia’ to philosophy, and representing a return to first principles and rejection of mere precedent in the matter of penal laws, it will never fail to gratify those who, with little admiration for law in the concrete, can yet find pleasure in studying it in the abstract. Most men will turn readily from a system built up, as our own is, of unintelligible distinctions, and based on authority rather than on experience, to a system where no distinctions exist save those which are derived from the nature of things and are founded on the real differences that distinguish the moral actions of mankind.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.详情
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