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Whoever, then, I repeat, will honour me with his criticisms, let him not begin by supposing me to advocate principles destructive of virtue or religion, seeing that I have shown that such are not my principles; and instead of his proving me to be an infidel or a[116] rebel, let him contrive to find me a bad reasoner or a shortsighted politician; but let him not tremble at every proposition on behalf of the interests of humanity; let him convince me either of the inutility or of the possible political mischief of my principles; let him prove to me the advantage of received practices. I have given a public testimony of my religion and of my submission to my sovereign in my reply to the Notes and Observations; to reply to other writings of a similar nature would be superfluous; but whoever will write with that grace which becomes honest men, and with that knowledge which shall relieve me from the proof of first principles, of what character soever, he shall find in me not so much a man who is eager to reply as a peaceable lover of the truth.

CHAPTER XII. TORTURE.Such fatal and legalised iniquities as have been referred to have been approved of by even the wisest men and practised by even the freest republics, owing to their having regarded society rather as an aggregate[236] of families than as one of individuals. Suppose there to be 100,000 individuals, or 20,000 families, of five persons each, including its representative head: if the association is constituted by families, it will consist of 20,000 men and 80,000 slaves; if it be an association of individuals, it will consist of 100,000 citizens, and not a single slave. In the first case there will be a republic, formed of 20,000 little sovereignties; in the second the republican spirit will breathe, not only in the market-places and meetings of the people, but also within the domestic walls, wherein lies so great a part of human happiness or misery. In the first case, also, as laws and customs are the result of the habitual sentiments of the members of the republic—that is, of the heads of families—the monarchical spirit will gradually introduce itself, and its effects will only be checked by the conflicting interests of individuals, not by a feeling that breathes liberty and equality. Family spirit is a spirit of detail and confined to facts of trifling importance. But the spirit which regulates communities is master of general principles, overlooks the totality of facts, and combines them into kinds and classes, of importance to the welfare of the greater number. In the community of families sons remain in the power of the head of the family so long as he lives, and are obliged to look forward to his death for an existence dependent on the laws alone. Accustomed to submission and fear in the[237] freshest and most vigorous time of life, when their feelings are less modified by that timidity, arising from experience, which men call moderation, how shall they withstand those obstacles in the way of virtue which vice ever opposes, in that feeble and failing period of life when despair of living to see the fruit of their labours hinders them from making vigorous changes?But there is a still further uncertainty of punishment, for it is as well known in the criminal world as elsewhere that the sentence pronounced in court is not the real sentence, and that neither penal servitude for[96] five years nor penal servitude for life mean necessarily anything of the sort. The humanity of modern legislation insists on a remission of punishment, dependent on a convict’s life in the public works prisons, in order that the element of hope may brighten his lot and perchance reform his character. This remission was at first dependent simply on his conduct, which was perhaps too generously called good where it was hard for it to be bad; now it depends on his industry and amount of work done. Yet the element of hope might be otherwise assured than by lessening the certainty of punishment, say, by associating industry or good conduct with such little privileges of diet, letter-writing, or receiving of visits, as still shed some rays of pleasure over the monotony of felon-life. It should not be forgotten, that the Commission of 1863, which so strongly advocated the remissibility of parts of penal sentences, did so in despite of one of its principal members, against no less an authority than the Lord Chief Justice, then Sir Alexander Cockburn.[55] The very fact of the remissibility of a sentence is an admission of its excessive severity; for to say that a sentence is never carried out is to say that it need never have been inflicted.

The treatise ‘Dei Delitti,’ instead of throwing any light on the subject of crimes, or on the manner in which they should be punished, tends to establish a system of the most dangerous and novel ideas, which, if adopted, would go so far as to overturn laws received hitherto by the greater part of all civilised nations.It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons[227] subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.

The very success of Beccaria’s work has so accustomed us to its result that we are apt to regard it, as men regard a splendid cathedral in their native town, with very little recognition of its claims to admiration. The work is there, they see it, they live under its shadow; they are even ready to boast of it; but[30] what to them is the toil and risk of its builders, or the care and thought of its architects? It may be said that this indifference is the very consummation Beccaria would most have desired, as it is the most signal proof of the success of his labour. So signal, indeed, has been that success, that already the atrocities which men in those days accepted as among the unalterable conditions of their existence, or resigned themselves to as the necessary safeguards of society, have become so repulsive to the world’s memory, that men have agreed to hide them from their historical consciousness by seldom reading, writing, or speaking of their existence. And this is surely a fact to be remembered with hopefulness, when we hear an evil like war with all its attendant atrocities, defended nowadays by precisely the same arguments which little more than a hundred years ago were urged on behalf of torture, but which have proved nevertheless insufficient to keep it in existence.

Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end ‘with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.’[32]

CHAPTER XLI. THE PREVENTION OF CRIMES—OF KNOWLEDGE—MAGISTRATES—REWARDS—EDUCATION.

A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccaria’s work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the world’s history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife[14] and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.

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The reason for translating afresh Beccaria’s ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ (‘Crimes and Punishments’) is, that it is a classical work of its kind, and that the interest which belongs to it is still far from being merely historical.The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation[248] to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after men’s minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?The greater the number of those who understand and have in their hands the sacred code of the laws, the fewer will be the crimes committed; for it is beyond all doubt that ignorance and uncertainty of punishments lend assistance to the eloquence of the passions. Yet what shall we think of mankind, when we reflect, that such a condition of the laws is the inveterate custom of a large part of cultivated and enlightened Europe?

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