There is a remarkable contradiction between the civil laws, which set so jealous and supreme a guard upon individual life and property, and the laws of so-called honour, which set opinion above everything. This word honour is one of those that have served as the basis for long and brilliant argumentations, without any fixed or permanent idea being attached to it. How miserable is the condition of human minds, more distinctly cognisant of the remotest and least important ideas about the movements of the heavenly bodies, than of those near and important moral notions, which are ever fluctuating and confused, according as the winds of passion impel them and a well-guided ignorance receives and transmits them! But the seeming paradox will vanish, if one considers, that, as objects become confused when too near the eyes, so the too great propinquity of moral ideas easily causes the numerous simple ideas which compose them to become blended together, to the confusion of those clear lines of demarcation demanded by the geometrical spirit, which would fain measure exactly the phenomena of human sensibility. And the wonder will vanish altogether from the impartial student of human affairs, who will suspect that so great a moral machinery and so many restraints are perchance not needed, in order to render men happy and secure.There was a time when nearly all penalties were pecuniary. Men’s crimes were the prince’s patrimony; attempts against the public safety were an object of gain, and he whose function it was to defend it found his interest in seeing it assailed. The object of punishment was then a suit between the treasury, which exacted the penalty, and the criminal: it was a civil business, a private rather than a public dispute, which conferred upon the treasury other rights than those conferred upon it by the calls of the public defence, whilst it inflicted upon the offender other grievances than those he had incurred by the necessity of example. The judge was, therefore, an advocate for the treasury rather than an impartial investigator of the truth, an agent for the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the protector and minister of the laws. But as in this system to confess a fault was the same thing as to confess oneself a debtor to the treasury, that being the object of the criminal procedure in those days, so the confession of a crime, and a confession so managed as to favour and not to hurt fiscal interests, became and still remains (effects always outlasting their causes so long) the centre point of all criminal procedure. Without such confession a criminal convicted by indubitable proofs will incur a penalty less than the one legally attached to his crime; and without it he will escape torture for other crimes of the same sort which he may have committed. With it, on the other hand, the judge becomes master of a criminal’s person, to lacerate him by method and formality, in order to get from him as from so much stock all the profit he can. Given the fact of the crime as proved, confession affords a convincing proof; and, to make this proof still less open to doubt, it is forcibly exacted by the agonies and despair of physical pain; whilst at the same time a confession that is extra-judicial, that is tendered calmly and indifferently, and without the overpowering fears of a trial by torture, is held insufficient for a verdict of guilt. Inquiries and proofs, which throw light upon the fact, but which weaken the claims of the treasury, are excluded; nor is it out of consideration for his wretchedness and weakness that a criminal is sometimes spared from torture, but out of regard for the claims which this entity, now mythical and inconceivable, might lose. The judge becomes the enemy of the accused, who stands in chains before him, the prey of misery, of torments, and the most terrible future; he does not seek to find the truth of a fact, but to find the crime in the prisoner, trying to entrap him, and thinking it to the loss of his own credit if he fail to do so, and to the detriment of that infallibility which men pretend to possess about everything. The evidence that justifies a man’s imprisonment rests with the judge; in order that a man may prove himself innocent, he must first be declared guilty: that is called an offensive prosecution; and such are criminal proceedings in nearly every part of enlightened Europe, in the eighteenth century. The real prosecution, the informative one—that is, the indifferent inquiry into a fact, such as reason enjoins, such as military codes employ, and such as is used even by Asiatic despotism in trivial and unimportant cases—is of very scant use in the tribunals of Europe. What a complex maze of strange absurdities, doubtless incredible to a more fortunate posterity! Only the philosophers of that time will read in the nature of man the possible actuality of such a system as now exists.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 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. 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 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.
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.
Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.
A cruelty consecrated among most nations by custom is the torture of the accused during his trial, on the pretext of compelling him to confess his crime, of clearing up contradictions in his statements, of discovering his accomplices, of purging him in some metaphysical and incomprehensible way from infamy, or finally of finding out other crimes of which he may possibly be guilty, but of which he is not accused.
In such a zigzag path has our penal legislation been feeling, and is still feeling, its way, with evident misgiving of that principle of repression, as false as it is old, that an increase of crime can only be met by an increase of punishment.If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.
1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on another—that is to say, when each single proof rests on the weight of some other—then the more numerous the proofs are, the smaller is the probability of the fact in question, because the chances of error in the preliminary proofs would increase the probability of error in the succeeding ones.Pederasty, so severely punished by the laws, and so readily subjected to the tortures that triumph over innocence, is founded less on the necessities of man, when living in a state of isolation and freedom, than on his passions when living in a state of society and slavery. It derives its force not so much from satiety of pleasure as from the system of education now in vogue, which, beginning by making men useless to themselves in order to make them useful to others, causes, by its too strict seclusion, a waste of all vigorous development, and accelerates the approach of old age.
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Not only is it the general interest that crimes should not be committed, but that they should be rare in proportion to the evils they cause to society. The more opposed therefore that crimes are to the public welfare, and the more numerous the incentives to them, the stronger should be the repellent obstacles. This principle accordingly establishes the necessity of a certain proportion between crimes and punishments.Infanticide equally is the result of the unavoidable dilemma in which a woman is placed who from weakness or by violence has fallen. Finding herself placed between the alternative of infamy on the one side, and the death of a being insentient of its pains on the other, how can she fail to prefer the latter to the infallible misery awaiting both herself and her unhappy offspring? The best way to prevent this crime would be to give efficient legal protection to weakness against tyranny, which exaggerates those vices that cannot be hidden by the cloak of virtue.
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.…No law ought to be promulgated that has not force to back it, or that the nature of things deprives of validity; and as minds are ruled by opinion, which itself follows the slow and indirect impressions of legislation, whilst it resists those that are direct and violent, the most salutary laws become infected with the contempt felt for useless laws, and are regarded rather as obstacles to be surmounted than as the deposit of the public welfare.详情
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