It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law, because the absurdities themselves that a whole nation adopts have always some connection with other common ideas which the same nation respects. The custom seems to have been derived from religious and spiritual ideas, which have so great an influence on the thoughts of men, on nations, and on generations. An infallible dogma assures us, that the stains contracted by human weakness and undeserving of the eternal anger of the Supreme Being must be purged by an incomprehensible fire. Now, infamy is a civil stain; and as pain and fire take away spiritual and incorporeal stains, why should not the agonies of torture take away the civil stain of infamy? I believe that the confession of a criminal, which some courts insist on as an essential requisite for condemnation, has a similar origin;—because in the mysterious tribunal of repentance the confession of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. This is the way men abuse the surest lights of revelation; and as these are the only ones which exist in times of ignorance, it is to them on all occasions that docile humanity turns, making of them the most absurd and far-fetched applications.
This, then, is the way to avoid confounding the relations and invariable nature of things, which, being unlimited by time and in ceaseless operation, confounds and overturns all narrow regulations that depart from it. It is not only the arts of taste and pleasure which have for their universal principle the faithful imitation of nature; but the art of politics itself, at least that which is true and permanent, is subject to this general maxim, since it consists in nothing else than the art of directing in the best way and to the same purposes the immutable sentiments of mankind.CHAPTER I. BECCARIA’S LIFE AND CHARACTER.
There was not an anomaly in our old criminal practice which was not based on this theory—a theory which had, indeed, its precedent in the old Hebrew law that punished more severely a theft from a field than a theft from a house; and the first writer who protested against it was Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, who in 1771 published his ‘Principles of Penal Law,’ one of the best books ever written on the subject. The influence of Beccaria is apparent in Eden’s work, not only by his direct reference to it, but by his spirit of declared opposition to the actual practice of the law. Two instances of its tendency will suffice. ‘Imprisonment, inflicted by law as a punishment, is not according to the principles of wise legislation. It sinks useful subjects into burthens on the community, and has always a bad effect on their morals; nor can it communicate the benefit of example, being in its nature secluded from the eye of the people.’ And again: ‘Whatever exceeds simple death is mere cruelty. Every step beyond is a trace of ancient barbarity, tending only to distract the attention of the spectators and to lessen the solemnity of the example. There is no such thing as vindictive justice; the idea is shocking.’But, in spite of the liberalism of the Count, the penal laws and customs of Lombardy remained the same; and the cruel legal procedure by torture existed still, untouched by the salutary reforms effected in other departments of the Government. There was the preparatory torture, to extort confession from criminals not yet condemned; there was torture for the discovery of a criminal’s accomplices; and there was the extraordinary or greater torture, which preceded the execution of a sentence of death. It is true that torture could only be applied to crimes of a capital nature, but there was scarcely an act in the possible category of crimes that was not then punishable with death. Proofs of guilt were sought almost entirely from torture and secret accusations, whilst penalties depended less on the text of any known law than on the discretion—that is, on the caprice—of the magistrate.Men of letters as a rule did not speak with this boldness, but in conscious opposition to professional and popular feeling expressed their doubts with a hesitation that was almost apologetic. So, for example, Goldsmith could not ‘avoid even questioning the validity of that right which social combinations have assumed of capitally punishing offences of a slight nature.’ Strange, that in England such an argument should ever have seemed a daring novelty, a thing to be said tentatively and with reserve!
But the honour of having been the first country to lay aside the use of torture undoubtedly belongs to England, just as the honour of having been the first in modern times to abolish capital punishment, except for political offences, belongs to Russia; and the practical example thus afforded by our laws probably did more for the general abolition of the custom than any written treatise on the subject ever would have done alone. English and foreign jurists long delighted to honour the Common Law for its non-recognition of torture. But though torture was contrary to the Common Law, and even to Magna Charta, it was not contrary to Prerogative; and until the Commonwealth it was used as matter of course in all grave accusations at the mere discretion of the monarch and Privy Council. Therefore Beccaria pointed to England as a country which did not use torture with more justice than Grotius had done, who, when the rack was still in use amongst us, quoted England as a proof that people might safely live without torture.Some remnants of the laws of an ancient conquering people, which a prince who reigned in Constantinople some 1,200 years ago caused to be compiled, mixed up afterwards with Lombard rites and packed in the miscellaneous volumes of private and obscure commentators—these are what form that set of traditional opinions which from a great part of Europe receive nevertheless the name of laws; and to this day it is a fact, as disastrous as it is common, that some opinion of Carpzovius, some old custom pointed out by Clarus, or some form of torture suggested in terms of complacent ferocity by Farinaccius, constitute the laws, so carelessly followed by those, who in all trembling ought to exercise their government over the lives and fortunes of men. These laws, the dregs of the most barbarous ages, are examined in this book in so far as regards criminal jurisprudence, and I have dared to expose their faults to the directors of the public happiness in a style which may keep at a distance the unenlightened and intolerant multitude. The spirit of frank inquiry after truth, of freedom from commonplace opinions, in which this book is written, is a result of the mild and enlightened Government under which the Author lives. The great monarchs, the benefactors of humanity, who are now our rulers, love the truths expounded, with force but without fanaticism, by the obscure philosopher, who is only roused to indignation by the excesses of tyranny, but is restrained by reason; and existing abuses, for whosoever well studies all the circumstances, are the satire and reproach of past ages, and by no means of the present age or of its lawgivers.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?
Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended ‘undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution;’ he blamed the ‘weak timidity’ of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community.Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a man’s cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death.
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 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?CHAPTER XVIII. INFAMY.
It will be said, of course, that the practice of giving increased sentences where there have been previous convictions prevails all over the world and in all states of civilisation. But in that very fact lies the strength of the argument against it. By the Roman law a third case of theft, however slight, exposed a man to death. By the laws of St. Louis the man who stole a thing of trifling value lost an ear the first time, a foot the second, and was hung the third. By the criminal code of Sardinia in the fifteenth century, asses were condemned to lose one ear the first time they trespassed on a field not their master’s, and their second ear for a second offence. But enough of such instances. The practice is undoubtedly universal; but so at one time were ordeals and tortures. May not, then, the practice be, like them, part and parcel of a crude state of law, such as was unavoidable in its emergence to better things, but such as it is worth some effort to escape from?
Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames’ account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.It is impossible to prevent all the disorders that may arise in the universal conflict of human passions. Their increase depends on that of population and on the crossings of private interests, which cannot be directed with geometrical exactness to the public welfare. In political arithmetic the calculation of probabilities must be substituted for mathematical exactness. Glance at the history of the world, and you will see disorders increase with the increase of the bounds of empire; thus national feeling being to the same extent diminished, the general inducement to crime increases with the greater interest of each individual in such disorders, and on this account the necessity for aggravating penalties ever continues to increase.
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.The voice of a philosopher is too feeble against the noise and cries of so many followers of blind custom, but the few wise men scattered over the face of the earth will respond to me from their inmost hearts; and, amid the many obstacles that keep it from a monarch, should truth perchance arrive in spite of him at his throne, let him know that it comes there attended by the secret wishes of all men; let him know that before his praises the bloody fame of conquerors will be silenced, and that posterity, which is just, will assign him the foremost place among the pacific triumphs of a Titus, an Antonine, or a Trajan.The close connection, therefore, of crime and punishment is of the utmost importance, if it be desirable that in rough and common minds there should, together with the seductive idea of an advantageous crime, immediately start up the associated idea of its punishment. Long delay has no other effect than the perpetual separation of these two ideas; and whatever the impression produced by the punishment of a crime, it produces it less as a punishment than as a sight, and only produces it when the horror of the particular crime, which would serve to strengthen the feeling of the punishment, has been weakened in the minds of the spectators.详情
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