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CHAPTER III. THE INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA IN ENGLAND.Happy were humanity, if laws were now dictated to it for the first time, when we see on the thrones of Europe beneficent monarchs, men who encourage the virtues of peace, the sciences and the arts, who are fathers to their people, who are crowned citizens, and the increase of whose authority forms the happiness of their subjects, because it removes that intermediate despotism, more cruel because less secure, by which the people’s wishes, always sincere, and always attended to when they can reach the throne, have been usually intercepted and suppressed. If they, I say, suffer the ancient laws to exist, it is owing to the infinite difficulties of removing from errors the revered rust of many ages; which is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire with all the greater ardour the continual increase of their authority.

It would appear at first sight that there could be[71] little to say about crimes and punishments, so obvious and self-evident seem the relations that exist between them. Many people still believe in an innate sense of justice in mankind, sufficient always to prevent wide aberrations from equity. Is it, they might ask, conceivable that men should ever lose sight of the distinction between the punishment of guilt and the punishment of innocence?—that they should ever punish one equally with the other? Yet there is no country in the world which in its past or present history has not involved the relations of a criminal in the punishment inflicted on him; and in savage countries generally it is still common to satisfy justice with vengeance on some blood-relation of a malefactor who escapes from the punishment due to his crime.CHAPTER XXXVII. OF A PARTICULAR KIND OF CRIME.Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?

‘In revenges or punishments,’ says Hobbes, ‘men ought not to look at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow, whereby we are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design than for the correction of the offender and the admonition of others.’ And over and over again the same thing has been said, till it has come to be a commonplace in the philosophy of law, that the object of punishment is to reform and deter. As was once said by a great legal authority, ‘We do not hang you because you stole a horse, but that horses may not be stolen.’[42] Punishment by this theory is a means to an end, not an end in itself.Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view.

Some persons have maintained that a crime, that is, an action contrary to the laws, is punishable wherever committed, as if the character of subject[193] were indelible, or, in other words, synonymous with, nay, worse than, the character of slave; as if a man could be the subject of one kingdom and the resident of another, or as if his actions could without contradiction be subordinate to two sovereign powers and to two legal systems often contradictory. So some think that a cruel action done, say, at Constantinople is punishable at Paris, for the abstract reason that he who offends humanity deserves to have collective humanity for his enemy, and merits universal execration; as if judges were the avengers of human sensibility in general, and not rather of the covenants that bind men together. The place of punishment is the place of the crime, because there, and there only, is it a compulsory duty to injure an individual, to prevent an injury to the public. A villain, but one who has not broken the covenants of the society of which he was not a member, may be an object of fear, and for that reason be expelled and exiled by the superior power of that society; but he cannot be legally and formally punished, since it is for the laws to avenge, not the intrinsic malice of particular actions, but the violation of compacts.

Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.

CHAPTER III. THE INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA IN ENGLAND.Persons guilty of lesser crimes are usually either punished in the obscurity of a prison, or transported, as an example to nations who have given no offence, to a distant and therefore almost useless servitude. Since the gravest crimes are not those which men are tempted to commit on the spur of the moment, the public punishment of a great misdeed will be regarded by most men as strange and of impossible occurrence; but the public punishment of lighter crimes, to which men’s thoughts more readily incline, will make an impression, which, at the same time that it diverts the mind from them, will restrain it still more from crimes of greater gravity. Punishments should not only be proportioned to one another and to crimes in point of force, but also in the mode of their infliction.

It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But[67] even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years’ struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one)[39] of being defended by counsel.Count Pietro Verri was the son of Gabriel, who was distinguished alike for his legal knowledge and high position in Milan. At the house of Pietro, Beccaria and the other friends used to meet for the discussion and study of political and social questions. Alessandro, the younger brother of Pietro, held the office of ‘Protector of Prisoners,’ an office which consisted in visiting the prisons, listening to the grievances of the inmates, and discovering, if possible, reasons for their defence or for mercy. The distressing sights he[10] was witness of in this capacity are said to have had the most marked effect upon him; and there is no doubt that this fact caused the attention of the friends to be so much directed to the state of the penal laws. It is believed to have been at the instigation of the two brothers that Beccaria undertook the work which was destined to make his name so famous.

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In order that a punishment may attain its object, it is enough if the evil of the punishment exceeds the advantage of the crime, and in this excess of evil the certainty of punishment and the loss of the possible advantage from the crime ought to be considered as part; all beyond this is superfluous and consequently tyrannical. Men regulate their conduct by the reiterated impression of evils they know, not by reason of evils they ignore. Given two nations, in one of which, in the scale of punishments proportioned[167] to the scale of crimes, the severest penalty is perpetual servitude, and in the other the wheel; I say that the former will have as great a dread of its severest punishment as the latter will have; and if there be any reason for transporting to the former country the greater penalties of the other, the same reasoning will serve for increasing still more the penalties of this latter country, passing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slowest and most elaborate tortures, nay, even to the last refinements of that science which tyrants understand only too well.Others again measure crimes rather by the rank of the person injured than by their importance in regard to the public weal. Were this the true measure of crimes, any act of irreverence towards the Supreme Being should be punished more severely than the assassination of a monarch, whereas the superiority of His nature affords an infinite compensation for the difference of the offence.The following is the kind of reasoning adopted[175] by the thief or the assassin, whose only motives for not breaking the laws are the gallows or the wheel. (I know that the analysis of one’s own thoughts is an art only learnt by education, but a thief does not the less act according to certain principles because he is unable to express them). ‘Of what sort,’ he argues, ‘are these laws that I am bound to observe, that leave so great an interval between myself and the rich man? He denies me the penny I ask of him, and excuses himself by ordering from me a work of which he himself knows nothing. Who has made these laws? Were they not made by rich and powerful men, who have never deigned to visit the wretched hovels of the poor, who have never divided a musty loaf of bread amid the innocent cries of famished children and the tears of a wife? Let us break these bonds, which are fatal to the greater number, and only useful to a few indolent tyrants; let us attack injustice in its source. I will return to my state of natural independence; I will live for some time happy and free on the fruits of my courage and address; and if the day should ever come when I have to suffer and repent for it, the time of suffering will be short, and I shall have one day of misery for many years of liberty and pleasure. As the king of a small band, I will correct the errors of fortune, and see these tyrants pale and tremble before one, whom in their insolent arrogance they rated lower than their[176] horses or their dogs.’ Then religion hovers before the mind of the criminal, who turns everything to a bad use, and offering him a facile repentance and an almost certain eternity of bliss does much to diminish in his eyes the horror of that last tragedy of all.

If pleasure and pain are the motors of sensitive beings, if the invisible lawgiver of humanity has decreed rewards and punishments as one of the motives to impel men to even their noblest endeavours, the inexact distribution of these motives will give rise to that contradiction, as little noticed as it is of common occurrence, namely, that the laws punish crimes which are entirely of their own creation. If an equal penalty is attached to two crimes of unequal injury to society, the greater crime of the two, if it promise a greater advantage than the other, will have no stronger motive in restraint of its perpetration.[197] Whoever, for example, sees the same punishment of death decreed for the man who kills a pheasant and the man who slays his fellow or falsifies an important document, will draw no distinction between such crimes; and thus moral sentiments, the product only of many ages and of much bloodshed, the slowest and most difficult attainment of the human mind, dependent, it has been thought, on the aid of the most sublime motives and on a parade of the gravest formalities, will be destroyed and lost.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?

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