We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which are or ought to be covenants between free men, have generally been nothing but the instrument of the passions of some few men, or the result of some accidental and temporary necessity. They have never been dictated by an unimpassioned student of human nature, able to concentrate the actions of a multitude of men to a single point of view, and to consider them from that point alone—the greatest happiness divided among the greatest number. Happy are those few nations which have not waited for the slow movement of human combinations and changes to cause an approach to better things, after intolerable evils, but have hastened the intermediate steps by good laws; and deserving is that philosopher of the gratitude of mankind, who had the courage, from the obscurity of his despised study, to scatter abroad among the people the first seeds, so long fruitless, of useful truths.
Thus it has come about that, after steady opposition and fierce conflict, English law finds itself at the very point which Johnson and Goldsmith had attained a hundred years before; so true is it, as Beccaria has said, that the enlightenment of a nation is always a century in advance of its practice. The victory has conclusively been with the ultra-philosophers, as they were once called, with the speculative humanitarians, for whom good Lord Ellenborough had so honest a contempt. Paley’s philosophy has long since been forgotten, and if it affords any lesson at all, it lies chiefly in a comparison between his gloomy predictions and the actual results of the changes he deprecated. The practical and professional school of law has yielded on all the most important points to the dissolving influence of Beccaria’s treatise; and the growing demand for increasing the security of human life by the institution of a penalty, more effective because more certain, than that at present in force, points to the still further triumph of Beccaria’s principles, likely before long to mark the progress of his influence in England.The majority of mankind lack that vigour which is equally necessary for the greatest crimes as for the greatest virtues; whence it would appear, that both extremes are contemporaneous phenomena in nations which depend rather on the energy of their government and of the passions that tend to the public good, than on their size and the constant goodness of their laws. In the latter the weakened passions seem more adapted to maintain than to improve the form of government. From which flows an important consequence, namely, that great crimes in a nation do not always prove its decline.
Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.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.
Again, Proportion between crime and punishment seems to be another natural demand of equity. Yet it is evident that it is only approximately possible, and will vary in every age and country according to the prevalent notions of morality. Is imprisonment for a year, or imprisonment for life, or for how long, a fair and proportionate punishment for perjury? Who shall decide? Shall we submit it to the opinion of the judges? But has not Romilly left on record the story of the two men tried by two different judges for stealing some chickens, who were sentenced respectively one to imprisonment for two months, and the other to transportation? Shall we then give up all attempt at proportion and apply the same deterrent as equally efficacious against slight or grave offences? Draco, when asked why he made death the punishment for most offences that were possible, is said to have replied, ‘Small ones deserve it, and I can find no greater for the gravest.’ The same reasoning was for a long time that of our own law; and in Japan, where every wrong act was one of disobedience to the Emperor, and accordingly of equal value, the same penalty of death for gambling, theft, or murder, obviated all difficulties with regard to a proportion which is easier to imagine than it is to define.
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.
Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.
The Translator has abstained from all criticism or comment of the original, less from complete agreement[vi] with all its ideas than from the conviction that annotations are more often vexatious than profitable, and are best left to the reader to make for himself. There is scarcely a sentence in the book on which a commentator might not be prolix.
But of far greater historical interest than such criticism is that of Ramsay, the Scotch poet and painter, to whom a copy of Beccaria’s treatise had been shown by Diderot, and who wrote a letter about it to the latter, which, though it contains some very just criticisms on Beccaria, yet reads for the most part very curiously by the light of subsequent history, and illustrates graphically the despair of all reform then felt by most men of reflection.
The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a man’s air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.The second question is, whether it is expedient to place a reward on the head of a known criminal, and to make of every citizen an executioner by arming him against the offender. Either the criminal has fled from his country or he is still within it. In the first case the sovereign encourages the commission of a crime and exposes its author to a punishment, being thereby guilty of an injury and of an usurpation of authority in the dominions of another, and authorising other nations to do the same by himself. In the second case the sovereign displays his own weakness, for he who has the power wherewith to defend himself seeks not to purchase it. Moreover, such an edict upsets all ideas of morality and virtue, which are ever ready to vanish from the human mind at the very slightest breath. Now the laws invite to treachery, and anon they punish it; with one hand the legislator tightens the bonds of the family, of kindred, and of friendship, whilst with the other he rewards whosoever violates and despises them; always in self-contradiction, he at one moment invites to confidence the suspicious natures of men, and at another scatters mistrust broadcast among them. Instead of preventing one crime, he causes a hundred. These are the resources of weak nations, whose laws are but the temporary repairs of a ruined building that totters throughout. In proportion as a nation becomes enlightened, good faith and mutual confidence become necessary, and tend ever more to identify themselves with true policy. Tricks, intrigues, dark and indirect paths, are for the most part foreseen, and the general quickness of all men collectively over-reaches and blunts that of single individuals. The very ages of ignorance, in which public morality inclines men to obey the dictates of private morality, serve as instruction and experience for the ages of enlightenment. But laws which reward treachery and stir up clandestine hostility by spreading mutual suspicion among citizens, are opposed to this union of private and public morality, a union which is so necessary, and to the observance of which individuals might owe their happiness, nations their peace, and the universe a somewhat longer period of quiet and repose from the evils which at present pervade it.Laws should only be considered as a means of conducting mankind to the greatest happiness.详情
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