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When the community is one of individuals, the subordination that prevails in the family prevails by agreement, not by compulsion; and the sons, as soon as their age withdraws them from their state of natural dependence, arising from their feebleness and their need of education and protection, become free members of the domestic commonwealth, subjecting themselves to its head, in order to share in its advantages, as free men do by society at large. In the other condition the sons—that is, the largest and most useful part of a nation—are placed altogether at the mercy of their fathers; but in this one there is no enjoined connection between them, beyond that sacred and inviolable one of the natural ministration of necessary aid, and that of gratitude for benefits received, which is less often destroyed by the native wickedness of the human heart than by a law-ordained and ill-conceived state of subjection.

It may be said that all such absurdities are past; that the Jews, the Athenians, the Chinese, the Europeans of the middle ages can scarcely be cited as reasonable beings; that they had no rational theory of punishment, and that their errors have been long since discarded. But at least their example suggests that even in our own system there may be inconsistencies and blemishes which custom and authority hide from our eyes.Another principle would serve admirably to draw still closer the important connection between a misdeed and its punishment, and that is, that the latter should as far as possible conform to the nature of the crime. This analogy facilitates marvellously the contrast that ought to exist between the impulse to[188] the crime and the counter-influence of the punishment, the one, that is, diverting the mind and guiding it to an end quite different from that to which the seductive idea of transgressing the law endeavours to lead it.Finally, a man who, when examined, persists in an obstinate refusal to answer, deserves a punishment[146] fixed by the laws, and one of the heaviest they can inflict, that men may not in this way escape the necessary example they owe to the public. But this punishment is not necessary when it is beyond all doubt that such a person has committed such a crime, questions being useless, in the same way that confession is, when other proofs sufficiently demonstrate guilt And this last case is the most usual, for experience proves that in the majority of trials the accused are wont to plead ‘Not guilty.’

CHAPTER XXXII. OF DEBTORS.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.

It is sometimes the custom to release a man from the punishment of a slight crime when the injured person pardons him: an act, indeed, which is in accordance with mercy and humanity but contrary to public policy; as if a private citizen could by his remission do away with the necessity of the example in the same way that he can excuse the reparation due for the offence. The right of punishing does not[190] rest with an individual, but with the community as a whole, or the sovereign. An individual can only renounce his particular portion of that right, not annul that of all the rest.A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly.

Why then did Pietro Verri not write it himself? The answer would seem to be, out of deference for the position and opinions of his father. It was some time later that Gabriel defended the use of torture in the Milanese Senate, and Pietro wrote a work on torture which he did not publish in his father’s lifetime. It was probably due also to the father’s position that Alessandro held his office of Protector of the Prisoners, so that there were obvious reasons which prevented either brother from undertaking the work in question.The lighting of a city by night at the public expense; the distribution of guards in the different quarters; simple moral discourses on religion, but only in the silent and holy quiet of churches, protected by public authority; speeches on behalf of private and public interests in national assemblies, parliaments, or wherever else the majesty of sovereignty resides—all these are efficacious means for preventing the dangerous condensation of popular passions. These means are a principal branch of that magisterial vigilance which the French call police; but if this is exercised by arbitrary laws, not laid down in a code of general circulation, a door is opened to tyranny,[221] which ever surrounds all the boundaries of political liberty. I find no exception to this general axiom, that ‘Every citizen ought to know when his actions are guilty or innocent.’ If censors, and arbitrary magistrates in general, are necessary in any government, it is due to the weakness of its constitution, and is foreign to the nature of a well organised government. More victims have been sacrificed to obscure tyranny by the uncertainty of their lot than by public and formal cruelty, for the latter revolts men’s minds more than it abases them. The true tyrant always begins by mastering opinion, the precursor of courage; for the latter can only show itself in the clear light of truth, in the fire of passion, or in ignorance of danger.Accordingly he made a rapid journey back, leaving his companion to visit England alone; this expedition to Paris being the only event that ever broke the even tenor of his life. His French friends rather deserted him, Morellet in his memoirs going even so far as to speak of him as half-mad. But it was to his[25] friendship with the Verris that this journey to Paris was most disastrous, and nothing is more mournful than the petty jealousies which henceforth completely estranged from him his early friends. The fault seems to have rested mainly with the two brothers, whose letters (only recently published) reveal an amount of bitterness against Beccaria for which it is difficult to find any justification, and which disposes for ever of all claims of their writers to any real nobleness of character.[9] They complain to one another of Beccaria’s Parisian airs, of his literary pride, of his want of gratitude; they rejoice to think that his reputation is on the wane; that his illustrious friends at Paris send him no copies of their books; that he gets no letters from Paris; nay, they even go so far as to welcome the adverse criticisms of his ‘Dei Delitti,’ and to hope that his ‘golden book’ is shut up for ever.[10] Alessandro writes to his brother that all his thoughts are turned to the means of mortifying Beccaria; and the revenge the brothers think most likely to humiliate him is for Alessandro to extend the limits of his travels, so as to compare favourably with Beccaria in the eyes of the Milanese. They delight in calling him a madman, an imbecile, a harlequin; they lend a ready ear to all that gossip says in his[26] discredit.[11] In the most trifling action Pietro sees an intended slight, and is especially sore where his literary ambition is touched.[12] It angers him that Beccaria should receive praise for the Apology written against Facchinei, the work having been entirely written by himself, with some help from his brother, but with not so much as a comma from the hand of Beccaria.[13] Some books which Beccaria had brought to him from Paris he imagined were really gifts to him from the authors; he believed that D’Alembert had sent him his ‘Mélanges’ of his own accord, not at the request of Beccaria, as the latter had represented; but even Alessandro admits that it was concerning the books, as Beccaria had said.[14] In short, the whole correspondence shows that Pietro Verri was extremely jealous of the success which he himself had helped his friend to attain, and that disappointed literary vanity was the real explanation of his suddenly transmuted affection.

What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away[178] coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’CHAPTER IX. SECRET ACCUSATIONS.

[49]There are some crimes which are at the same time of common occurrence and of difficult proof. In them the difficulty of proof is equivalent to a probability of innocence; and the harm of their impunity being so much the less to be considered as their frequency depends on principles other than the risk of punishment, the time for inquiry and the period of prescription ought both to be proportionately less. Yet[161] cases of adultery and pederasty, both of difficult proof, are precisely those in which, according to received principles, tyrannical presumptions of quasi-proofs and half-proofs are allowed to prevail (as if a man could be half-innocent or half-guilty, in other words, half-punishable or half-acquittable); in which torture exercises its cruel sway over the person of the accused, over the witnesses, and even over the whole family of an unfortunate wretch, according to the coldly wicked teaching of some doctors of law, who set themselves up as the rule and standard for judges to follow.


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Another way to prevent crimes is to reward virtue. On this head I notice a general silence in the laws of all nations to this day. If prizes offered by academies to the discoverers of useful truths have caused the multiplication of knowledge and of good books, why should not virtuous actions also be multiplied, by prizes distributed from the munificence of the sovereign? The money of honour ever remains unexhausted and fruitful in the hands of the legislator who wisely distributes it.I conclude with this reflection, that the scale of punishments should be relative to the condition of a nation. On the hardened minds of a people scarcely emerged from the savage state the impressions made should be stronger and more sensible. One needs a[169] thunderbolt for the destruction of a fierce lion that faces round at the shot of a gun. But in proportion as men’s minds become softened in the social state, their sensibility increases, and commensurate with that increase should be the diminution of the force of punishment, if it be desired to maintain any proportion between the object and the sensation that attends it.

The following especially is from Beccaria:—


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