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What influence have they on customs?Barbarous spectacles were, Paley thought, justly found fault with, as tending to demoralise public feeling. ‘But,’ he continued, ‘if a mode of execution could be devised which would augment the horror of the punishment, without offending or impairing the public sensibility by cruel or unseemly exhibitions of death, it might add something to the efficacy of[57] example; and by being reserved for a few atrocious crimes might also enlarge the scale of punishment, an addition to which seems wanting, for as the matter remains at present you hang a malefactor for a simple robbery, and can do no more to the villain who has poisoned his father. Something of the sort we have been describing was the proposal, not long since suggested, of casting murderers into a den of wild beasts, where they would perish in a manner dreadful to the imagination, yet concealed from the view.’ It is interesting after this to learn, that Paley thought torture properly exploded from ‘the mild and cautious system of penal jurisprudence established in this country,’ and that (to do him justice) he urged private persons to be tender in prosecuting, out of regard for the difficulty of prisoners to obtain an honest means of livelihood after their discharge.

CHAPTER III. THE INFLUENCE OF BECCARIA IN ENGLAND.The result, then, of torture is a matter of temperament, of calculation, which varies with each man according[152] to his strength and sensibility; so that by this method a mathematician might solve better than a judge this problem: ‘Given the muscular force and the nervous sensibility of an innocent man, to find the degree of pain which will cause him to plead guilty to a given crime.’

CHAPTER IV. INTERPRETATION OF THE LAWS.The greatest effect that any punishment has upon the human mind is not to be measured by its intensity but by its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and permanently affected by very slight but repeated impressions than by a strong but brief shock. Habit holds universal sway over every sentient being, and as we speak and walk and satisfy our needs by its aid, so moral ideas only stamp themselves on our mind by long and repeated impressions. It is not the terrible yet brief sight of a criminal’s death, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of[172] his liberty, who, having become as it were a beast of burthen, repays with his toil the society he has offended, which is the strongest restraint from crimes. Far more potent than the fear of death, which men ever have before their eyes in the remote distance, is the thought, so efficacious from its constant recurrence: ‘I myself shall be reduced to as long and miserable a condition if I commit similar misdeeds.’

There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.[180]

CHAPTER XI. OATHS.It is not easy in the days of a milder administration of penal laws than a century ago the most sanguine could have dreamed of to do full justice to those who laboured, as Beccaria and his friends did, at the peril of their lives and liberties, for those very immunities which we now enjoy. We cannot conceive that it should ever have been necessary to argue against torture, or that it should have been a bold thing to do so; still less can we conceive that it should ever have had its defenders, or that men should have been contented with the sophism, that it was indeed an evil, but an evil which was necessary and inevitable.CHAPTER XI. OATHS.

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?Even when Paris was reached, and Beccaria and Alessandro were warmly welcomed by D’Alembert, Morellet, Diderot, and Baron Holbach, the homesickness remained. ‘You would not believe,’ says Beccaria to his wife, ‘the welcomes, the politeness, the demonstrations of friendship and esteem, which they have shown to me and my companion. Diderot, Baron Holbach, and D’Alembert especially enchant us. The latter is a superior man, and most simple at the same time. Diderot displays enthusiasm and good humour in all he does. In short, nothing is wanting to me but yourself. All do their best to please me, and those who do so are the greatest men in Europe. All of them deign to listen to me, and no one shows the slightest air of superiority.’ Yet[24] Morellet tells us that even on arrival Beccaria was so absorbed in melancholy, that it was difficult to get four consecutive words from his mouth.1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on another—that is to say, when each single proof rests on[135] 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.

Of all the attacks which the publication of the ‘Dei Delitti’ provoked, the bitterest came naturally from a theological pen. At the very time that Beccaria’s work appeared, the Republic of Venice was occupied in a violent contest touching the Inquisitorial Council of Ten; and imagining that Beccaria’s remarks about secret accusations had been directed against the procedure of their famous[16] tribunal, whilst they attributed the work to a Venetian nobleman called Quirini, they forbade its circulation under pain of death. It was on their behalf and with this belief that the Dominican Padre, Facchinei, took up his pen and wrote a book, entitled, ‘Notes and Observations on the “Dei Delitti,”’ in which he argued, among other things, not only that secret accusations were the best, cheapest, and most effective method of carrying out justice, but that torture was a kind of mercy to a criminal, purging him in his death from the sin of falsehood.We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which[118] 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.


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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.What can be thought of an author who presumes to establish his system on the débris of all hitherto accepted notions, who to accredit it condemns all civilised nations, and who spares neither systems of law, nor magistrates, nor lawyers?It is against crimes affecting the person that punishments are most desirable and their vindictive character most justly displayed. Personal violence calls for personal detention or personal chastisement;[102] and the principle of analogy in punishment is most appropriate in the case of a man who maltreats his wife or abuses his strength against any weakness greater than his own. Punishment in such cases is a demand of natural justice, whether anyone is affected by the example or not, and whether or not the man himself is improved by it. Not only is it the best means of enforcing that personal security which is one of the main functions of the State, but it is an expression of that sense of moral reprobation which is so necessary to the good order of society.

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