It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when he published his ‘Treatise on Human Nature,’ nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his ‘Principles of Human Knowledge.’ The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.Capital punishment being less general in the world now than torture was when Beccaria wrote, it seems to be a fair logical inference that it is already far advanced towards its total disappearance. For the same argument which Voltaire applied in the case of torture cannot fail sooner or later to be applied to capital punishment. ‘If,’ he says, ‘there were but one nation in the world which had abolished the use of torture; and if in that nation crimes were no more frequent than in others, … its example would be surely sufficient for the rest of the world. England alone might instruct all other nations in this particular; but England is not the only nation. Torture has been abolished in other countries, and with success; the question, therefore, is decided.’ If in this argument we read capital punishment instead of torture, murders instead of crimes, and Portugal instead of England, we shall best appreciate that which is after all the strongest argument against capital punishment, namely, that it has been proved unnecessary for its professed object in so many countries that it might safely be relinquished in all.
But it is probable that Beccaria owed his escape from persecution less to his apology than to the liberal protection of Count Firmian, who in his report of the affair to the Court of Vienna spoke of the Risposta as ‘full of moderation and honourable to the character of its author.’ That the Count fully agreed with Beccaria’s opinions on torture is proved by a letter he wrote, in which he declares himself to have been much pleased with what Beccaria had said on the subject. His vanity, he said, had been flattered by it, for his own feelings about torture had always been the same. The book seemed to him written with much love of humanity and much imagination. Beccaria always acknowledged his gratitude to the Count for his action in this matter. To Morellet he wrote, that he owed the Count his tranquillity, in having protected his book; and when, a few years later, he published his book on Style, he dedicated it to Firmian as his benefactor, thanking him for having scattered the clouds that envy and ignorance had gathered thickly over his head, and for having protected one whose only object had been to declare with the greatest caution and respect the interests of humanity.
It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.That the punishments of long custody by which we now defend our lives and properties are out of all proportion to the real needs of social existence is indicated by such a fact as that no increase of crime used to attend the periodical release of prisoners which was for long, if it is not still, customary in Russia at the beginning of each reign. Neither in India, when on the Queen’s assumption of the title of Empress, a pardon was granted to about one-tenth of the prison population, did any increase of crime ensue, as, according to all criminal reasoning, it should have done, if the safety of society depends on the custody of the criminal class. In Sweden a low rate of crime seems to be a direct consequence of a low scale of punishment. Of those condemned to travaux forcés, which may vary from a period of two months to a period for life, 64 per cent. are condemned for one year, and only 3 per cent. are condemned for seven years; whilst sentences to the latter period in England form between 50 and 60 per cent. of the sentences to penal servitude.
Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, ‘We must consult the spirit of the laws.’ It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of view—a different one at different times; so that ‘the spirit of the laws’ would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizen’s fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.Who, then, will be the rightful interpreter of the laws? Will it be the sovereign, the trustee of the actual wills of all, or the judge, whose sole function it is to examine whether such and such a man has committed an illegal act or not?There are some crimes which, are at the same time frequent in society and yet difficult to prove, as adultery, pederasty, infanticide.
The most successful adoption of Beccaria’s principles of punishment occurred in Tuscany, under the Grand Duke Leopold. When he ascended the ducal throne, the Tuscans were the most abandoned people of all Italy. Robberies and murders were none the less frequent for all the gallows, wheels, and tortures which were employed to repress them. But Leopold in 1786 resolved to try Beccaria’s plan, for which purpose he published a code, proportioning punishments to crimes, abolishing mutilation and torture, reducing the number of acts of treason, lessening confiscations, destroying the right of asylum, and above all abolishing capital punishment even for murder. The result was, says a contemporary, that Tuscany, from having been the land of the greatest crimes and villanies, became ‘the best ordered State of Europe.’ During twenty years only five murders were committed in Tuscany, whilst at Rome, where death continued to be inflicted with great pomp, as many as sixty were committed within the space of three months.But it is probable that Beccaria owed his escape from persecution less to his apology than to the liberal protection of Count Firmian, who in his report of the affair to the Court of Vienna spoke of the Risposta as ‘full of moderation and honourable to the character of its author.’ That the Count fully agreed with Beccaria’s opinions on torture is proved by a letter he wrote, in which he declares himself to have been much pleased with what Beccaria had said on the subject. His vanity, he said, had been flattered by it, for his own feelings about torture had always been the same. The book seemed to him written with much love of humanity and much imagination. Beccaria always acknowledged his gratitude to the Count for his action in this matter. To Morellet he wrote, that he owed the Count his tranquillity, in having protected his book; and when, a few years later, he published his book on Style, he dedicated it to Firmian as his benefactor, thanking him for having scattered the clouds that envy and ignorance had gathered thickly over his head, and for having protected one whose only object had been to declare with the greatest caution and respect the interests of humanity.
It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.
The right to ask such a question derives itself from recent experience. In 1853 the country decided to shorten terms of penal servitude as compared with those of the then expiring system of transportation, for which they were to be substituted. Four years later it was resolved to equalise terms of penal servitude with those formerly given of transportation, though transportation for seven years was still to have its equivalent in three of penal servitude. Then came the garrotting year, 1862, in consequence of which the minimum term of penal servitude was raised to five years, whilst no sentence of penal servitude, after a previous conviction of felony, was to be for less than seven years. Now again the tide has turned in favour of shorter sentences, and it is officially proposed to relinquish the latter minimum of servitude as too severe, and as leading in practice to sentences of simple imprisonment, which on the other hand are declared to be too slight.It would be possible to distinguish a case of fraud from a grave fault, a grave fault from a light one, and this again from perfect innocence; then to affix to the first the penalties due for crimes of falsification; to the second lesser penalties, but with the loss of personal liberty; and, reserving for the last degree the free choice of the means of recovery, to deprive the third degree of such liberty, whilst leaving it to a man’s creditors. But the distinction between grave and light should be fixed by the blind impartiality of the laws, not by the dangerous and arbitrary wisdom of a judge. The fixings of limits are as necessary in politics as in mathematics, equally in the measurement of the public welfare as in the measurement of magnitudes.
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?Is death a penalty really useful and necessary for the security and good order of society?
CHAPTER XXIII. PROPORTION BETWEEN CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS.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.详情
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