There was little of eventfulness in Beccaria’s life, and the only episode in it of interest was his visit to Paris in 1766. Thither he and his friend Pietro had been invited by Morellet, in the name of the philosophers at Paris, and thither he started in October 1766; not with Pietro, who could not leave Milan, but with Alessandro Verri, on a journey which was to include London as well as Paris, and was to occupy in all a period of six months.
A strong feeling against the pillory was aroused by the sentence passed against Lord Cochrane in 1814, by which, for supposed complicity in a plot to raise the price of the Funds, he was condemned to a year’s imprisonment, to a fine of 1000l., and to stand in the pillory. A bill for the abolition of the pillory accordingly passed the Commons the very next year, but Lord Ellenborough succeeded again in bringing the Upper House to a pause: the pillory forsooth was as old as 1269; it was spoken of by the old historians; it was not confined to this country, for Du Cange spoke of it on the Continent. For these reasons the pillory remained a legal punishment down to the first year of the present reign.
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.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 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?Beccaria would certainly have done better not to have gone to Paris at all. His letters to his wife during his absence show that he was miserable all the time. In every letter he calculates the duration of time that will elapse before his return, and there is an even current of distress and affection running through all the descriptions of his journey. The assurance is frequent that but for making himself ridiculous he would return at once. From Lyons he writes that he is in a state of the deepest melancholy; that even the French theatre he had so much looked forward to fails to divert him; and he begs his wife to prepare people for his speedy return by telling them that the air of France has a bad effect on his health.
In view of these principles it will appear strange (to anyone who does not reflect, that reason has, so to speak, never yet legislated for a nation), that it is just the most atrocious crimes or the most secret and chimerical ones—that is, those of the least probability—which are proved by conjectures or by the weakest and most equivocal proofs: as if it were the interest of the laws and of the judge, not to search for the truth, but to find out the crime; as if the danger of condemning an innocent man were not so much the greater, the greater the probability of his innocence over that of his guilt.
These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminal’s relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pig’s.It certainly should moderate our reverence for ancestral wisdom to find even a man like Fielding, the novelist, speaking, in his Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, of the pillory and the loss of a man’s ears as ‘an extremely mild’ punishment for a bad case of libel, or declaring our punishments of that time to be ‘the mildest and most void of terror of any other in the known world.’ Yet Fielding recognised several of the true principles of punishment. He attributed the increase of crime to the great abuse of pardons, which, he said, had brought many more men to the gallows than they had saved from it. He also advocated the diminution of the number of executions, their greater privacy and solemnity, whilst he recommended their following as closely as possible on conviction, that pity for the criminal might be lost in detestation for his crime.
It is not useless to repeat what others have written, namely, that the best method of preventing this crime is to punish the aggressor—in other words, the man who gives rise to the duel—declaring him to be innocent who without his own fault has been constrained to defend that which existing laws do not assure to him, that is, opinion.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.
Torture, again, is inflicted upon an accused man in order to discover his accomplices in crime. But if it is proved that it is not a fitting method for the discovery of truth, how will it serve to disclose accomplices, which is part of the truth to be discovered? As if a man who accuses himself would not more readily accuse others. And is it just to torment men for the crimes of others? Will not the accomplices be disclosed from the examination of the witnesses and of the accused, from the proofs and whole circumstances of the crime; in sum, from all those very means which should serve to convict the accused himself of guilt? Accomplices generally fly immediately after the capture of a companion; the uncertainty of their lot of itself condemns them to exile, and frees the country from the danger of fresh offences from them; whilst the punishment of the criminal who is caught attains its precise object, namely, the averting of other men by terror from a similar crime.
If I am confronted with the example of almost all ages and almost all nations who have inflicted the punishment of death upon some crimes, I will reply, that the example avails nothing before truth, against which there is no prescription of time; and that the history of mankind conveys to us the idea of an immense sea of errors, among which a few truths, confusedly and at long intervals, float on the surface. Human sacrifices were once common to almost all nations, yet who for that reason will dare defend them? That some few states, and for a short time only, should have abstained from inflicting death, rather favours my argument than otherwise, because such a fact is in keeping with the lot of all great truths, whose duration is but as of a lightning flash in comparison with the long and darksome night that envelops mankind. That happy time has not yet arrived when truth, as error has hitherto done, shall belong to the majority of men; and from this universal law of the reign of error those truths alone have hitherto been exempt, which supreme wisdom has seen fit to distinguish from others, by making them the subject of a special revelation.
The opponents of capital punishment may fairly, therefore, draw an argument in their favour from the fact that so many parts of the world have found it not incompatible with the general security of life to erase the death penalty from their list of deterrent agencies. It is better to rely on so plain a fact than on statistics which, like two-edged weapons, often cut both ways. The frequency of executions in one country and their total absence in another may severally coexist with great numerical equality in the number of murders committed in each. It is always better, therefore, to look for some other cause for a given number of murders than the kind of punishment directed to their repression. They may depend on a thousand other things, which it is difficult to ascertain or eliminate. Thus both in Bavaria, where capital punishment has been retained, and in Switzerland, where it had been abolished in 1874, murders have increased greatly in recent years; and this fact has, with great probability, been attributed to the influence of bad habits contracted during the Franco-German war.
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.详情
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