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There are some crimes which, are at the same time frequent in society and yet difficult to prove, as adultery, pederasty, infanticide.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.’Even the idea of public utility as the final test and standard of morality is derived from Beccaria, and the famous expression, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ occurs, in capital letters, in the very first page of the ‘Delitti e delle Pene.’[30] Bentham himself fully acknowledged this. ‘Priestley was the first,’ he says, ‘unless it was Beccaria, who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth: that the[47] greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and happiness.’ And with reference to his idea of the measurable value of different pains and pleasures, he says: ‘It was from Beccaria’s little treatise on Crimes and Punishments that I drew, as I well remember, the first hint of this principle, by which the precision and clearness and incontestableness of mathematical calculations are introduced for the first time into the field of morals.

CHAPTER XVII. BANISHMENT AND CONFISCATIONS.CHAPTER VII. PROOFS AND FORMS OF JUDGMENT.To examine and distinguish all the different sorts[120] of crimes and the manner of punishing them would now be our natural task, were it not that their nature, which varies with the different circumstances of times and places, would compel us to enter upon too vast and wearisome a mass of detail. But it will suffice to indicate the most general principles and the most pernicious and common errors, in order to undeceive no less those who, from a mistaken love of liberty, would introduce anarchy, than those who would be glad to reduce their fellow-men to the uniform regularity of a convent.

Frederick the Great had already abolished it in Prussia;[1] it had been discontinued in Sweden; it was not recognised in the military codes of Europe, and Beccaria said it was not in use in England. This was true generally, although the peine forte et dure, by which a prisoner who would not plead was subjected to be squeezed nearly to death by an iron weight, was not abolished till the year 1771.[2]

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[68] 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.But there was one great fallacy, pervading our whole criminal law, which Blackstone left undetected and untouched. This was, that the severity of punishment must be augmented in proportion to the increase of temptation, and that the measure of the guilt of a crime lay in the facility with which it might be committed. ‘Among crimes of an equal malignity,’ says Blackstone, ‘those [deserve most punishment, as most injurious] which a man has the most frequent and easy opportunities of committing, which cannot so easily be guarded against as others, and which, therefore, the offender has the strongest inducement to commit.’ And on this principle he finds it reasonable, that, while the theft of a pocket-handkerchief should be a capital crime, the theft of a load of hay should only involve transportation.[22]

Beccaria would certainly have done better not to[23] 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.Yet, supposing it were proved to-morrow that punishment fails entirely of the ends imputed to it; that, for example, the greater number of crimes are[80] committed by criminals who have been punished already; that for one chance of a man’s reformation during his punishment there are a hundred in favour of his deterioration; and that the deterrent influence of his punishment is altogether removed by his own descriptions of it; shall we suppose for a moment that society would cease to punish, on the ground that punishment attained none of its professed ends? Would it say to the horse-stealer, ‘Keep your horse, for nothing we can do to you can make you any better, nor deter others from trying to get horses in the same way?’

Romilly also injured his cause by a pamphlet on the criminal law, in which he criticised severely the doctrines of Paley. So strongly was this resented, that in 1810 his bill to abolish capital punishment for stealing forty shillings from a dwelling-house did not even pass the Commons, being generally opposed, as it was by Windham, because the maintenance of Paley’s reputation was regarded as a great object of national concern.[37] That is to say, men voted not so much against the bill as against the author of a heresy against Paley.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[4] 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.

Wise governments suffer not political idleness in the midst of work and industry. I mean by political idleness that existence which contributes nothing to society either by its work or by its wealth; which gains without ever losing; which, stupidly admired and reverenced by the vulgar, is regarded by the wise man with disdain, and with pity for the beings who are its victims; which, being destitute of that stimulus of an active life, the necessity of preserving or increasing[222] the store of worldly goods, leaves to the passions of opinion, not the least strong ones, all their energy. This kind of idleness has been confused by austere declaimers with that of riches, gathered by industry; but it is not for the severe and narrow virtue of some censors, but for the laws, to define what is punishable idleness. He is not guilty of political idleness, who enjoys the fruits of the virtues or vices of his ancestors and sells in exchange for his pleasures bread and existence to the industrious poor, who carry on peacefully the silent war of industry against wealth, instead of by force a war uncertain and sanguinary. The latter kind of idleness is necessary and useful, in proportion as society becomes wider and its government more strict.Judgment must be nothing but the precise text of the law, and the office of the judge is only to pronounce whether the action is contrary or conformable to it.

PREFACE.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.Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view.

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It will be said, of course, that the practice of giving increased sentences where there have been previous convictions prevails all over the world and in all[90] states of civilisation. But in that very fact lies the strength of the argument against it. By the Roman law a third case of theft, however slight, exposed a man to death.[48] By the laws of St. Louis the man who stole a thing of trifling value lost an ear the first time, a foot the second, and was hung the third. By the criminal code of Sardinia in the fifteenth century, asses were condemned to lose one ear the first time they trespassed on a field not their master’s, and their second ear for a second offence. But enough of such instances. The practice is undoubtedly universal; but so at one time were ordeals and tortures. May not, then, the practice be, like them, part and parcel of a crude state of law, such as was unavoidable in its emergence to better things, but such as it is worth some effort to escape from?


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