The very success of Beccaria’s work has so accustomed us to its result that we are apt to regard it, as men regard a splendid cathedral in their native town, with very little recognition of its claims to admiration. The work is there, they see it, they live under its shadow; they are even ready to boast of it; but what to them is the toil and risk of its builders, or the care and thought of its architects? It may be said that this indifference is the very consummation Beccaria would most have desired, as it is the most signal proof of the success of his labour. So signal, indeed, has been that success, that already the atrocities which men in those days accepted as among the unalterable conditions of their existence, or resigned themselves to as the necessary safeguards of society, have become so repulsive to the world’s memory, that men have agreed to hide them from their historical consciousness by seldom reading, writing, or speaking of their existence. And this is surely a fact to be remembered with hopefulness, when we hear an evil like war with all its attendant atrocities, defended nowadays by precisely the same arguments which little more than a hundred years ago were urged on behalf of torture, but which have proved nevertheless insufficient to keep it in existence.
Torture is a certain method for the acquittal of robust villains and for the condemnation of innocent but feeble men. See the fatal drawbacks of this pretended test of truth—a test, indeed, that is worthy of cannibals; a test which the Romans, barbarous as they too were in many respects, reserved for slaves alone, the victims of their fierce and too highly lauded virtue. Of two men, equally innocent or equally guilty, the robust and courageous will be acquitted, the weak and the timid will be condemned, by virtue of the following exact train of reasoning on the part of the judge: ‘I as judge had to find you guilty of such and such a crime; you, A B, have by your physical strength been able to resist pain, and therefore I acquit you; you, C D, in your weakness have yielded to it; therefore I condemn you. I feel that a confession extorted amid torments can have no force, but I will torture you afresh unless you corroborate what you have now confessed.’
I do not pretend to diminish the just wrath these crimes deserve; but, in indicating their sources, I think myself justified in drawing one general conclusion, and that is, that no punishment for a crime can be called exactly just—that is, necessary—so long as the law has not adopted the best possible means, in the circumstances of a country, to prevent the crimes it punishes.
But of far greater historical interest than such criticism is that of Ramsay, the Scotch poet and painter, to whom a copy of Beccaria’s treatise had been shown by Diderot, and who wrote a letter about it to the latter, which, though it contains some very just criticisms on Beccaria, yet reads for the most part very curiously by the light of subsequent history, and illustrates graphically the despair of all reform then felt by most men of reflection.
To return to the innocent bankrupt. Granting that his obligation should not be extinguishable by anything short of total payment; granting that he should not be suffered to withdraw from it without the consent of the parties interested, nor to transfer under the dominion of other laws his industry, which should perforce be employed, under penalties, to enable him to satisfy his creditors in proportion to his profits; what fair pretext, I ask, can there be, such as the security of commerce or the sacred right of property, to justify the deprivation of his liberty? Such a deprivation is only of use, when it is sought to discover the secrets of a supposed innocent bankrupt by the evils of servitude, a most unusual circumstance where a rigorous inquiry is instituted. I believe it to be a maxim in legislation, that the amount of political inconveniences varies directly in proportion to the injury they do the public, and inversely in proportion to the difficulty of their proof.Or to take a stronger case. A deserter from the ranks escapes to his home, breaks into it at night, robs an infirm father of all the savings he has provided for his old age, and in a struggle for their possession so injures him that he dies. Must the law disclaim all indignation, all resentment, in the punishment it inflicts, and say to such a ruffian that it only deals hard with him in order to warn others by his example, and with the pious hope of making a good man of him in the future? If resentment is ever just, is it wrong to give it public expression? If it is natural and right in private life, why should it be a matter of shame in public life? If there is such a thing as just anger for a single man, does it become unjust when distributed among a million?
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 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.Some crimes are injuries to a man’s person, others to his property, and the former should certainly be punished by corporal punishments.
Ramsay argues that the penal laws of a particular country can only be considered with reference to the needs of a particular country, and not in the abstract; that the government of a country will always enforce laws with a view to its own security; and that nothing less than a general revolution will ever make the holders of political power listen for a moment to the claims of philosophers.One thing that might be done, which would also serve at the same time to keep a prisoner’s family from want, the main source of crime, would be the formation of a Prisoners’ Fund, for his and their benefit. For this there is a precedent in a quite recent Act. For the Act, which abolished the forfeiture of a felon’s property, enabled the Crown to appoint an administrator of it, for the benefit of the persons injured by the crime and the felon’s family, the property itself and its income reverting ultimately to the convict or to his representatives. There could, however, be no objection in justice to the forfeiture of a proportionate part of every felon’s property, such forfeiture to be dedicated to the formation of a fund, out of which assistance should be given, both to the families of prisoners during their custody and to the prisoners themselves on their discharge. Such a fund might be still further increased by the substitution of a lien on a man’s wages or income for many minor offences now punished, but not prevented, by imprisonment.
Your letter has raised in me sentiments of the deepest esteem, of the greatest gratitude, and the most tender friendship; nor can I confess to you how honoured I feel at seeing my work translated into the language of a nation which is the mistress and illuminator of Europe. I owe everything to French books. They first raised in my mind feelings of humanity which had been suffocated by eight years of a fanatical education. I cannot express to you the pleasure with which I have read your translation; you have embellished the original, and your arrangement seems more natural than, and preferable to, my own. You had no need to fear offending the author’s vanity: in the first place, because a book that treats of the cause of humanity belongs, when once published, to the world and all nations equally; and as to myself in particular, I should have made little progress in the philosophy of the heart, which I place above that of the intellect, had I not acquired the courage to see and love the truth. I hope that the fifth edition, which will appear shortly, will be soon exhausted, and I assure you that in the sixth I will follow entirely, or nearly so, the arrangement of your translation, which places the truth in a better light than I have sought to place it in.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 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.
But should a man who is banished and excluded for ever from the society of which he was a member be also deprived of his property? Such a question may be regarded from different points of view. The loss of property is a greater punishment than banishment; there ought, therefore, to be some cases in which, according to his crime, a man should lose the whole, or part, or none of his property. The confiscation of the whole will occur, when the legal sentence of banishment is of a kind to annihilate all the ties that exist between society and its offending member; for in such a case the citizen dies, and only the man remains; and with regard to the political body civil death should produce the same effect as natural death. It would seem then that the confiscated property should pass to a man’s lawful heirs rather than to the head of the State, since death and banishment in its extreme form are the same with regard to the body politic. But it is not by this subtlety that I dare to disapprove of confiscations of property. If some have maintained that confiscations have acted as checks on acts of revenge and on the great power of individuals, it is from neglecting to consider that, however much good punishments may effect, they are not for that reason always just, because to be just they must be necessary; and an expedient injustice can be tolerated by no legislator, who wishes to close all doors against watchful tyranny, ever ready to hold out flattering hopes, by temporary advantages and by the prosperity of a few persons of celebrity, in disregard of future ruin and of the tears of numberless persons of obscurity. Confiscations place a price on the heads of the feeble, cause the innocent to suffer the punishment of the guilty, and make the commission of crimes a desperate necessity even for the innocent. What sadder sight can there be than that of a family dragged down to infamy and misery by the crimes of its head, unable to prevent them by the submission imposed on it by the laws, even supposing such prevention to have been within its power!
The multiplication of the human race, slight in the abstract, but far in excess of the means afforded by nature, barren and deserted as it originally was, for the satisfaction of men’s ever increasing wants, caused the first savages to associate together. The first unions necessarily led to others to oppose them, and so the state of war passed from individuals to nations.详情
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