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.The death penalty therefore is not a right; I have proved that it cannot be so; but it is a war of a nation against one of its members, because his annihilation is deemed necessary and expedient. But if I can show that his death is neither necessary nor expedient, I shall have won the cause of humanity.
In the ordinary state of society the death of a citizen is neither useful nor necessary.
A man cannot be called guilty before sentence has been passed on him by a judge, nor can society deprive him of its protection till it has been decided that he has broken the condition on which it was granted. What, then, is that right but one of mere might by which a judge is empowered to inflict a punishment on a citizen whilst his guilt or innocence are still undetermined? The following dilemma is no new one: either the crime is certain or uncertain; if certain, no other punishment is suitable for it than that affixed to it by law; and torture is useless, for the same reason that the criminal’s confession is useless. If it is uncertain, it is wrong to torture an innocent person, such as the law adjudges him to be, whose crimes are not yet proved.Whosoever disturbs the public peace, or obeys not the laws, that is, the conditions under which men bear with and defend one another, ought to be excluded from society, that is, to be banished from it.
From this we see how useful is the art of printing, which makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians of the sacred laws, and which has scattered that dark spirit of cabal and intrigue, destined to disappear before knowledge and the sciences, which, however apparently despised, are in reality feared by those that follow in their wake. This is the reason that we see in Europe the diminution of those atrocious crimes that afflicted our ancestors and rendered them by turns tyrants or slaves. Whoever knows the history of two or three centuries ago and of our own, can see that from the lap of luxury and effeminacy have sprung the most pleasing of all human virtues, humanity, charity, and the toleration of human errors; he will know what have been the results of that which is so wrongly called ‘old-fashioned simplicity and honesty.’ Humanity groaning under implacable superstition; the avarice and ambition of a few dyeing with human blood the golden chests and thrones of kings; secret assassinations and public massacres; every noble a tyrant to the people; the ministers of the Gospel truth polluting with blood hands that every day came in contact with the God of mercy—these are not the works of this enlightened age, which some, however, call corrupt.
The following is the kind of reasoning adopted by the thief or the assassin, whose only motives for not breaking the laws are the gallows or the wheel. (I know that the analysis of one’s own thoughts is an art only learnt by education, but a thief does not the less act according to certain principles because he is unable to express them). ‘Of what sort,’ he argues, ‘are these laws that I am bound to observe, that leave so great an interval between myself and the rich man? He denies me the penny I ask of him, and excuses himself by ordering from me a work of which he himself knows nothing. Who has made these laws? Were they not made by rich and powerful men, who have never deigned to visit the wretched hovels of the poor, who have never divided a musty loaf of bread amid the innocent cries of famished children and the tears of a wife? Let us break these bonds, which are fatal to the greater number, and only useful to a few indolent tyrants; let us attack injustice in its source. I will return to my state of natural independence; I will live for some time happy and free on the fruits of my courage and address; and if the day should ever come when I have to suffer and repent for it, the time of suffering will be short, and I shall have one day of misery for many years of liberty and pleasure. As the king of a small band, I will correct the errors of fortune, and see these tyrants pale and tremble before one, whom in their insolent arrogance they rated lower than their horses or their dogs.’ Then religion hovers before the mind of the criminal, who turns everything to a bad use, and offering him a facile repentance and an almost certain eternity of bliss does much to diminish in his eyes the horror of that last tragedy of all.A still greater honour was the commentary written by Voltaire. The fact that only within a few miles of his own residence a girl of eighteen had been hung for the exposure of a bastard child led Voltaire to welcome Beccaria’s work as a sign that a period of softer manners and more humane laws was about to dawn upon the world’s history. Should not a people, he argues, who like the French pique themselves on their politeness also pride themselves on their humanity? Should they retain the use of torture, merely because it was an ancient custom, when the experience of England and other countries showed that crimes were not more numerous in countries where it was not in use, and when reason indicated the absurdity of inflicting on a man, before his condemnation, a punishment more horrible than would await his proved guilt? What could be more cruel, too, than the maxim of law that a man who forfeited his life forfeited his estates? What more inhuman than thus to punish a whole family for the crime of an individual, perhaps condemning a wife and children to beg their bread because the head of the family had harboured a Protestant preacher or listened to his sermon in a cavern or a desert? Amid the contrariety of laws that governed France, the object of the criminal procedure to bring an accused man to destruction might be said to be the only law which was uniform throughout the country.
Corporal and painful punishments should not be inflicted for those crimes which have their foundation in pride, and draw from pain itself their glory and nutriment. For such crimes ridicule and infamy are more fitted, these being penalties which curb the pride of fanatics by the pride of the beholders, and only let truth itself escape their tenacity by slow and obstinate efforts. By such an opposition of forces against forces, and of opinions against opinions, the wise legislator destroys that admiration and astonishment among a people, which a false principle causes, whose original absurdity is usually hidden from view by the plausible conclusions deduced from it.
The second question is, whether it is expedient to place a reward on the head of a known criminal, and to make of every citizen an executioner by arming him against the offender. Either the criminal has fled from his country or he is still within it. In the first case the sovereign encourages the commission of a crime and exposes its author to a punishment, being thereby guilty of an injury and of an usurpation of authority in the dominions of another, and authorising other nations to do the same by himself. In the second case the sovereign displays his own weakness, for he who has the power wherewith to defend himself seeks not to purchase it. Moreover, such an edict upsets all ideas of morality and virtue, which are ever ready to vanish from the human mind at the very slightest breath. Now the laws invite to treachery, and anon they punish it; with one hand the legislator tightens the bonds of the family, of kindred, and of friendship, whilst with the other he rewards whosoever violates and despises them; always in self-contradiction, he at one moment invites to confidence the suspicious natures of men, and at another scatters mistrust broadcast among them. Instead of preventing one crime, he causes a hundred. These are the resources of weak nations, whose laws are but the temporary repairs of a ruined building that totters throughout. In proportion as a nation becomes enlightened, good faith and mutual confidence become necessary, and tend ever more to identify themselves with true policy. Tricks, intrigues, dark and indirect paths, are for the most part foreseen, and the general quickness of all men collectively over-reaches and blunts that of single individuals. The very ages of ignorance, in which public morality inclines men to obey the dictates of private morality, serve as instruction and experience for the ages of enlightenment. But laws which reward treachery and stir up clandestine hostility by spreading mutual suspicion among citizens, are opposed to this union of private and public morality, a union which is so necessary, and to the observance of which individuals might owe their happiness, nations their peace, and the universe a somewhat longer period of quiet and repose from the evils which at present pervade it.We have seen that the true measure of crimes is the injury done to society. This is one of those palpable truths which, however little dependent on quadrants or telescopes for their discovery, and fully within the reach of any ordinary intelligence, are yet, by a marvellous combination of circumstances, only recognised clearly and firmly by some few thinkers, belonging to every nationality and to every age. But Asiatic ideas, and passions clothed with authority and power, have, generally by imperceptible movements, sometimes by violent assaults on the timid credulity of mankind, dissipated those simple notions, which perhaps formed the first philosophy of primitive communities, and to which the enlightenment of this age seems likely to reconduct us, but to do so with that greater sureness, which can be gained from an exact investigation into things, from a thousand unhappy experiences, and from the very obstacles that militate against it.
The following letter by Beccaria to the Abbé Morellet in acknowledgment of the latter’s translation of his treatise is perhaps the best introduction to the life and character of the author. The letter in question has been quoted by Villemain in proof of the debt owed by the Italian literature of the last century to that of France, but from the allusions therein contained to Hume and the ‘Spectator’ it is evident that something also was due to our own. Beccaria had spent eight years of his youth in the college of the Jesuits at Parma, with what sense of gratitude this letter will show. The following is a translation of the greater part of it:—It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery, according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.
CHAPTER XL. OF THE TREASURY.
The object, therefore, of this chapter is chiefly negative, being none other than to raise such mistrust of mere custom, and so strong a sense of doubt, by the contradictions apparent in existing laws and theories, that the difficulties of their solution may tempt to some investigation of the principles on which they rest.It was by the advice of Scarlett, Lord Abinger, that he ventured to aim at the repeal of all statutes punishing mere theft with death; but, deeming it hopeless to urge their abolition all at once, he resolved to begin with that famous statute of Elizabeth which made it a capital crime to steal a handkerchief or anything else from the person of another which was of the value of a shilling. His bill to effect this passed both Houses the same year it was introduced (1808), in spite of the strong opposition of the great legal dignitaries in either House. The statute was based, said Judge Burton, on the experience of two and a half centuries. The alternative punishment of transportation for seven years, said the Attorney-General, would be too short; it should be for more years than seven, if not for life. If any change of punishment were necessary, said Lord Ellenborough, it should be transportation for life.详情
Copyright © 2020