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The reason for translating afresh Beccaria’s ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ (‘Crimes and Punishments’) is, that it is a classical work of its kind, and that the interest which belongs to it is still far from being merely historical.… The cries of sages and philosophers are as the cries of the innocent man on the wheel, where they have never prevented, nor will ever prevent him from expiring, with his eyes upturned to heaven, which will perhaps some day stir up enthusiasm, or religious madness, or some other avenging folly, to accomplish all that their wisdom has failed to do. It is never the oration of the philosopher which disarms the powerful ruler; it is something else, which the combination of chance events brings about. Meanwhile we must not seek to force it from him, but must entreat humbly for such good as he can grant us, that is which he can grant us without injury to himself.

But punishment bears much the same relation to crime in the country at large that it does in the metropolis. Let one year be taken as a fair sample of all. The total number of indictable offences of all kinds reported to the police in 1877-8 was 54,065. For these offences only 24,062 persons were apprehended. Of these latter only 16,820 were held to bail or committed for trial; and of these again 12,473 were convicted and punished.[52] So that, though the proportion of convictions to the number of prisoners who come to trial is about 75 per cent., the proportion of convictions, that is, of punishments, to the number of crimes committed is so low as 23 per cent. Of the 54,065 crimes reported to the police in one year 41,592 were actually committed with impunity; and[95] thus the proportion which successful crime of all sorts bears to unsuccessful is rather more than as four to one.[53] So that there is evident truth in what a good authority has said: ‘Few offences comparatively are followed by detection and punishment, and with a moderate degree of cunning an offender may generally go on for a long time with but feeble checks, if not complete impunity.’[54]Less dangerous personally than the theological criticism, but more pernicious to reform, was the hostile criticism that at once appeared from the thick phalanx of professional lawyers, the sound-thinking ‘practical men.’ From whom only two short extracts need be rescued from oblivion, as illustrations of the objections once raised against ideas which have since become the common groundwork of all subsequent legislation, in America as well as in Europe. The first extract is from a work on criminal justice by a lawyer of Provence, who in 1770 wrote as follows:

It is a great point in every good system of laws to determine exactly the credibility of witnesses and the proofs of guilt Every reasonable man—that is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other men—is capable of bearing witness. The true measure of his credibility is only the interest he has in speaking or in not speaking the truth; so that nothing can be more frivolous than to reject the evidence of women on the pretext of their feebleness, nothing more childish than to apply the results of real death to civil death as regards the testimony of the condemned, nothing more unmeaning than to insist on the mark of infamy in the infamous when they have no interest in lying.But if the interest of Beccaria’s chapter on Torture is now merely historical, an interest that is actual still attaches to his advocacy of the total abolition of capital punishment, this being the cause with which his name is most generally associated, and for which it is likely to be longest remembered. Previous writers, like Montaigne, if they deprecated the excess or severity of the death penalty, never thought of urging that it should be abolished altogether.

Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.

In order that a punishment may be just, it must contain only such degrees of intensity as suffice to deter men from crimes. But as there is no one who on reflection would choose the total and perpetual loss of his liberty, however great the advantages offered him by a crime, the intensity of the punishment of servitude for life, substituted for capital punishment, has that in it which is sufficient to daunt the most determined courage. I will add that it is even more deterrent than death. Very many men face death calmly and firmly, some from fanaticism, some from vanity, which almost always attends a man to the tomb; others from a last desperate attempt either no longer to live or to escape from their misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity have any place among fetters and chains, under the stick, under the yoke, in a cage of iron; the wretch thus punished is so far from terminating his miseries that with his punishment he only begins them.It is sometimes the custom to release a man from the punishment of a slight crime when the injured person pardons him: an act, indeed, which is in accordance with mercy and humanity but contrary to public policy; as if a private citizen could by his remission do away with the necessity of the example in the same way that he can excuse the reparation due for the offence. The right of punishing does not[190] rest with an individual, but with the community as a whole, or the sovereign. An individual can only renounce his particular portion of that right, not annul that of all the rest.What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away[178] coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? ‘Ah’ they will say, ‘these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.’

Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end ‘with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.’[32]The voice of a philosopher is too feeble against the noise and cries of so many followers of blind custom, but the few wise men scattered over the face of the earth will respond to me from their inmost hearts; and, amid the many obstacles that keep it from a monarch, should truth perchance arrive in spite of him at his throne, let him know that it comes there attended by the secret wishes of all men; let him know that before his praises the bloody fame of conquerors will be silenced, and that posterity, which is just, will assign him the foremost place among the pacific triumphs of a Titus, an Antonine, or a Trajan.

[153]The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast[186] more cruel than that between a judge’s ease and a defendant’s anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible.It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

The Translator has abstained from all criticism or comment of the original, less from complete agreement[vi] with all its ideas than from the conviction that annotations are more often vexatious than profitable, and are best left to the reader to make for himself. There is scarcely a sentence in the book on which a commentator might not be prolix.Hence both in the state of extreme political liberty and in that of extreme political subjection the ideas of honour disappear or get perfectly confused with others. For in the former the despotism of the laws renders the pursuit of the favour of others of no avail; and in the latter state the despotism of men, by destroying civil existence, reduces everybody to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, therefore, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies that are a mitigated form of despotism, being to them what revolutions are to despotic States, namely, a momentary return to the state of nature, and a reminder to the chief ruler of the condition of primitive equality.Need it be said that the House of Lords paused, as they were entreated to do, and that they paused and paused again, in a manner more suggestive of the full stop than the comma, generally out of deference to the same authority? Romilly was indignant that so many prelates voted against his bills; but could they have done otherwise, when the best legal authorities in England urged that it would be fatal to vote for them?—when they were gravely told that if a certain bill passed, they would not know whether they stood on their heads or on their feet?


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English philosophy and legislation, therefore, owe enough to Beccaria for his treatise never to be forgotten among us. Standing, as it does, in reference to law as Bacon’s ‘Novum Organon’ to science, or Descartes’ ‘Principia’ to philosophy, and representing a return to first principles and rejection of mere precedent in the matter of penal laws, it will never fail to gratify those who, with little admiration for law in the concrete, can yet find pleasure in studying it in the abstract. Most men will turn readily from a system built up, as our own is, of unintelligible distinctions, and based on authority rather than on experience, to a system where no distinctions exist save those which are derived from the nature of things and are founded on the real differences that distinguish the moral actions of mankind.Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at another’s expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right[67]) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which[214] alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a man’s labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.

CHAPTER XXXI. SMUGGLING.A few years earlier Beccaria could have imagined no greater honour. To associate with the philosophers he so highly reverenced, as a philosopher himself, what greater happiness or reward could he have asked? Yet when it came there was no charm in it; and it was with difficulty he could be persuaded to go. For with his love for distinction there came into competition the love of his wife, and if he preferred her company to that of the wisest and wittiest celebrities of Paris, who shall say that he was the worse philosopher for that?



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