Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.
But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madan’s ‘Thoughts on Executive Justice,’ in which the author, adopting Beccaria’s principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. ‘It was,’ says Romilly, ‘a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives.’
That force, similar to the force of gravitation, which constrains us to seek our own well-being, only admits of counteraction in proportion to the obstacles opposed to it. The effects of this force make up the confused series of human actions; if these clash together and impede one another, punishments, which I would call political obstacles, prevent bad effects from resulting, without destroying the impelling cause, which lies in the sensibility inseparable from humanity; and the legislator, in enacting them, acts the part of a clever architect, whose function it is to counteract the tendency of gravitation to cause a building to fall, and to bring to bear all the lines which contribute to its strength.
PREFACE.CHAPTER II. THE ORIGIN OF PUNISHMENTS—THE RIGHT OF PUNISHMENT.
Some crimes are injuries to a man’s person, others to his property, and the former should certainly be punished by corporal punishments.Even inanimate objects or animals it has been thought through many ages reasonable to punish. In Athens an axe or stone that killed anyone by accident was cast beyond the border; and the English law was only repealed in the present reign which made a cartwheel, a tree, or a beast, that killed a man, forfeit to the State for the benefit of the poor. The Jewish law condemned an ox that gored anyone to death to be stoned, just as it condemned the human murderer. And in the middle ages pigs, horses, or oxen were not only tried judicially like men, with counsel on either side and witnesses, but they were hung on gallows like men, for the better deterrence of their kind in future.If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.
One consequence of these last reflections is, that without writing no society will ever assume a fixed form of government, wherein the power shall belong to the social whole, and not to its parts, and wherein the laws, only alterable by the general will, shall not suffer corruption in their passage through the crowd of private interests. Experience and reason have taught us, that the probability and certainty of human traditions diminish in proportion to their distance from their source. So that if there be no standing memorial of the social contract, how will laws ever resist the inevitable force of time and passion?
Accordingly he made a rapid journey back, leaving his companion to visit England alone; this expedition to Paris being the only event that ever broke the even tenor of his life. His French friends rather deserted him, Morellet in his memoirs going even so far as to speak of him as half-mad. But it was to his friendship with the Verris that this journey to Paris was most disastrous, and nothing is more mournful than the petty jealousies which henceforth completely estranged from him his early friends. The fault seems to have rested mainly with the two brothers, whose letters (only recently published) reveal an amount of bitterness against Beccaria for which it is difficult to find any justification, and which disposes for ever of all claims of their writers to any real nobleness of character. They complain to one another of Beccaria’s Parisian airs, of his literary pride, of his want of gratitude; they rejoice to think that his reputation is on the wane; that his illustrious friends at Paris send him no copies of their books; that he gets no letters from Paris; nay, they even go so far as to welcome the adverse criticisms of his ‘Dei Delitti,’ and to hope that his ‘golden book’ is shut up for ever. Alessandro writes to his brother that all his thoughts are turned to the means of mortifying Beccaria; and the revenge the brothers think most likely to humiliate him is for Alessandro to extend the limits of his travels, so as to compare favourably with Beccaria in the eyes of the Milanese. They delight in calling him a madman, an imbecile, a harlequin; they lend a ready ear to all that gossip says in his discredit. In the most trifling action Pietro sees an intended slight, and is especially sore where his literary ambition is touched. It angers him that Beccaria should receive praise for the Apology written against Facchinei, the work having been entirely written by himself, with some help from his brother, but with not so much as a comma from the hand of Beccaria. Some books which Beccaria had brought to him from Paris he imagined were really gifts to him from the authors; he believed that D’Alembert had sent him his ‘Mélanges’ of his own accord, not at the request of Beccaria, as the latter had represented; but even Alessandro admits that it was concerning the books, as Beccaria had said. In short, the whole correspondence shows that Pietro Verri was extremely jealous of the success which he himself had helped his friend to attain, and that disappointed literary vanity was the real explanation of his suddenly transmuted affection.
No man has gratuitously parted with a portion of his own liberty with a view to the public good; that is a chimera which only exists in romances. Each one of us would wish, if it were possible, that the covenants which bind others should not bind himself. There is no man but makes himself the central object of all the combinations of the globe.
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