My country is quite immersed in prejudices, left in it by its ancient masters. The Milanese have no pardon for those who would have them live in the eighteenth century. In a capital which counts 120,000 inhabitants, you will scarcely find twenty who love to instruct themselves, and who sacrifice to truth and virtue. My friends and I, persuaded that periodical works are among the best means for tempting to some sort of reading minds incapable of more serious application, are publishing in papers, after the manner of the English ‘Spectator,’ a work which in England has contributed so much to increase mental culture and the progress of good sense. The French philosophers have a colony in this America, and we are their disciples because we are the disciples of reason, &c.For if punishment is weak to prevent crime, it is strong to produce it, and it is scarcely open to doubt that its productive force is far greater than its preventive. Our terms of imprisonment compel more persons to enter a career of crime than they prevent from pursuing one, that being often the only resource left for those who depend on a criminal’s labour. Whether in prison or the workhouse, such dependents become a charge to society; nor does it seem reasonable, that if one man under sore temptation steals a loaf, a hundred other men who do no such thing must contribute to keep, not only the prisoner himself, but his family too, in their daily bread for so long a time as it pleases the law to detain him from earning his and their necessary subsistence.The object of the preliminary chapters is to place the historical importance of the original in its just light, and to increase the interest of the subjects it discusses.
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.
It were superfluous to enlighten the matter more thoroughly by mentioning the numberless instances of innocent persons who have confessed themselves guilty from the agonies of torture; no nation, no age, but can mention its own; but men neither change their natures nor draw conclusions. There is no man who has ever raised his ideas beyond the common needs of life but runs occasionally towards Nature, who with secret and confused voice calls him to herself; but custom, that tyrant of human minds, draws him back and frightens him.
Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames’ account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.As it, then, was necessity which constrained men to yield a part of their individual liberty, it is certain that each would only place in the general deposit the least possible portion—only so much, that is, as would suffice to induce others to defend it. The aggregate of these least possible portions constitutes the right of punishment; all that is beyond this is an abuse and not justice, a fact but not a right. Punishments which exceed what is necessary to preserve the deposit of the public safety are in their nature unjust; and the more just punishments are, the more sacred and inviolable is personal security, and the greater the liberty that the sovereign preserves for his subjects.
But although the laws of every country thus recognise in different degrees the retributive nature of punishment, by their constant attention to its apportionment to crime, there is another corollary of the desirability of a just proportion between the two, which has never been, nor is ever likely to be, accepted: namely, that from the point of view of the public interest, which in theory is the only legal view, it is no mitigation of a crime that it is a first offence, nor any aggravation of one that it is the second.From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal.
There are three sources of the moral and political principles which govern mankind, namely, revelation, natural law, and social conventions. With regard to their principal object there is no comparison between the first and the other two, but they all resemble one another in this, that they all three conduce to the happiness of this present mortal life. To consider the different relations of social conventions is not to exclude those of revelation and natural law; rather it is the thousandfold changes which revelation and natural law, divine and immutable though they be, have undergone in the depraved mind of man, by his own fault, owing to false religions and arbitrary notions of virtue and vice, that make it appear necessary to examine, apart from all other considerations, the result of purely human conventions, expressed or implied, for the public need and welfare: this being an idea in which every sect and every moral system must necessarily agree; and it will always be a laudable endeavour, which seeks to constrain the headstrong and unbelieving to conform to the principles that induce men to live together in society. There are, then, three distinct kinds of virtue and vice—the religious, the natural, and the political. These three kinds ought never to conflict, although all the consequences and duties that flow from any one of them do not necessarily flow from the others. The natural law does not require all that revelation requires, nor does the purely social law require all that natural law requires; but it is most important to distinguish the consequences of the conventional law—that is, of the express or tacit agreements among men—from the consequences of the natural law or of revelation, because therein lies the limit of that power, which can rightly be exercised between man and man without a special mandate from the Supreme Being. Consequently the idea of political virtue may, without any slur upon it, be said to be variable; that of natural virtue would be always clear and manifest, were it not obscured by the stupidity or the passions of men; whilst the idea of religious virtue remains ever one and the same, because revealed directly from God and by Him preserved.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:
CHAPTER XXX. THEFTS.Lastly, a witness’s evidence is almost null when spoken words are construed into a crime. For the tone, the gesture, all that precedes or follows the different ideas attached by men to the same words, so alter and modify a man’s utterances, that it is almost impossible to repeat them exactly as they were spoken. Moreover, actions of a violent and unusual character, such as real crimes are, leave their traces in the numberless circumstances and effects that flow from them; and of such actions the greater the number of the circumstances adduced in proof, the more numerous are the chances for the accused to clear himself. But words only remain in the memory of their hearers, and memory is for the most part unfaithful and often deceitful. It is on that account ever so much more easy to fix a calumny upon a man’s words than upon his actions.The country in which the first attempt was made to apply his principles to practice was Russia, where Catharine II. was anxious to establish a uniform penal code, based on the liberal ideas of the time, which then found more favour in St. Petersburg than they did at Paris. For this purpose in 1767 she summoned to Moscow from all the provinces of Russia those 652 deputies who formed the nearest approach in the history of that country to a Russian Parliament. In the instructions that were read to this assembly, as the basis for the proposed codification of the laws, the principles propounded were couched not only in the spirit but often in the very words of the author of the ‘Crimes and Punishments.’ The following are examples:—
CHAPTER XVIII. INFAMY.The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccaria’s treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccaria’s philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there; his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them.
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There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.
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