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There was only one offence which Paley thought the English law punished too severely, and that was the offence of privately stealing from the person. In all other cases he defended the application of the capital penalty. It was, he thought, the peculiar merit of the English law that it swept into the net every crime which under any possible circumstance might merit death, whilst it only singled out a few[56] cases in each class of crime for actual punishment; so that whilst few really suffered death, the dread and danger of it hung over the crimes of many. The law was not cruel, for it was never meant to be indiscriminately executed, but left a large margin for the exercise of mercy.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.The more cruel punishments become, the more human minds harden, adjusting themselves, like fluids, to the level of objects around them; and the ever living force of the passions brings it about, that after a hundred years of cruel punishments, the wheel frightens men only just as much as at first did the punishment of prison.

Why then did Pietro Verri not write it himself? The answer would seem to be, out of deference for the position and opinions of his father. It was some time later that Gabriel defended the use of torture in the Milanese Senate, and Pietro wrote a work on torture which he did not publish in his father’s lifetime. It was probably due also to the father’s position that Alessandro held his office of Protector of the Prisoners, so that there were obvious reasons which prevented either brother from undertaking the work in question.In view of these principles it will appear strange (to anyone who does not reflect, that reason has, so to speak, never yet legislated for a nation), that it is just the most atrocious crimes or the most secret and chimerical ones—that is, those of the least probability—which are proved by conjectures or by the weakest and most equivocal proofs: as if it were the interest of the laws and of the judge, not to search for the truth, but to find out the crime; as if the danger of condemning an innocent man were not so much the greater, the greater the probability of his innocence over that of his guilt.The publication of the ‘Delitti e delle Pene’ interrupted its author’s dreams of philosophical calm, by fulfilling his hopes of literary fame. The French encyclop?dists were the first to recognise its merits, and D’Alembert, the mathematician, at once predicted for the writer the reward of an immortal[13] reputation. Morellet’s translation, in which the arrangement, though not the matter of the text, was entirely altered, ran through seven editions in six months, and Beccaria, as has been seen, was only too delighted with the honour thus conferred on him to complain in any way of the liberties taken by the translator with the original.

The ‘Dei Delitti e delle Pene’ was published for the first time in 1764. It quickly ran through several editions, and was first translated into French in 1766 by the Abbé Morellet, since which time it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, not excluding Greek and Russian.

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[200] investigation into things, from a thousand unhappy experiences, and from the very obstacles that militate against it.It is unhappily no mere theory, that the majority of crimes are committed precisely by those who risk most in committing them; by those, that is, who commit them with the aggravated penalty full in view. By the existing law (of which both the Criminal Code- and the Penal Servitude-Commissioners have proposed the mitigation) anyone convicted of felony after a previous conviction for felony is liable to penal servitude for life, or to imprisonment with hard labour for four years, with one or more whippings. The minimum punishment for a second conviction of felony is seven years. Yet, with the knowledge of such increased punishments before their eyes, with the full consciousness of their liabilities as old offenders, official statistics show that of both the male and female convicts in the English convict prisons considerably more than half have incurred previous convictions.[50] Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent.,[93] and of the female 89 per cent., were cases of reciduous crime. May it not, then, be argued from such a failure of the system to an error in the principle on which it rests? For is it not evident that the aggravated penalty does as little to deter as the original punishment does to reform?But, to turn from this unpleasant episode of Beccaria’s life, Catharine II., soon after his return to Milan, invited him to St. Petersburg, to assist in the preparation of her intended code of laws. It would seem from one of Pietro Verri’s letters that Beccaria was at first inclined to accept the proposal,[15] but it is improbable that any such offer would really have tempted him to exchange Italian suns for Russian snows, even if Kaunitz and Firmian had not resolved to remove the temptation, by making his talents of service at home. This they did by making him Professor of Political Economy in the Palatine School of Milan, in November 1768; and his published lectures on this subject form the largest work he ever wrote.

In proportion as punishments become milder, clemency and pardon become less necessary. Happy the nation in which their exercise should be baneful! Clemency, therefore, that virtue, which has sometimes made up in a sovereign for failings in all the other duties of the throne, ought to be excluded in a perfect system of legislation, where punishments are mild and the method of trial regular and expeditious. This truth will appear a hard one to anybody living in the present chaotic state of the criminal law, where the necessity of pardon and favours accords with the absurdity of the laws and with the severity of sentences of punishment. This right of pardon is indeed the fairest prerogative of the throne, the most desirable attribute of sovereignty; it is, however, the tacit mark of disapproval that the beneficent dispensers of the public happiness exhibit towards a code, which with all its imperfections claims in its favour the prejudice of ages, the voluminous and imposing array of innumerable commentators, the weighty apparatus of unending formalities, and the adhesion of those persons of half-learning who, though less feared than real philosophers, are really more dangerous. But let it be remembered that clemency is the virtue of[191] the maker, not of the executor, of the laws; that it should be conspicuous in the code of laws rather than in particular judgments; that the showing to men, that crimes may be pardoned and that punishment is not their necessary consequence, encourages the hope of impunity, and creates the belief that sentences of condemnation, which might be remitted and are not, are rather violent exhibitions of force than emanations of justice. What shall be said then when the sovereign grants a pardon, that is, public immunity to an individual, and when a private act of unenlightened kindness constitutes a public decree of impunity? Let the laws therefore be inexorable and their administrators in particular cases inexorable, but let the law-maker be mild, merciful, and humane. Let him found his edifice, as a wise architect, on the basis of self-love; let the general interest be the sum of the interests of each, and he will no longer be constrained, by partial laws and violent remedies to separate at every moment the public welfare from that of individuals, and to raise the appearance of public security on fear and mistrust. As a profound and feeling philosopher let him allow men, that is, his brethren, to enjoy in peace that small share of happiness which is given them to enjoy in this corner of the universe, in that immense system established by the First Cause, by Him Who Is.Even when Paris was reached, and Beccaria and Alessandro were warmly welcomed by D’Alembert, Morellet, Diderot, and Baron Holbach, the homesickness remained. ‘You would not believe,’ says Beccaria to his wife, ‘the welcomes, the politeness, the demonstrations of friendship and esteem, which they have shown to me and my companion. Diderot, Baron Holbach, and D’Alembert especially enchant us. The latter is a superior man, and most simple at the same time. Diderot displays enthusiasm and good humour in all he does. In short, nothing is wanting to me but yourself. All do their best to please me, and those who do so are the greatest men in Europe. All of them deign to listen to me, and no one shows the slightest air of superiority.’ Yet[24] Morellet tells us that even on arrival Beccaria was so absorbed in melancholy, that it was difficult to get four consecutive words from his mouth.

Adultery is a crime which, politically considered, derives its force and direction from two causes, namely, from the variable laws in force among mankind, and from that strongest of all attractions which draws one sex towards the other.[70]In every criminal case a judge ought to form a complete syllogistic deduction, in which the statement of the general law constitutes the major premiss; the conformity or non-conformity of a particular action with the law, the minor premiss; and acquittal or punishment, the conclusion. When a judge is obliged, or of his own accord wishes, to make even no more than two syllogisms, the door is opened to uncertainty.

When Beccaria wrote against capital punishment, one great argument against its abolition was its practical universality. It had been abolished in ancient Egypt by king Sabaco,[28] in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes.[29] But these cases were too remote from modern times to lend much weight to the general argument. At that time Russia alone of all the countries in the world[44] had, from the accession of the Empress Elizabeth, afforded a practical example of the fact, that the general security of life is not diminished by the withdrawal of the protection of capital punishment. But since that time this truth has become less and less a theory or speculation, and it now rests on the positive experience of no inconsiderable portion of the world. In Tuscany, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Roumania, Saxony, Prussia, Belgium, and in ten of the United States of America, the death penalty has either been abolished or discontinued; and can it be thought that the people of those countries are so indifferent to the safety of their lives as to be content with a less efficient legal protection than is vouchsafed in countries where the protection is death?

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I conclude with this reflection, that the scale of punishments should be relative to the condition of a nation. On the hardened minds of a people scarcely emerged from the savage state the impressions made should be stronger and more sensible. One needs a[169] thunderbolt for the destruction of a fierce lion that faces round at the shot of a gun. But in proportion as men’s minds become softened in the social state, their sensibility increases, and commensurate with that increase should be the diminution of the force of punishment, if it be desired to maintain any proportion between the object and the sensation that attends it.

Repression by the law seems likewise the only means of preventing that large class of actions which affect the general character and tone of a country, whilst they injuriously affect no individual in particular. The protection of creatures too feeble to protect themselves justifies, under this head, the legal punishment of cruelty to animals. It is idle to say that the law can do nothing against the average moral sense of the community, for the law is often at first the only possible lever of our moral ideas. Were it not for the law we should still bait bulls and bears, and find amusement in cock-throwing; and till the law includes hares and pigeons within the pale of protection drawn so tenderly round bulls and bears, no moral sense is likely to arise against the morbid pleasures of coursing and pigeon-shooting.


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