CHAPTER XXXII. OF DEBTORS.CHAPTER XV. THE MILDNESS OF PUNISHMENTS.
Torture is a certain method for the acquittal of robust villains and for the condemnation of innocent but feeble men. See the fatal drawbacks of this pretended test of truth—a test, indeed, that is worthy of cannibals; a test which the Romans, barbarous as they too were in many respects, reserved for slaves alone, the victims of their fierce and too highly lauded virtue. Of two men, equally innocent or equally guilty, the robust and courageous will be acquitted, the weak and the timid will be condemned, by virtue of the following exact train of reasoning on the part of the judge: ‘I as judge had to find you guilty of such and such a crime; you, A B, have by your physical strength been able to resist pain, and therefore I acquit you; you, C D, in your weakness have yielded to it; therefore I condemn you. I feel that a confession extorted amid torments can have no force, but I will torture you afresh unless you corroborate what you have now confessed.’
Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. ‘No, no,’ was the reply, ‘it isn’t that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once.’ And this represented the prevalent opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, ‘Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case?… Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley!’
One of the greatest preventives of crimes is, not the cruelty of the punishments attached to them, but their infallibility, and consequently that watchfulness on the part of the magistrates and that inexorable severity on the part of the judge which, to be a useful virtue, must coincide with a mild system of laws. The certainty of a punishment, moderate though it be, will ever make a stronger impression than the fear of another, more terrible, perhaps, but associated with the hope of impunity; for even the least evils when certain always terrify men’s minds, and hope, that gift of heaven, which often makes up to us for everything, always throws into the distance the idea of greater evils, especially when its force is increased by impunity, which avarice and weakness so often grant.Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.
Such was the reasoning which for nearly half a century governed the course of English history, and which for all that time it was a heresy to dispute.
Some crimes tend directly to the destruction of society or to the sovereign who represents it; others affect individual citizens, by imperilling their life, their property, or their honour; whilst others, again, are actions contrary to the positive or negative obligations which bind every individual to the public weal.
But the man who sees in prospect a great number of years, or perhaps the whole of his life, to be passed in servitude and suffering before the eyes of fellow-citizens with whom he is living in freedom and friendship, the slave of those laws which had once protected him, makes a useful comparison of all these circumstances with the uncertain result of his crimes and with the shortness of the time for which he would enjoy their fruits. The ever present example of those whom he actually sees the victims of their own imprudence, impresses him much more strongly than the sight of a punishment which hardens rather than corrects him.
CHAPTER XVII. BANISHMENT AND CONFISCATIONS.
CHAPTER VIII. WITNESSES.CHAPTER XXIII. PROPORTION BETWEEN CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS.Thus, the two writers to whom Beccaria owed most were Montesquieu and Helvetius. The ‘Lettres Persanes’ of the former, which satirised so many things then in custom, contained but little about penal laws; but the idea is there started for the first time that crimes depend but little on the mildness or severity of the punishments attached to them. ‘The imagination,’ says the writer, ‘bends of itself to the customs of the country; and eight days of prison or a slight fine have as much terror for a European brought up in a country of mild manners as the loss of an arm would have for an Asiatic.’ The ‘Esprit des Lois,’ by the same author, probably contributed more to the formation of Beccaria’s thoughts than the ‘Lettres Persanes,’ for it is impossible to read the twelfth book of that work without being struck by the resemblance of ideas. The ‘De L’Esprit’ of Helvetius was condemned by the Sorbonne as ‘a combination of all the various kinds of poison scattered through modern books.’ Yet it was one of the most influential books of the time. We find Hume recommending it to Adam Smith for its agreeable composition father than for its philosophy; and a writer who had much in common with Beccaria drew from it the same inspiration that he did. That writer was Bentham, who tells us that when he was about twenty, and on a visit to his father and stepmother in the country, he would often walk behind them reading a book, and that his favourite author was Helvetius.
Even if we assume that death is absolutely the severest penalty devisable by the law, and that as a punishment for murder it is not too severe, it remains certain, that, relatively to the circumstances of a trial for murder, to the reluctance of judges or juries to pass an irretrievable sentence, to their fear of error, to their conscientious regard for human life, it is really a much less terrible danger for a malefactor to face than a penalty which would justify fewer hopes of impunity.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.The author of the book was a native of Milan, then part of the Austrian dominions, and under the governorship of Count Firmian, a worthy representative of the liberal despotism of Maria Theresa and her chief minister, Kaunitz. Under Firmian’s administration a period of beneficial reforms began for Lombardy. Agriculture was encouraged, museums and libraries extended, great works of public utility carried on. Even the Church was shorn of her privileges, and before Firmian had been ten years in Lombardy all traces of ecclesiastical immunity had been destroyed; the jurisdiction of the Church, and her power to hold lands in mortmain were restricted, the right of asylum was abolished, and, above all, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Let these few facts suffice to indicate the spirit of the immediate political surroundings in the midst of which Beccaria’s work appeared.详情
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