DEI DELITTI E DELLE PENE. TO THE READER.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, in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes. 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 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?
The death penalty therefore is not a right; I have proved that it cannot be so; but it is a war of a nation against one of its members, because his annihilation is deemed necessary and expedient. But if I can show that his death is neither necessary nor expedient, I shall have won the cause of humanity.These problems deserve to be solved with such geometrical precision as shall suffice to prevail over the clouds of sophistication, over seductive eloquence, or timid doubt. Had I no other merit than that of having been the first to make clearer to Italy that which other nations have dared to write and are beginning to practise, I should deem myself fortunate; but if, in maintaining the rights of men and of invincible truth, I should contribute to rescue from the spasms and agonies of death any unfortunate victim of tyranny or ignorance, both so equally fatal, the blessings and tears of a single innocent man in the transports of his joy would console me for the contempt of mankind.
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.From this we see how useful is the art of printing, which makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians of the sacred laws, and which has scattered that dark spirit of cabal and intrigue, destined to disappear before knowledge and the sciences, which, however apparently despised, are in reality feared by those that follow in their wake. This is the reason that we see in Europe the diminution of those atrocious crimes that afflicted our ancestors and rendered them by turns tyrants or slaves. Whoever knows the history of two or three centuries ago and of our own, can see that from the lap of luxury and effeminacy have sprung the most pleasing of all human virtues, humanity, charity, and the toleration of human errors; he will know what have been the results of that which is so wrongly called ‘old-fashioned simplicity and honesty.’ Humanity groaning under implacable superstition; the avarice and ambition of a few dyeing with human blood the golden chests and thrones of kings; secret assassinations and public massacres; every noble a tyrant to the people; the ministers of the Gospel truth polluting with blood hands that every day came in contact with the God of mercy—these are not the works of this enlightened age, which some, however, call corrupt.
Capital punishment is injurious by the example of barbarity it presents. If human passions, or the necessities of war, have taught men to shed one another’s blood, the laws, which are intended to moderate human conduct, ought not to extend the savage example, which in the case of a legal execution is all the more baneful in that it is carried out with studied formalities. To me it seems an absurdity, that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which abhor and which punish murder, should themselves commit one; and that, to deter citizens from private assassination, they should themselves order a public murder. What are the true and the most useful laws? Are they not those covenants and conditions which all would wish observed and proposed, when the incessant voice of private interest is hushed or is united with the interest of the public? What are every man’s feelings about capital punishment? Let us read them in the gestures of indignation and scorn with which everyone looks upon the executioner, who is, after all, an innocent administrator of the public will, a good citizen contributory to the public welfare, an instrument as necessary for the internal security of a State as brave soldiers are for its external. What, then, is the source of this contradiction; and why is this feeling, in spite of reason, ineradicable in mankind? Because men in their most secret hearts, that part of them which more than any other still preserves the original form of their first nature, have ever believed that their lives lie at no one’s disposal, save in that of necessity alone, which, with its iron sceptre, rules the universe.The credibility, therefore, of a witness must diminish in proportion to the hatred, friendship, or close connection between himself and the accused. More than one witness is necessary, because, so long as one affirms and another denies, nothing is proved, and the right which everyone has of being held innocent prevails. The credibility of a witness becomes appreciably less, the greater the atrocity of the crime imputed, or the improbability of the circumstances, as in charges of magic and gratuitously cruel actions. It is more likely, as regards the former accusation, that many men should lie than that such an accusation should be true, because it is easier for many men to be united in an ignorant mistake or in persecuting hatred than for one man to exercise a power which God either has not conferred or has taken away from every created being. The same reasoning holds good also of the second accusation, for man is only cruel in proportion to his interest to be so, to his hatred or to his fear. Properly speaking, there is no superfluous feeling in human nature, every feeling being always in strict accordance with the impressions made upon the senses. In the same way the credibility of a witness may sometimes be lessened by the fact of his being a member of some secret society, whose purposes and principles are either not well understood or differ from those of general acceptance; for such a man has not only his own passions but those of others besides.
If we would bring to the study of Beccaria’s treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.
A few stories may be taken as illustrative of thousands to indicate the mischief and travesty of justice which arises from the neglect of this principle, and from the custom of making a legal inquiry into moral antecedents.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, in the best period of the Roman Republics by the Porcian law, and in the time of the Roman Empire by Calo-Johannes. 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 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?
Men oppose the strongest barriers against open tyranny, but they see not the imperceptible insect, which gnaws them away, and makes for the invading stream an opening that is all the more sure by very reason of its concealment from view.
The question, therefore, arises, Does crime depend to any appreciable extent on imprisonment at all, or on the length or shortness of sentences?
The second epoch of history consists in the hard and terrible transition from errors to truth, from the darkness of ignorance to the light. The great clash between the errors which are serviceable to a few men of power and the truths which are serviceable to the weak and the many, and the contact and fermentation of the passions at such a period aroused, are a source of infinite evils to unhappy humanity. Whoever ponders on the different histories of the world, which after certain intervals of time are so much alike in their principal episodes, will therein frequently observe the sacrifice of a whole generation to the welfare of succeeding ones, in the painful but necessary transition from the darkness of ignorance to the light of philosophy, and from despotism to freedom, which result from the sacrifice. But when truth, whose progress at first is slow and afterwards rapid (after men’s minds have calmed down and the fire is quenched that purged a nation of the evils it suffered), sits as the companion of kings upon the throne, and is reverenced and worshipped in the parliaments of free governments, who will ever dare assert that the light which enlightens the people is more injurious than darkness, and that acknowledging the true and simple relations of things is pernicious to mankind?Whoever, therefore, shall wish to honour me with his criticisms, I would have begin with a thorough comprehension of the purpose of my work—a purpose which, so far from diminishing legitimate authority, will serve to increase it, if opinion can effect more over men’s minds than force, and if the mildness and humanity of the government shall justify it in the eyes of all men. The ill-conceived criticisms that have been published against this book are founded on confused notions, and compel me to interrupt for a moment the arguments I was addressing to my enlightened readers, in order to close once for all every door against the misapprehensions of timid bigotry or against the calumnies of malice and envy.
Torture was definitely and totally abolished in Portugal in 1776, in Sweden in 1786, and in Austria in 1789. In the latter country, indeed, it had been abolished by Maria Theresa sixteen years before in her German and Polish provinces; and the Penal Code of Joseph II., published in 1785, was an additional tribute to the cause of reform. Secret orders were even given to the tribunals to substitute other punishments for hanging, yet so that the general public should be unaware of the change. There was the greatest anxiety that it should not be thought that this change was out of any deference for Beccaria or his school. ‘In the abolition of capital punishment,’ said Kaunitz, ‘his Majesty pays no regard at all to the principles of modern philosophers, who, in affecting a horror of bloodshed, assert that primitive justice has no right to take from a man that life which Nature only can give him. Our sovereign has only consulted his own conviction, that the punishment he wishes substituted for the capital penalty is more likely to be felt by reason of its duration, and therefore better fitted to inspire malefactors with terror.’It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons subjects in their own country is useless and unjust. The punishment, therefore, of suicide is equally so; and consequently, although it is a fault punishable by God, for He alone can punish after death, it is not a crime in the eyes of men, for the punishment they inflict, instead of falling on the criminal himself, falls on his family. If anyone objects, that such a punishment can nevertheless draw a man back from his determination to kill himself, I reply, that he who calmly renounces the advantages of life, who hates his existence here below to such an extent as to prefer to it an eternity of misery, is not likely to be moved by the less efficacious and more remote consideration of his children or his relations.详情
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