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Men for the most part leave the regulation of their chief concerns to the prudence of the moment, or to the discretion of those whose interest it is to oppose the wisest laws; such laws, namely, as naturally help to diffuse the benefits of life, and check that tendency they have to accumulate in the hands of a few, which ranges on one side the extreme of power and happiness, and on the other all that is weak and wretched. It is only, therefore, after having passed through a thousand errors in matters that most nearly touch their lives and liberties, only after weariness of evils that have been suffered to reach a climax, that men are induced to seek a remedy for the abuses which oppress them, and to recognise the clearest truths, which, precisely on account of their simplicity, escape the notice of ordinary minds, unaccustomed as they are to analyse things, and apt to receive their impressions anyhow, from tradition rather than from inquiry.It is, then, proved that the law which imprisons[227] 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.

This fulmination reached Milan on January 15, 1765, and on the 21st the Risposta, or reply, was[17] ready for publication.[7] This defence was the work of his friends, the Verris, and was published, like the original, anonymously; as it was written in the first person throughout, it was generally at the time and even till lately ascribed to the same author as the original, but the fact is now established beyond doubt that the real authors were Pietro and his brother. The writers wisely refrained from the use of retaliatory language, confining themselves in their defence solely to charges of irreligion and sedition, responding to six which accused Beccaria of the latter, and to twenty-three which declared him guilty of the former.

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.Ramsay argues that the penal laws of a particular country can only be considered with reference to the needs of a particular country, and not in the abstract; that the government of a country will always enforce laws with a view to its own security; and that nothing less than a general revolution will ever make the holders of political power listen for a moment to the claims of philosophers.

The first consequence of these principles is, that the laws alone can decree punishments for crimes, and this authority can only rest with the legislator, who represents collective society as united by a social contract. No magistrate (who is part of society) can justly inflict punishments upon another member of the same society. But since a punishment that exceeds the legally fixed limit is the lawful punishment plus another one, a magistrate can, under no pretext of zeal or the public good, add to the penalty already decreed against a delinquent citizen.Torture was definitely and totally abolished in Portugal in 1776, in Sweden in 1786,[24] 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.

[98]It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

But the laws should fix a certain space of time both for the defence of the accused and for the discovery[158] of proofs against him. It would place the judge in the position of a legislator were it his duty to fix the time necessary for the latter. In the same way those atrocious crimes, whose memory tarries long in mens minds, deserve, when once proved, no prescription in favour of a criminal who has fled from his country; but lesser and obscure crimes should be allowed a certain prescription, which may remove a mans uncertainty concerning his fate, because the obscurity in which for a long time his crimes have been involved deducts from the bad example of his impunity, and the possibility of reform meantime remains to him. It is enough to indicate these principles, because I cannot fix a precise limit of time, except for a given system of laws and in given social circumstances. I will only add that, the advantage of moderate penalties in a nation being proved, the laws which shorten or lengthen, according to the gravity of crimes, the term of prescription or of proofs, thus making of prison itself or of voluntary exile a part of the punishment, will supply an easy classification of a few mild punishments for a very large number of crimes.

If we would bring to the study of Beccarias 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 man cannot be called guilty before sentence has been passed on him by a judge, nor can society deprive him of its protection till it has been decided that he has broken the condition on which it was granted. What, then, is that right but one of mere might by which a judge is empowered to inflict a punishment on a citizen whilst his guilt or innocence are still undetermined? The following dilemma is no new one: either the crime is certain or uncertain; if certain, no other punishment is suitable for it than that affixed to it by law; and torture is useless, for the same reason that the criminals confession is useless. If it is uncertain, it is wrong to torture an[149] innocent person, such as the law adjudges him to be, whose crimes are not yet proved.Capital punishment makes an impression in prospect which, with all its force, does not fully meet that ready spirit of forgetfulness, so natural to man even in his most important concerns, and so liable to be accelerated by his passions. As a general rule, men are startled by the sight of violent sufferings, but not for long, and therefore such impressions are wont so to transform them as to make of ordinary men either Persians or Spartans; but in a free and settled government impressions should rather be frequent than strong.There was little of eventfulness in Beccarias life, and the only episode in it of interest was his visit to Paris in 1766. Thither he and his friend Pietro had been invited by Morellet, in the name of the philosophers at Paris, and thither he started in October 1766; not with Pietro, who could not leave Milan, but with Alessandro Verri, on a journey which was to include London as well as Paris, and was to occupy in all a period of six months.

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Persons guilty of lesser crimes are usually either punished in the obscurity of a prison, or transported, as an example to nations who have given no offence, to a distant and therefore almost useless servitude. Since the gravest crimes are not those which men are tempted to commit on the spur of the moment, the public punishment of a great misdeed will be regarded by most men as strange and of impossible occurrence; but the public punishment of lighter crimes, to which mens thoughts more readily incline, will make an impression, which, at the same time that it diverts the mind from them, will restrain it still more from crimes of greater gravity. Punishments should not only be proportioned to one another and to crimes in point of force, but also in the mode of their infliction.


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