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Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography.Others again measure crimes rather by the rank of the person injured than by their importance in regard to the public weal. Were this the true measure of crimes, any act of irreverence towards the Supreme Being should be punished more severely than the assassination of a monarch, whereas the superiority of His nature affords an infinite compensation for the difference of the offence.


[34]From this necessity of the favour of other people arose private duels, which sprang up precisely in an anarchical state of the laws. It is said they were unknown to antiquity, perhaps because the ancients did not meet suspiciously armed in the temples, the theatres, or with friends; perhaps because the duel was an ordinary and common sight, presented to the people by gladiators, who were slaves or low people, and freemen disdained to be thought and called private gladiators. In vain has it been sought to extirpate the custom by edicts of death against any man accepting a challenge, for it is founded on that which some men fear more than death; since without the favour of his fellows the man of honour foresees himself exposed either to become a merely solitary being, a condition insufferable to a sociable man, or to become the butt of insults and disgrace which, from their constant operation, prevail over the fear of punishment. Why is it that the lower orders do not for the most part fight duels like the great? Not only because they are disarmed, but because the need of the favour of others is less general among the people[213] than among those who, in higher ranks, regard themselves with greater suspicion and jealousy.



The greatest effect that any punishment has upon the human mind is not to be measured by its intensity but by its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and permanently affected by very slight but repeated impressions than by a strong but brief shock. Habit holds universal sway over every sentient being, and as we speak and walk and satisfy our needs by its aid, so moral ideas only stamp themselves on our mind by long and repeated impressions. It is not the terrible yet brief sight of a criminals death, but the long and painful example of a man deprived of[172] his liberty, who, having become as it were a beast of burthen, repays with his toil the society he has offended, which is the strongest restraint from crimes. Far more potent than the fear of death, which men ever have before their eyes in the remote distance, is the thought, so efficacious from its constant recurrence: I myself shall be reduced to as long and miserable a condition if I commit similar misdeeds.The second consequence is, that the sovereign, who represents society itself, can only form general laws, obligatory on all; he cannot judge whether[125] any one in particular has broken the social compact, for in that case the nation would be divided into two parties, one represented by the sovereign, asserting the violation of such contract; the other by the accused, denying the same. Hence the necessity of a third person to judge of the fact; in other words, of a magistrate, whose decisions shall simply consist of affirmations or denials of particular facts, and shall also be subject to no appeal.

The same may be said, though for a different reason, where there are several accomplices of a crime, not all of them its immediate perpetrators. When several men join together in an undertaking, the greater its[163] risk is, the more will they seek to make it equal for all of them; the more difficult it will be, therefore, to find one of them who will be willing to put the deed into execution, if he thereby incurs a greater risk than that incurred by his accomplices. The only exception would be where the perpetrator received a fixed reward, for then, the perpetrator having a compensation for his greater risk, the punishment should be equalised between him and his accomplices. Such reflections may appear too metaphysical to whosoever does not consider that it is of the utmost advantage for the laws to afford as few grounds of agreement as possible between companions in crime.

But at least, it will be thought, we have by this time arrived at some principles about punishment which correspond with the eternal truths of equity. Is not Equality, for instance, one of the primary essentials of punishment? Does it not stand as a penal axiom with almost the sanction of a moral law that all men should suffer equally for equal crimes? Yet, if by equality be meant the same punishment, the same kind of labour, the same term of servitude, the same pecuniary fineand this is the only thing it can meanwhat more obvious than that the same punishment for rich and poor, for young and old, for strong and weak, for men and women, for educated and uneducated, will bring to the constitution of a penal code the utmost inequality the imagination can conceive? Beccaria insists that the law can do no more than assign the same extrinsic punishment to the same crime; that is, the same punishment, regardless of all other external considerations; and he calls for the infliction of the same punishment on the nobleman as on the commoner. Let it be so; but the same punishment is no longer an equal one; and hence from this very demand for equality springs the demand for its very opposite, for what Bentham calls the equability of punishment; that is, consideration[77] for the different circumstances of individual criminals. So that the same nominal punishment not being the same real one, equality of punishment appears to be a chimera, and the law, which punishes, say, a distinguished officer less severely than it punishes a costermonger for the same crime, errs perhaps really less from actual equality than if it condemned both to precisely the same punishment.What are the pretexts by which secret accusations and punishments are justified? Are they the public welfare, the security and maintenance of the form of government? But how strange a constitution is that, where he who has force on his side, and opinion, which is even stronger than force, is afraid of every citizen! Is then the indemnity of the accuser the excuse? In that case the laws do not sufficiently defend him; and shall there be subjects stronger than their sovereign? Or is it to save the informer from infamy? What! secret calumny be fair and lawful, and an open one deserving of punishment! Is it, then, the nature of the crime? If indifferent actions, or even useful actions, are called crimes, then of course accusations and trials can never be secret enough. But how can there be crimes, that is, public injuries, unless the publicity of this example, by a public trial, be at the same time[144] the interest of all men? I respect every government, and speak of none in particular. Circumstances are sometimes such that to remove an evil may seem utter ruin when it is inherent in a national system. But had I to dictate new laws in any forgotten corner of the universe, my hand would tremble and all posterity would rise before my eyes before I would authorise such a custom as that of secret accusations.

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It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.



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